I didn’t grow up going to church. My mom is Jewish. And to my dad, Christmas and Easter were enough. So, it took a while longer than the kids I would eventually join in youth group for me to understand what faith was, exactly. When I started going to church with a friend in middle school, I was just there for the donuts and the people, but it was the people who would be my first encounters with the Divine.

Hearing the words “faith formation” can be a little jarring to people who work in the church, especially so for those who work with the future of the church, our young people. As a Christian educator, I’ve spent countless hours in a tailspin about whether or not I’m doing the right things or saying the right things to my middle and high schoolers to make sure they’re getting the guidance and tools for faith formation that they deserve as beloved children of God.

How could I, a person who has wrestled with doubts and questions about my faith more times than I can count, be good enough to help other people on their own journey of faith? There was a point in time when I thought the answer was a resounding: “You can’t.” And yet, here I am.

It’s not necessarily because of the lessons I learned in church or the messages I heard on Sunday mornings. It’s the people and relationships that proved to me that I was worth so much more than I give myself credit for. God says so. My people–who cheered me on when I felt like no one was in my corner, who checked on me even when I stopped replying to text messages, who sat with me through some of the most difficult times of my life, and who, to this day, show their love for me even from hundreds of miles away–have shown me Jesus in ways I’ve never experienced through lectures or sermons. My people–who despite looking like they had it all together, have sat with me in my heartaches and said, “Yeah, I get that.” The people in the congregation at my home church showed me what it means to be a Christian and who Jesus is simply by being themselves. These are the ones I remember as champions of my faith formation. If I asked them why they did it, I know they’d say: Jesus.

The adults in my own life worked intentionally and enthusiastically to build with me as a young person. These relationships impacted my view of faith as well as how I approach students today in my own ministry. From relationships, I’ve learned that faith formation is not about getting everything right. In fact, I can guarantee that a lot of the time, we’ll get it wrong. My students know this about me. They know I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety. They know I’ve had questions about God and religion, and that I’m still not sure I’ve been given answers that please me. Most of all, they know that when they deal with these questions and doubts and struggles in their own lives, they have someone they can come to who will gladly wrestle through those moments with them.

What makes a difference in faith formation is showing up for our young people, consistently and without question, because that is what Jesus calls us to do. It’s about making time to know our students in a way that makes them feel fully seen and loved.

My little brother wears a bracelet printed with the letters “HWLF.” It looks like a “WWJD” bracelet. When I first saw it, I asked what it meant. “He Would Love First,” my brother said. I carry this message with me. If we can love first, just as God tells us to do; if we can build relationships with students that are honest and vulnerable, I think faith formation comes easily. The trick is not letting our self-doubts and our shortcomings get in the way. Simply love first, and let the rest unfold.


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Hannah Cooley

is Director of Youth Ministry at University Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas.