By: John Roberto
Every Christian congregation wants faith formation that helps people grow in their relationship with God throughout their lives; live as disciples of Jesus Christ at home, at work, and in the world; develop an understanding of the Bible and the Christian tradition; deepen their spiritual life and practices; engage in service and mission; relate the Christian faith to everyday life; and participate in the life and ministries of the faith community. Churches want faith formation that informs, forms, and transforms; and immerses people into the practices and way of life of a tradition-bearing community where they can be transformed spiritually. And churches want faith formation that engages all ages and generations in a lifelong process of growing and maturing in the Christian faith throughout life.
I believe that creating and implementing a comprehensive plan for lifelong faith formation is one of the most important tasks facing every congregation. I would like to propose four components of a lifelong plan for a congregation.
Agenda item #1. Intergenerational faith formation
Every congregation needs to have intentional intergenerational faith formation experiences—opportunities for multiple generations to come together to share, learn, pray, worship, serve, and develop relationships. We know from research 1 that significant intergenerational connections are an important contributor to continued religious growth and practice in the emerging adult years, such as including children and youth in intergenerational worship and community life, teens serving children, and teens having significant relationships with at least five adults in the faith community.
Every congregation can become intentionally intergenerational by 1) developing intergenerational learning experiences around common experiences such as the Sunday lectionary, church year feasts and seasons, and events of church life; 2) celebrating milestones throughout life from birth and baptism to death and funerals, incorporating ritual, learning, congregation, and home experiences; 3) engaging all ages in service to those in need, locally and globally, including intergenerational mission trips of teens and adults; 4) nurturing intergenerational mentoring: older to younger, younger to older, and young to younger; and much more. These intergenerational experiences can become the core faith experience for everyone in the community and the heart of a lifelong faith formation plan.
Agenda item #2. Ten decades of age-specific faith formation
A lifelong faith formation plan incorporates both intergenerational experiences and targeted faith formation around the stages of life. Congregations need a 10-decade plan for lifelong faith formation. Each decade would have a particular focus or theme reflecting the most essential content and experiences, designed around the unique developmental characteristics, life tasks and issues, and religious and spiritual needs of people at each stage of life. No decade would be viewed in isolation—each would be seen as part of a 10-decade view of faith growth and faith maturing. While space doesn’t allow for proposing all ten decades, here is a proposal for the first four decades of life.
- First decade of life—build the foundations : This is the decade of religious socialization with a very strong family focus. The emphasis is on developing the practices of the Christian faith (praying, reading the Bible, serving others, celebrating rituals) and learning the faith story by being immersed into the faith life of the family and church community. Strong parental faith, modeling, and teaching are essential; and congregations need to invest in parents as the primary influence on children. Congregations need to provide robust intergenerational experiences of worship (without segregating children), of learning with the whole family and other generations, and of service to the community and world. Children’s programming can be integrated into the broader work of socialization in the family and church community.
- Second decade of life—explore the world : Many teenagers are already beginning to disengage from religion and church life, so faith formation needs to focus on the issue of young people choosing or not choosing to practice their Christian faith. We need to give young people a variety of interactive, high quality faith formation experiences so they can choose well. Faith formation can become one great adventure of lively local and global explorations into the Bible, Christian tradition, worship, justice and service, ministry and leadership, and more. Imagine a virtual tour of the Holy Land or an exploration of world religions with guest speakers from around the world presenting live via videoconference and using the Patheos world religions website as a “text” for study. Young people will need informed and trustworthy adults who can serve as tour guides and companions on the journey of exploration. And we need to make sure young people become the creators of religious content and experiences that they can share with each other and the world.
- Third and fourth decades of life—create fresh expressions : Congregations need to empower young adults in their 20s and 30s to create fresh expressions of the Christian faith that both honor the tradition and reflect the millennial generation’s religious and spiritual needs and perspectives. Millennials want to put their imprint on all of life. We can assist young adults in creating a generational faith community that is relevant to them while still being connected to the intergenerational church community. Faith formation can engage young adults in creating fresh expressions of the biblical message, the ancient Christian teachings, Christian practices, spiritual disciplines, worship, art and music, mission to the world, church community, and more—and then embodying these expressions in their own communal life.
Imagine each decade having a focus arising out of their life world and then designing unique faith formation experiences to immerse people in that focus.
Agenda item #3. Differentiating faith formation
Our communities have become more diverse religiously and spiritually. In Faith Formation 2020 we identified four “profiles” of this diversity:
- people of vibrant faith and active engagement in the church community
- people who participate occasionally but are not actively engaged in the church or spiritually committed
- people who are spiritual but not religious, and not involved in a Christian denomination
- people who are uninterested in the spiritual life and unaffiliated with religion
Faith formation and curriculum resources have relied on a “one size fits all” approach to programming for children, youth, and adults. The diverse religious and spiritual needs of people—at every stage of life—means that we need to create personalized and customized religious content and experiences that connect with people’s spiritual and religious needs. At each stage of life we need a range of programs to address this diversity. Within our existing programs we need to develop variety to address the diversity—from in-depth content and experiences for one group to foundational experiences and content for another group. Imagine a “four-in-one” youth confirmation program that addresses the spiritual journey of young people and correlates that journey with the appropriate content and experiences.
Agenda item #4. Digital technology and media
We are experiencing a convergence of new web and digital technologies with digital media that is transforming learning today and has the potential to transform faith formation. The amazing thing is that all of these resources and technologies exist, and that almost all children and their parents, teens, young adults, adults, and increasing numbers of adults 60+ already have the technology to make this possible.
It is now possible, like never before, for a congregation to make the dream of lifelong faith formation a reality—providing faith formation for everyone, anytime, anywhere, 24 x 7 x 365. It is now possible to customize and personalize faith formation for all ages around the life tasks and issues, interests, religious and spiritual needs, and busy lives of people. It is now possible to engage people in a wide diversity of programs, activities, and resources that incorporate a variety of ways to learn—on your own, with a mentor, at home, in small groups, in large groups, in the congregation, and in the community and world—delivered in physical gathered settings and virtual online settings. It is now possible to connect people to each other whenever and wherever—in physical places and virtual spaces.
It is now possible for a congregation to create faith formation websites for each stage of life that are rich in content and activities and supported by social media. Faith formation websites can now be the hub of lifelong faith formation—providing content, connecting people to others and the faith community, engaging people in activities online and in gathered settings. Imagine a faith formation website for all the stages of life, developed specifically around the life task and issues, and the religious and spiritual needs of each stage.
We live in a remarkable time for Christian faith formation. Imagine the new possibilities for bringing the Good News to all people, inviting people into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, engaging them in growing as disciples for a lifetime, and equipping them to transform the world according to God’s vision. There’s never been a better time to realize our vision of faith formation for all ages and generations across the life span.
1 To review the research findings consult Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids by Kara Powell and Chap Clark (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) and Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids by Kara Powell, Brad M Griffin, Cheryl A. Crawford (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), as well as the website: http://stickyfaith.org.
John Roberto is editor of the journal Lifelong Faith, author of Faith Formation 2020, and coordinator of the Faith Formation Learning Exchange and the 21st Century Faith Formation training program (with Vibrant Faith Ministries).