Recently over pizza and crisp white wine, four members of the Christian Formation Steering Team from my parish (Epiphany in Winchester, MA) met to dream about how life-wide Christian formation can reverse the downward trend our program has experienced for the past several years.
We are a healthy, program-sized parish with a tremendous history of Christian formation programming for all ages. For years we’ve struggled with the magical memories of what worked “when my kids were that age” versus the reality of modern families.
Young families are telling us their struggles, and they aren’t able to volunteer in the same ways that we’ve come to expect. Instead of honoring their struggles, we [the church] send them the message that what they are doing is “not enough.” Our team sat around the table to ask the question: what does lifewide/lifelong Christian formation look like for today’s families and how can we live into that model?
Last spring our committee held a town hall meeting on a weeknight to discuss Christian formation programming. Over 130 people came to break bread, name their truths, and imagine a better future. We had amazing table conversations and heard from families that a two- or three-hour commitment on Sundays is asking too much.
We heard from empty nesters that there is great value in maintaining our rich tradition of an adult education speaker series on Sunday mornings. We heard from all ages that they want opportunities to grow in community outside of the traditional church setting. We heard many things, several with concrete action steps. We developed a plan and charted a long-range view for the way forward.
We purchased the Cadillac of curriculum for all age groups. We trained teachers. We recruited new volunteers. And then things started to come apart. The new Saturday family fun series failed after we realized that adding another program for community building is great in concept, but impossible for families in reality.
Our Sunday morning formation class attendance continued to drop despite great curriculum and dedicated teachers. We tried to change at the slow rate that is necessary in most congregations, but that slow rate felt too slow for the families who are already struggling.
We simply had not considered the lifewide part of lifelong formation. At a subsequent meeting we regrouped and we dreamed. We listened to the wisdom from the Once and Future Church conference and asked ourselves: what does life-wide formation look like for the families at the Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, MA.
You see, what we forgot was that lifewide will look different depending on cultural, geographic, and historic context. Wrapping a gift in new paper does not change the contents of the package only the appearance.
What will Epiphany’s formation program look like next year? I don’t know yet. What I do know it that for some it is sad that our program needs such an overhaul when it has served so many successfully. For me, it is exciting. We have an opportunity to become a learning lab for 21st century faith formation. It won’t look like anything we’ve seen before. It won’t be a mirror of any other program.
Rather than looking at this as the smoldering remains of a fire, let’s look for the phoenix that is set to rise anew from the goodness that we’ve had to this point. As Dumbledore told Harry Potter in the Chamber of Secrets, “Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.” It is time for something completely new; let’s listen to what is being said through actions and words and dream how the Spirit is calling us to respond.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2014, Vol. 26, No. 3, page 6-7