It’s May. Time for budding spring flowers, afternoon rain showers, prom, open houses, and graduation!
We prepare diligently for this day with great care. We encourage our children and students to study hard. We help them proofread their college essays. We drive them to countless prospective student weekends looking to find the right fit for college.
And then that marvelous day comes when they walk across the stage, receive their diploma, and throw their cardboard hat into the air.
They did it. Congratulations, graduate!
As we consider faith formation, there is no ‘graduation’ date. As disciples of Jesus, we don’t receive a piece of paper that states our credentials to frame and hang on a wall. Our faith is an ever dynamic, ever growing (hopefully), evolving, and deepening relationship with the One who loves us more than we can ever imagine.
However, research is clear–we are living in the age of the ‘nones.’ More and more of our young people are not claiming any religions affiliation. The National Study on Youth and Religion state many reasons for this, and about once a week I’ll come across an “open letter to my church” from a Millennial on why they are done with it on social media. Sadly it seems that graduation from high school (and youth group) also means a graduation from faith altogether.
So, what are we to do? Because I don’t think this is how the story needs to end.
This month on The Gathering Place, we are going to delve into the topic of “Durable Faith: Creating a Faith that Lasts…graduation.”
Join the conversation this month through:
Webinar: Sarah Bixler, Ph.D student at Princeton presents a webinar, ” Youth Attachment to God and the Church: Should the Church Act Like Fly Paper?” Sarah will share her research on attachment theory and connect it to how it can inform our faith formation efforts. Wednesday, May 17, 1pm EDT/12pm CDT. Sign up now!
Study Circle: Shana Peachy Boshart will lead this month’s study circle on Sticky Faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids by Kara Powell and Chap Clark. This is a top youth ministry (and parent!) read–so join the discussion today!
tGP Podcast: An Interview with Brad Griffin. In this podcast, episode 19, Rachel interviews Brad Griffin, Associate Director of Fuller Youth Institute and co-author of the book, Growing Young, the newest book to come out of FYI’s research about qualities exemplary churches have that have the ability to retain young people. Listen to the interview now by clicking the title above.
As denominational minister for Christian Formation for Mennonite Church USA, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about this quandary. How do we create spaces for authentic faith development to occur? What does it mean to nurture spirituality in our children as they grow?
I look to hearing from you via our webinar and study circle, and you are in for a treat from our bloggers this month–seasoned youth workers–as they offer their own perspectives (new blog posts each Friday). Because I can’t help myself, I’m going to share a few of my own formation musings…
For starters, what do we mean when we use the term “faith formation”? It seems to be a current buzz word–so I think it’s important to agree on what we are talking about!
My working definition is this: “Faith formation concerns the process of growth towards God. It is a continual journey of being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ.” For authentic faith formation cannot occur without being connected to the whole, and it needs to happen in both information and formal ways–not just in Sunday school or at church. All too often when we think ‘faith formation’ we immediately equate it to ‘Christian education.’
But it’s so much bigger than that.
I think we can all agree that this is a pretty decent working definition of faith formation—one that could transcend throughout history. But how this plays out, how this looks from one generation to the next, is interpreted differently.
This generation views church much differently than those of the “builder” generation mid-century that fully embraced the church as an institution with most of the cultural life centered around church and faith.
Not quite so much anymore.
The National Study on Youth and Religion (10 year study which followed youth to young adults and explored what attributed to lasting durable faith. They surveyed and interviewed thousands of folks from a wide variety of denominations) discovered the following as it relates to the current trend of youth perspective and religion:
- Youth are by and large not hostile towards religion—study found they are actually benignly positive towards it, “it tries to make you nice.” This general sense of vagueness is because they simply don’t care all that much about it. They aren’t going to be passionate about something that doesn’t matter much to them.
- Teens mirror by and large their parent’s faith. Yikes!
- Articulating faith is very difficult—easier to talk about God in general terms than Jesus.
- Religion is inconsequential. Despite our best effort, we have seemingly turned Christianity into a moralistc-theraputic deism. We’ve represented Christianity as being good and feeling good, than the gospel.
If these findings are accurate and true, then it is paramount that faith formation for this new generation will need to look much different than it has in the past, because something is not working.
So, what do we do? How do we reclaim authentic faith formation for this generation, connecting it in ways that make sense to them?
I think it begins by listening and taking an honest look into our own congregations and home-life to see what messages we are sending (both overtly and covertly). Our youth are stressed out and tired. They need spaces to be themselves and loved and accepted unconditionally. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…they don’t need more pizza or crazy game nights (not to say that youth ministry can’t be fun–but we can’t simply stay in the programming/game mode).
Mark Yaconelli, illustrates the difference between ministry rooted in anxiety and ministry rooted in love. Or in other words, how are we busy doing things FOR Jesus, as opposed to creating space in order to be present TO him? I find his juxtapositions to be a helpful tool to use as you reflect and discern, structure and form ministries in congregational life:
|Ministry rooted in ANXIETY||Ministry rooted in LOVE|
|…seeks control (How do I make Christians?)||…seeks contemplation (How can I be present to others and God?)|
|…seeks professionals (Who is the expert that can solve this problem?)||…seeks process (What can we do together to uncover Jesus’ way of life?)|
|…wants products (What book, video, curriculum will teach faith?)||…desires presence (Who will bear the life of God to one another?)|
|…lifts up gurus (Who has the charisma to draw people in?)||…relies on guides (Who has the gifts for living alongside?)|
|…rests in results (How many have committed to the faith?)||…rests in relationships (Who have we befriended?)|
|…seeks conformity (Do the new people coming meet our expectations?)||…brings out creativity (What’s the fresh way in which God is challenging us through our new attenders?)|
|…wants activity (What will keep the schedule busy?)||…brings awareness (What are the real needs?)|
|…seeks answers (Here’s what we think. Here’s who God is.)||…seeks questions (What do you think? Or as Jesus said, “Who do you say that I am?)|
Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2006), 51.
Where are you anxious in your formation? Where are you rooted in love? What might holistic faith formation look like here? You might consider sharing this with another leader in your church and consider the implications together.
Before you begin to sketch out a new master plan, or panic (!), I have a few words of hope for you:
- Don’t despair—it only take 3% of salt to make salt water, and Christianity only started with 11 disciples.
- Often times, we just want to change things. We begin to believe the woo of the world that claims to know the ‘secret sauce’:
- We believe the croon, “We just need more young people,” thinking that young people will attract more young people to attend. That young people will save the church—but only Jesus saves. Kenda Creasy Dean says that when we think like this we have “vampire theology” (young blood). We turn our ministries into programming. When we frame faith in terms of numbers we reduce it to entertainment rather than equipping. We become more focused on roping people IN rather than sending them OUT.
- Another myth—in order to appeal to young people, it means acting like them. Churches are turning into coffee houses, sanctuaries are looking like living rooms…all of this is fine and good, but to what ends? If you are using these things as a gimmick, you fail to see those who come as individuals who are seeking transformation, and instead see them as a demographic to be marketed to. But do you know what the largest growing denomination is? Greek Orthodox. It appears that significant number of millennials are drawn towards the mystery and the ritual, of ancient-future worship. (I wonder if it has something to do with the rhythm, quiet, and spaciousness that this tradition offers to our harried young people.)
As much as we want to keep our children and youth ministries siloed, like we did since the advent of big youth ministry programming (hello 1980’s-1990’s), I’m not sure that we can afford to continue with this trajectory given our current state. Families are more scattered and fragmented than ever before. “Regular attenders” come to our congregations once a month at best (Barna Research Group, 2015). Parents are feeling less and less confident in their own abilities to attend to the spiritual lives of their children, and bring their kids to church to get it (but due to the harried family schedule, can be difficult to attend)—and the cycle continues.
So, how do we break the cycle? How do we think creatively and out of the box to meet our own unique congregations and families where they need to be met? Guilt and shame have no place here. Wishing for “the days of old” isn’t going to change a thing. We have to be brave to look deep and honestly and trust that Jehovah-jireh will provide for us all that we need. Authentic faith formation is always connected to the whole. It’s about nurturing our children and youth to see that they belong to this faith community in real ways. That they matter. That they are seen. And then showing up for them, embodying Love as a verb (and I do hope that you are planning on coming to Orlando ’17–sly plug).
Are you still feeling a bit lost on where to begin?
Here are a few practical ways to take the first step to be intentional in creating a holistic approach to faith formation especially with this generation that craves belonging, authenticity, and something to believe in:
1) Say hello! Making an effort towards hospitality says far more than just a greeting—it says—you are seen, you are appreciated, you matter.
2) Invite in authentic ways. Don’t see young people as a project, for they are real participants in the life of the church with gifts and skills to offer. Young adults are a bit skirmish on commitment, but inviting to short assignments is often helpful (just this one Sunday…or for this month…). The more connected they feel, the more they tend to find their place within.
3) Create ways to engage intergenerational mingling—we need one another. Allow opportunities to talk with one another and share stories from life. Curt Weaver, long time faith formation minister (currently at Portland Mennonite) has older adults invite the youth group into their home for an evening of conversation and fellowship where the hosts share “Your Life in 10 minutes”.
4) Be authentic—Being real and authentic about life and faith, naming fears and questions and doubts, is just as important as talking about what you believe in.
The future of the Church, by the statisticians point of view might appear to be grim or so-so at best. But the future of the Church depends on Christ, not us. Christian formation is not simply for growing churches, but for growing people into the likeness of Christ. The shape of the church is changing and young people simply don’t care about sustaining an institution. They want a real community that believes and acts and has a fire in its belly for loving God and the world around them.
As we posture ourselves and seek to be rooted and grounded in this way of being, there truly is nothing to fear—for this is God’s church.
And God hasn’t failed us yet.
I look forward to talking more with you this month about this topic, as a parent, as a pastor, and as a lover of the Church.
Rachel S. Gerber, Denominational minister of Christian formation and the editor of this fine website