Christian Formation is an Art, not a Science

This past week all (fill in the blank) seems to have broken loose with the release of the proposed triennial (2013-2015) Episcopal Church budget. Facebook has been a-flutter, blogs are bouncing from site to site as each builds a case for re-evaluating how numbers were assigned various departments and ministries. And yes, I have added to the mix with my opinions in a variety of forums.

It is about how we can best do the mission of the church, which is ultimately reconciling all to God through the re-creation of a whole and holy world. Whether it is from the “top down” or from the “grassroots,” I believe how we become followers of Jesus Christ involves Christian formation. Not Sunday School. But formation.

I’ve been traveling this past week, and upon my return attempted to attack the piles of paper on my desk to sort through what needed to be recycled – either into the bin or my files (no, not the round one on the floor). I came across this editorial which I had torn out of a past issue of The Christian Century. It was an article that captured my attention, and one I thought might come in handy for further thought in the future. It seems now is a good time to share it.

John Henry Newman, the recently beatified English cardinal, said that the church is shaped by the dynamic interaction of three elements: worship, theological reflection and institutional governance. As he saw it, these three activities work in creative tension. Left to themselves, each sphere becomes corrupted: worship tends toward “superstition and enthusiasm,” theology towards “rationalism,” and governance toward “ambition, craft and cruelty.”

Those churchly iniquities are common enough. Those who walk away from church might be categorized according to what wounded them the most: the rigidity or chaos of the liturgy, the sterility of the theology or the character flaws of the leaders.

Yet Newman’s scheme omits one element that is crucial in the life of the church: people skilled in the everyday practices of faith. If a church does not form people who live in Christ and display some measure of forgiveness, compassion, hospitality, care for the Earth, solidarity with those who suffer and perseverance in distress, then no liturgy or theology, however rich, and no governance system, however inspired, will save the church.

In recent decades, Protestants have adopted the Roman Catholic language of “formation” to draw attention to this dimension of faith. Though it is still rare to find a Protestant congregation advertising for a “director of Christian formation,” the concept has become clear enough: the church’s goal is not to pass on information about the Bible or doctrine, as important as that is, but to form people whose lives embody the good news of God’s love encountered in Jesus.

The resources for faith formation have grown enormously in this period, both in number and in variety, yet the task remains somewhat elusive. In part that’s because everything the church does – from arranging the nursery to welcoming new members to organizing potluck dinners – is formative in some way. Churches that succeed in formation tend to be ones that artfully use all aspects of church life – committee meetings as well as formal instruction programs – as opportunities to deepen and extend people’s faith.

Formation is elusive also because one can never predict how it will happen. Why does a particular Christian practice catch people’s hearts and lead them to incorporate it in their hearts and lead them to incorporate it in their lives and articulate its Christian meaning to others? Encouraging formation is an art, not a science, and the result is always bound up in the mystery of grace.

So formation is a matter of grace. In his article “Faith forming faith,” Paul E. Hoffman describes how a new Christian’s commitment to hospitality unexpectedly shaped the witness of an entire congregation. The moment could not have been planned. Yet, as Hoffman shows, the groundwork for it was laid by an ongoing program of adult formation. Formation comes by grace, as do all good things. And – to quote Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It – “grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

In The Episcopal Church, intentional Christian formation just doesn’t happen. It takes a community. It takes engagement with our Baptismal Covenant and all that those promises mean in our daily lives. It is one thing to recite what we believe, it is another to learn how to reflect upon on beliefs according to what is developmentally appropriate.

Several visions have been studied and shared in recent times about how The Episcopal Church can continue to live into being a Church that embraces the ministry of all the baptized. One is the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation. Read how the Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Education and Formation recommends the Church continue on this path on Building the Continuum. Join the conversation.

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6 thoughts on “Christian Formation is an Art, not a Science

  1. Thanks for pointing out the piece omitted in the 3-part scheme, for it is ultimately what makes the difference in whether people are drawn to church. I don’t feel so stongly, however, about use of “formation,” and sometimes think we spend too much time arguing over terminology. Words are important, but no enlightened term will survive if the associations to it do not change.

    For example, back in the 1960s, “secretary” was deemed inappropriate for the woman serving the (male) manager. The title was changed to “administrative assistant,” usually referred to as the “admin.” The duties didn’t change, nor was the admin more respected than the secretary, because only the word changed, not the structure that housed it.

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    1. Thanks, Mary Jane!

      I agree language matters. And I believe using the term “formation” gets us out of the “Sunday School is for children” mode. For it is much more than that. And “formation” IS now an accepted term in The Episcopal Church.

      Sharon

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