This is the third of four posts about ministry for mature adults inspired by the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation book, symposium, and special issue of Lifelong Faith Journal.
Whatever the topic or theme or program or resource that a congregation offers mature adults we should always try to offer it virtually as well as in a face-to-face setting. For example:
• Offering small groups involved in Bible study the opportunity to engaged in sharing their faith and daily life-challenges via Skype or other web conferencing service, or in a Facebook group.
• Sharing online resources and faith formation programs and activities (such as online learning) for mature adults that they can use on their own and/or which can supplement real-time gatherings. Leaders need to become curators of programs and resources, and help people to find them. (For a compendium of curated digital resources go to: CuratingFaithFormation.com.)
• Prepare for a gathered program by offering people online resources. Rev. James Shopshire, Sr., professor of Sociology of Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, observed: “One method of adult Christian education many like, is to receive by e-mail a news story, text and questions, which they see ahead of time then can meet on Monday to discuss, ‘God’s views on the news.’” The Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in Cordova, TN links their Bible study with an ongoing blog: http://www.buildfaith.org/2014/10/15/a-church-reinvents-adult-education-with-a-bible-and-a-blog.
• Offer opportunities to learn about technology. Even though the research shows that the Boomer generation (and older) are becoming more and more proficient in the use of technology, many still have questions, and want to learn more. Often libraries and community education programs provide learning opportunities. Could churches provide a tech room where people can learn to use the new technologies with workshops staffed by experts, and involve the younger generations who can serve as guides and mentors?
• Offer online courses for adults to learn independently or in small groups. These courses are already designed and available from universities and seminaries, as well as on iTunes University.
Adult faith formation nurtures active participation of each and every person through ongoing and spirited conversation. “Adults grow in their faith best when they have the opportunity to engage in conversation with other adults about things that matter” (Regan, J. E., Forming a Community of Faith: A Guide to Success in Adult Faith Formation Today, Twenty-Third Publications, 2014, 71). Regan explains how and why “sustained, engaged and critical” conversations are an “important dynamic in enhancing a faith that is living, explicit, and fruitful:
• enhances our ability to express our faith
• gives us the opportunity to come to clarity about what we think and believe
• provides a context for seeing connection between faith and life
• strengthens our faith as we hear about the faith of others” (Regan, 72-73)
Commenting on recent research regarding brain health, and suggesting seven scientifically proven, results-oriented exercises, Rosenthal says: “When you read a book or article share what you learn with someone else. Rather than just recounting the facts, identify and discuss the theme(s) in what you read and how they relate to your life.” (Rosenthal, M., “7 Ways to Exercise Your Brain – and Why You Really Need To!” Rewire Me, September 5, 2014.)
Our task is to create learning environments that invite mature adults to participate in transformative teaching and learning that leads to more faithful living. Such emancipatory education involves open and dialogical experiences where deep listening, on-going reflection and mutual respect are practiced. Being free to raise hard questions and to explore “what if” possibilities can help older adults grow in faith and in discipleship that offers compassion and works for justice.
No matter what the gathering or occasion – face-to-face or virtual—opportunities for conversation are crucial.
One key method for conversation, of course, is small groups. More and more research encourages adult faith formation opportunities to include some version of small groups.
“Our parishes have become so large, so anonymous, and we’ve been allowed to attend them instead of participate in them. Today, people don’t drop out of Church as much as drop in –occasionally! My hope is that little faith-sharing groups will continue to emerge, connected to parishes. The base community and the institutional parish need one another.
The parish needs the small fervent group to keep it honest, to allow and encourage those who want to ask the deeper questions, those who want to go further, those who want to learn to pray, to minister, to study, to advocate, and to lay down their lives for the poor. And the small group needs the parish to avoid becoming sectarian, narrow, or lost in personality and trendiness. They must regulate, balance and challenge one another.” (Rohr R. and Martos J., Why Be Catholic?: Understanding our Experience and Tradition, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1989.)
John Weber (Transforming Church.com) reiterates four benefits of small groups:
• Community building: A small group serves as a community or congregation within the congregation.
• Educational development: Small groups provide a wonderful opportunity to engage people in study.
• Spiritual enrichment: Far too many Christians limit their prayer life to one minute before meals and one minute before going to sleep. Many find themselves just too busy to pray.
• Mission outreach: Each small group is required to look beyond themselves by engaging in ministry beyond the group.
Share Faith Magazine expands Weber’s thoughts, suggesting “10 Reasons Why Your Church Should Have Small Groups.”
1. Small groups foster close relationships and integral community.
2. Small groups provide a comfortable introduction for nonbelievers to the Christian faith.
3. Small groups provide an ideal way to care for the needs of people within the church.
4. Small groups provide a way for Christians to live out their faith instead of merely hearing more preaching or teaching.
5. Small groups participate in focused prayer for one another.
6. Small groups provide a comfortable atmosphere for openness.
7. Small groups allow for mutual edification among believers.
8. Small groups encourage better learning.
9. Small groups provide a source of encouragement and accountability.
10. Small groups help to cultivate leadership within the church. (ShareFaithMagazine)
These small groups can take various forms:
• Circle of Trust: Created by Parker Palmer, this small invites adults to a challenging (as well as comforting) small group experience.
• Study Groups: These groups meet to study Scripture, recent books, movies and videos, justice and peace issues, or a variety of other topics. Their main goal is the on-going growth and learning of the participants.
• Gift-discovery and strengths – development groups: St. Gerard Majella Parish in Port Jefferson Station, New York used the Clifton StrengthsFinder along with groups that focused on identifying parishioners’ gifts and talents, creating a unifying bond among their members. In this experience, as group members encourage one another in developing their talents into strengths, the spiritual journey they take together deepens their faith. (Winseman, A. L., Growing an Engaged Church: How to Stop “Doing Church” and start Being the Church Again. Gallup Press, 2007, 113-123)
• Accountability groups: These groups meet in order to help participants face the challenges of everyday life and become better people. Members hold each other accountable for living up to the expectations of their faith tradition, and encourage each other in their efforts.
• Support groups: These groups address the various circumstances and/or challenges people live with in their lives, and offer the encouragement and assistance of others who are facing or who have faced similar situations and difficulties.
People who have been members of small groups for a long period of time have shared their ideas concerning what makes small groups thrive:
• Having a shared vision: knowing why they are gathering
• Taking the time and effort to identify and dedicate themselves to common goals
• Engaging in prayer and rituals holds a prominent place in the life of the group
• Sharing the work of facilitating, hosting, and providing hospitality.
• Building strong relationships through social time, good communication, mutual respect, and more.
• Engaging in regular evaluation and review of expectations
• Doing something together, such as engagement in service and works of justice, bonds the group together.
• Engaging in earnest dialogue, conversation and spirituality call members back.
Book clubs or groups can be a beneficial way to nurture spiritual growth, build community, promote lifelong learning, help members make new friends and expand their horizons, and more.
Book clubs run the gamut, encompassing the reading of all types of books. Some devote themselves to one kind, one theme, but many are eclectic. Patrick White notes, “You can’t get people together to talk about literature in a serious way over time without touching on spiritual matters.
Book clubs can happen face-to-face (at churches, homes, coffee shops, etc.) or virtually. The diverse timing and formats of book clubs lend themselves to the schedules and life situations of the maturing adult.
Wanting to be involved in the parish but unable to do something at night, a 74-year old woman began a daytime book club at St. Regis Church, Bloomfield Hills, MI, inviting all parishioners. At another church, a woman, realizing that many mid-50s through mid-70s adults are caring for aging parents began an online book club. Since many of the members are in this life situation often their books focus on this reality.
For various helps and suggestions for books and/or questions, there are a multitude of online sites:
Support groups can be a powerful opportunity for the ongoing formation maturing adults are often craving: support for their day-to-day, real life challenges and events. Members of a support group typically share their personal experiences and offer one another emotional comfort and moral support, feeling less alone. They may also offer practical advice and tips for coping and thriving, to feel more empowered.
The advice and help may take the form of providing and evaluating relevant information, relating personal experiences, listening to and accepting others’ experiences, providing sympathetic understanding and establishing social networks. Sometimes a support group may also work to inform the public or engage in advocacy.
Support groups come in a variety of formats, including in person, on the Internet or by telephone. They may be led by professional facilitators or by group members. Among the many life issues which support groups for those in their mid-50s through mid-70s can focus on:
• married life
• empty nest syndrome
• young adults returning home
• divorce and separation
• death of a spouse
• death of a child
• living with cancer or other diseases
• family members in the military
• grandparents raising children
• adults of aging parents
God calls each of us to be who we are, who we uniquely are created to be, with our gifts and strengths. More and more churches are seeing this as one of the goals of adult faith formation: to encourage and support each person in the maturing and deepening of their strengths and gifts as they grow to be their best selves, who God created them to be.
Tools abound today to help congregations walk with their members in discerning their strengths and gifts. Among them are Called and Gifted (http://www.siena.org/Called-Gifted/called-a-gifted), StrengthsFinders (http://strengths.gallup.com/110440/About-StrengthsFinder-2.aspx), and Spiritual Gifts Survey for Maturing Adults (Johnson, 107-113)
As adults in their mid-50s through mid-70s discover new journeys in life, a deeper understanding of who they are, the uniqueness of their gifts and strengths can be a crucial support for the new ventures.
The fascinating and helpful reality is that many churches are not simply providing tools for people to discover their strengths, but continuing to walk with them as they understand more deeply, use them in many areas of their lives and direct them toward new adventures.
Nearly a century ago Henry Ford invented the famous assembly line that is credited with putting Detroit, and the world, in the “Mass Production” business. When he introduced the Model T, the marketing message was essentially, “You can have any color you want as long as it is black.”
Donald Tapscott uses a different term to describe what drives business today: “Mass Customization.” In effect, “you can have whatever you want customized to your wishes.”
What does this mean for adult faith formation? We can no longer approach adult faith formation with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. All we have to do is look at our congregations and we easily realize the diversity and, therefore the reality, that different groups need different things.
Parents of young children need something different than empty nesters. Those who have just lost a job have unique needs. People who are new to the Christian faith need something different than those who have been deeply practicing the faith for years
Use lifestyles, not age, as the determining factor for ministry. Chronological age is not important in ministry with persons at midlife and beyond. Rather, lifestyle issues are more important. For example, grandparenting concerns are not just for people who are retired. . . . the question becomes: “what are the common concerns that all grandparents, of whatever age, may experience?” Create small groups around common interests, concerns, or careers.” (Gentzler, 53)
Certainly, there are times when “mixed groups” are extremely important; we learn from the wisdom and experiences of each other. Yet, many congregations tell us that they have better responses to offerings when the opportunities are for specific groups, for communities of like interest. For example, a scripture study programs for men, at times convenient for their work schedules; or a program exploring various forms of prayer tailored to couples, to those in grief, to baby boomers, to just retiring.
Many congregations offer courses or workshops or small groups targeted to specific groups, such as: Effective Grandparenting; Relating Effectively to your Adult Children; Balancing Love, Work and Life; The Loneliness of the Empty-Nest; Support Group for Adult Children of Aging Parents; Planning to Age Gracefully (and Have Fun Doing It)?
For complete copy of the special issue of the Lifelong Faith journal on adult faith formation, click here.