Putting people in the center through networks
Putting people in the center through networks

Network image

The first half-hour or so of The Social Network, the 2010 film about Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook, tells the frenetic story of an idea whose time had come.

All the pieces were in place: high-speed Internet connectivity in the dorms of America’s elite universities; a revolution in Web design that made dynamic, user-generated content easily shareable; and a compelling problem that college students wanted solved—a way to keep track of each other’s relationship status.

The film is both exciting and exhausting. The momentum that Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay captures so deftly is a case study in the somewhat shocking agility of networks, “shocking” to a culture that has, for a century or so, abandoned network-based solutions in favor of institutional ones. In a sense, Zuckerberg and the other harbingers of Web 2.0 have returned us to a very old way of doing things: not by forming committees and foundations, but by connecting individuals to support each other to do work they are passionate about.

For my money, no one in today’s faith formation world understands the changes afoot better than John Roberto, ecumenical faith formation consultant, nor presents a more thoughtful and hopeful portrait of how the Spirit is leading us into richer and deeper ways of shaping the faith of children and adults in new contexts. My recent experience at his Faith Formation for the 21st Century workshop reinforced this belief and still has me giving thanks to God for the work of Roberto and his colleagues.

To capture their proposal for how to reshape faith formation in the church, you could do worse than to consider one of Roberto’s more provocative suggestions: ”Don’t do Sunday school.” Classroom-based, age-graded Sunday school came to maturity in the era of institutions. It took for granted stable denominational and congregational identity, regular church attendance, and spiritually mature volunteers with plenty of time on their hands.

Roberto and the other authors of Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation are on top of the research showing that these assumptions are no longer valid. Armed with a mountain of data, they seek to equip churches to provide spiritual formation and nourishment for four different demographics: “people of vibrant faith and active engagement in the church community, people who participate occasionally but are not actively engaged or spiritually committed, people who are spiritual but not religious, and people who are uninterested in the spiritual life and unaffiliated with religion.”

Roberto’s workshop asks how we might design faith formation experiences for each of these groups. He proposes a network model where our most important work is to identify a target group (families with small children, say), connect them to mentors and each other (in person, online, or both), learn about their passions and spiritual needs (through research that includes asking them), and then referring them to (and occasionally creating for them) a variety of learning opportunities and resources (including human resources). The Social Web has, of course, made it easier to connect with a vast collection of resources, many of which are free.

The key here is to put not the program but the group at the center. In making this shift from institutional to network-based thinking, formation leaders come to think of themselves as designers of learning environments for the network (a task of discernment) and communicators who get the word out (a task of relationship and proclamation).

“Such a network blends virtual and physical settings,” Roberto wrote recently in The Lutheran magazine, “as well as a variety of faith formation formats for content and activities, including with a mentor, at home, in small groups, in large groups, in the congregation, and in the community and world.”

From our vantage point at the CMT, the biggest risk a church takes in embracing this asset-based, network-powered approach is that the content selection and delivery is a bit tricky to control. “What do we want to teach, and how will we teach it?” continue to be fundamental questions, and a faith formation network probably doesn’t rely on packaged curriculum to answer them. Here again, formation leaders must be designers, not only of learning environments, but also of curriculum in the widest sense. Roberto points out that Maria Harris’ Fashion Me A People is still the gold standard for this kind of thinking.

Part of how I hope to help congregations consider this paradigm shift is to think through with them how a simple, stand-alone website (or even a group on a social networking site) can serve as a home base, the hub where people come together to support each other and access information and resources. Such connectivity is especially important if not every member comes to church each week. Geeks and technophobes alike will have to be willing to visit and contribute to the site, but the tools for building them get easier every day.

An eminently kind and humble man, John Roberto would probably squirm if I called him the Mark Zuckerberg of faith formation. But I think the comparison is apt in some important ways.

Most of all, I hope that we in the CMT and the growing number of alums of his workshops can help build on the momentous changes he has helped set in motion in the church. Faith formation networks are an idea whose time has come. My prayer is that the church and its leaders will embrace the opportunity to be changed by them.

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching.

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