It’s time for every Christian church to commit itself to developing faith formation for every season of adulthood: young adults, midlife adults, mature adults, and older adults! We’ve discussed the importance of adult faith formation; we’ve produced official documents and vision statements; we’ve sponsored conferences and workshops; and we’ve even produced a variety of resources for adults. But to no avail.
Adult faith formation remains stuck in neutral. It is the weakest ministry in most congregations—even though we are talking about everyone over 18!
Let’s commit ourselves to developing faith formation for every adult—young adult, midlife adult, mature adult, older adult—in our congregation and in the wider community. We will need to learn new ways of thinking and acting. But adult formation for every adult is possible if we use 21st century practices, approaches, and resources.
We will need new insights—drawn from research, theory, and practice—to guide the development of adult faith formation through the four seasons of adulthood. We will need new approaches and practices to engage all the seasons of an adult’s life. We will need a new model of faith formation that provides a platform to reach every adult in our faith communities and the wider community.
This article presents a holistic vision of faith and faith forming processes along with eight practices to guide the development of 21st century faith formation. It focuses on a new faith formation model committed to reaching and engaging every adult throughout the seasons of adulthood.
A Holistic Vision of Faith and Formation
Adult faith formation is guided by a holistic vision of the Christian faith as a way of the head, the heart, and the hands—informing, forming, and transforming adults in Christian faith and identity.
- A way of the head (inform) demands a discipleship of faith seeking understanding and belief with personal conviction, sustained by study, reflecting, discerning and deciding, all toward spiritual wisdom for life. We educate people to know, understand, and embrace Christianity’s core belief and values.
- A way of the heart (form) demands a discipleship of right relationships and right desires, community building, hospitality and inclusion, trust in God’s love, and prayer and worship. We foster growth in people’s identity through formation and the intentional socialization of Christian family and community.
- A way of the hands (transform) demands a discipleship of love, justice, peacemaking, simplicity, integrity, healing, and repentance. We foster openness to a lifelong journey of conversion toward holiness and fullness of life for themselves and for the life of the world (see Groome, 111–119).
The Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation from the Episcopal Church describes Christian faith formation as “a lifelong journey with Christ, in Christ, and to Christ. Lifelong Christian faith formation is lifelong growth in the knowledge, service and love of God as followers of Christ and is informed by scripture, tradition and reason.” Formation is woven into all aspects of congregational life, including community, prayer, teaching, proclamation, and service (see Harris).
Eight Faith Forming Process
We have identified eight essential processes of forming faith, informed by scripture, theology, research and contemporary reflection, that bring the holistic vision of the Christian faith to life with all age groups, families, and generations. These eight faith-forming processes are central to Christian lifelong faith formation, providing a foundation and a framework for promoting growth in faith and discipleship.
The eight processes include:
- Caring relationships. Growing in faith and discipleship through caring relationships across generations and with peers in a life-giving spiritual community of faith, hope, and love—in the congregation and family.
- Celebrating the liturgical seasons. Growing in faith and discipleship by experiencing the feasts and seasons of the church year as they tell the story of faith through the year in an organic and natural sequence of faith learning.
- Celebrating milestones through lifewide formation. Growing in faith and discipleship by experiencing God’s love through significant moments in one’s life journey and faith journey.
- Reading the Bible. Growing in faith and discipleship by encountering God in the Bible, and by studying and interpreting the Bible—its message, its meaning, and its application to life today.
- Learning the Christian tradition and applying it to life. Growing in faith and discipleship by learning the content of the tradition, integrating it into one’s faith life, applying it to life today, and living its meaning in the world.
- Praying, devotions, and spiritual formation. Growing in faith and discipleship through personal and communal prayer, and being formed by the spiritual disciplines and practices.
- Serving and justice. Growing in faith and discipleship by living the Christian mission in the world—engaging in service to those in need, caring for God’s creation, and acting and advocating for justice.
- Worshipping God. Growing in faith and discipleship by worshipping God with the community of faith—praising God; giving thanks for God’s creative and redemptive work in the world; and experiencing God’s living presence through Scripture, preaching, and Eucharist.
Features of Twenty-First Century Adult Faith Formation
Drawn from research studies, current thinking and practice in adult education and learning, and contemporary theory and practice in faith formation, are eight features that provide the foundations upon which to build a 21st century approach to adult faith formation for all of the seasons of adulthood.
Adult faith formation is life-stage/generational—addressing the unique life tasks, needs, interests, and spiritual journeys of people at each stage of adulthood; and intergenerational—engaging adults in the life and events of church life and the Christian faith through participation in intergenerational faith experiences.
Rather than thinking about adult faith formation as religious content and programming, think of adult faith formation as the processes and practices that contribute to growth in faith and discipleship—a far more dynamic approach than a content-driven one. Instead of thinking of adult classes, small group studies, and large group programs, think about processes—how we guide adults in living Christian lives today.
A comprehensive and holistic approach to adult faith formation promotes discipleship and faith growth with developmentally- and generationally-appropriate knowledge, experiences, and practices. These provide a framework to guide the development of adult faith formation across the seasons of adulthood, and a focus for designing new adult programs and activities, as well as redesigning current programming.
Intergenerational faith formation provides whole-community experiences and learning, focused on the central events of church life and the Christian faith. Intergenerational formation and whole community faith experiences form and deepen Christian identity and commitment as adults develop relationships and actively participate in faith communities that teach, model, and live the Christian tradition and way of life. Whole community experiences als0 strengthen relationships, connections, and community across generations and enhance adults’ sense of belonging in the faith community.
People learn by participating in the life of a community. Practices of faith are taught through the interrelationships of worship, learning, service, ritual, prayer, and more. Among the events central to the Christian community are the feasts and seasons of the church year, Sunday worship and the lectionary, sacramental and ritual celebrations, holidays and holy days, works of justice and acts of service, times of prayer, spiritual traditions, and events that originate within the life and history of a individual congregation.
Adult faith formation is missional—expanding and extending the church’s presence through outreach, connection, relationship building and engagement with adults where they live; and providing pathways for people to consider or reconsider the Christian faith, to encounter Jesus and the Good News, and to live as disciples in a supportive faith community.
Missional faith formation focuses on the lives of adults who are spiritual but not religious or unaffiliated and uninterested in religion (adults who are “unchurched” and “de-churched”). Research describes the growing number of unaffiliated (the “nones”) especially in the young generations, and the growing number of older adults (especially Boomers) who are leaving established Christian churches after a lifetime of participation (the “dones”).
First, missional faith formation expands and extends the church’s presence through outreach, connection, relationship building, and engagement with adults where they live—engaging with them around their life situation (needs, interests, concerns), their quest for meaning and purpose in life, their drive to make a difference in world and in lives of others, and more. This type of missional activity provides a safe environment for people to explore life-centered and spiritual-centered activities.
Second, missional faith formation provides pathways for people to consider or reconsider the Christian faith, to encounter Jesus and the Good News, and to live as disciples in a supportive faith community. Missional faith formation guides people as they move from discovery to exploration to commitment.
Adult faith formation addresses the diverse life tasks and situations, needs and interests, and spiritual and faith journeys of adults in four stages of adulthood—young adults (20s-30s), midlife adults (40s-50s), mature adults (mid 50s-mid 70s), and older adults (75+).
Much of adult faith formation is developed from a provider-centered, program-driven model where denominations, publishers, and churches determine the content and programming and deliver it to adults.
Today the diversity of the seasons of adulthood makes this approach ineffective. Adult faith formation is person-centered, not content- or program-centered. The content, experiences, programs, methods, and delivery systems are designed around the lives of the adults. Adult faith formation addresses the whole life of adults—social, ethnic-cultural, psychological, physical, spiritual, religious, and more.
Adulthood is a time of change and transitions, rather than continuity and sameness. Of particular importance to adult faith formation is the kinds of transitions, developmental tasks, and changes in personal meaning that mark the journey of adulthood. Understanding the many ways adults change and grow alerts us to the dynamics of adult Christian growth.
Adult faith formation provides a variety of content, methods, formats, and delivery systems to address the diverse life tasks and situations, needs and interests, and spiritual and faith journeys of adults in four stages of adulthood.
To address the increasing diversity within the adult population, churches need to offer a greater variety of adult faith formation topics and activities. In the past, churches have often chosen the “one size fits all” mentality for adult faith formation: How do we get every adult to participate in a small faith sharing group or to come to the Lenten series or to study the Bible?
Adult faith formation is no longer about finding the program to attract all adults. It is about addressing the diversity of adult learning needs with programming that is varied in content, expectations, depth, involvement, and timing.
By expanding the options for adult learning (offering “something for everyone”), churches can engage more adults in faith formation through activities that cater to niches— individuals and small groups with a particular spiritual or religious need, interest, passion, concern, or life issue.
Adult faith formation recognizes that learning and growth is a process of active inquiry with initiative residing in the adult learner and that adults are motivated to learn as they experience needs and interests that adult learning activities will satisfy.
Adults prefer to determine their own learning and faith formation experiences. The traditional model of schooling has conditioned adults to perceive the proper role of learners as being dependent on teachers to make decisions for them as to what should be learned, how it should be learned, when it should be learned, and if it has been learned.
Today’s adults are accustomed to searching out what they want to know, when they want and need to know it. People are becoming more and more self-directed in their learning, and they have almost unlimited access to information through the Internet and the wide variety of print and media learning resources available in our society today.
Adult faith formation provides the opportunity for personalized and customized learning and faith growth, giving adults an active role in shaping their own learning and moving along their own personal trajectories of faith growth. Adults are guided by trusted mentors to find their learning and spiritual needs.
We know from learning sciences research that more effective learning will occur if each person receives a customized learning experience. People learn best when they are placed in a learning environment that is sensitive to their learning needs and flexible enough to adapt strategies and resources to individual needs. We can now meet people at the point of their spiritual, religious, and learning needs and offer personalized pathways for faith growth.
Adult faith formation is digitally-enabled—blending gathered community settings with online learning environments and utilizing the abundance of digital media and tools for learning and faith formation. It is also digitally-connected—linking intergenerational faith community experiences, adult peer experiences and programs, and daily/home life using online and digital media.
The digital revolution has transformed almost every aspect of society. No facet of this revolution has more potential than its ability to change the way people learn. The availability of a vast array of knowledge and resources at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, together with the ability to connect instantaneously with peers and mentors across the street and around the world, make possible completely new learning environments and experiences.
These opportunities are highly engaging and collaborative, and they are based on learners’ own interests and strengths. People can truly learn any time, any place, and at any pace today.
Adult faith formation intentionally nurtures communities of learning and practice around shared interests, needs, life stages, and activities.
Adult faith formation can connect adults to each other through communities of practice—groups of people who have a shared interest, passion, religious or spiritual need, life stage—who come together to learn with and from each other.
Communities of practice use a variety of approaches to connect, such as face-to-face meetings, teleconferences, video conferencing, social networking, working on projects together. It is a mix of formal and informal methods. Some of them are online; some of them are face-to-face. Some of them happen weekly; some of them happen monthly or yearly.
A congregation is a community of practices like worship, liturgy, pastoral care, outreach, and social justice. Most of the skills and expertise are learned through practice. We don’t learn it in a course or book. Communities of practice can connect people within congregations by diffuse learning and through Christian traditions.
We began with the questions: What could adult faith formation look like in the 21st century? What insights should inform us and guide the development of adult faith formation for the four stages of adulthood: young adults, midlife adults, mature adults, and older adults? How do we engage all the seasons of an adult’s life in the lifelong journey of discipleship and faith growth—a process of experiencing, learning, and practicing the Christian faith as we seek to follow Jesus and his way in today’s world.
The answers to these questions can be found in the holistic vision of faith and faith forming processes, in the features that can guide the development of 21st century faith formation, and in our flexibility that allows us to reach all adults throughout the seasons of adulthood.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2016, Vol. 28, No. 2, Special Issue: Adult Formation, page 3-6