How do we "do" faith formation?
The question comes in the light of the fear, worry, and truth that many of those raised in the church are no longer sitting in the pews. What we saw ten, twenty years ago of children in the pews raising a ruckus that was a bit annoying; of a plethora of pitter pattering feet running up the aisle for the children’s message; of the plea for more nursery workers because we were so swamped is no more. Only awkward silence is left with the random nervous cough.
Didn’t we do all the right things? We had children’s programs. We had curriculum for Sunday school. We hired children’s ministry directors to come up with and lead programs. We hired youth directors/pastors to keep the teens entertained and interested in church. And now they’re gone.
For years, many have pointed to Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (KJV), and then ask why that hasn’t come to pass. We did our best. We taught them. We kept them busy with events and mission trips. We gave them well thought out curriculum. What did we do wrong?
Dr. Chap Clark (of Fuller’s Youth, Family, and Culture division…so you know he’s done his research) wrote the book Hurt in 2004 where he looked at the pain of adolescence. He found a disconnection, a compartmentalization, a dissociation in teens. Too busy. Too stressed. Too rushed to be the best which they were told they were. A hidden hurt that adults would never know. He revisited this in 2011 with Hurt 2.0—and things were worse, not better.
His findings: adolescence weren’t allowed to grow up yet treated as small adults with adult responsibilities and requirements yet no equipping to be as such. Adolescence stretched from young adolescence as early as 10 to 12 years of age and leading to late adolescence to as old as age 26. For many youth, faith was always part of the busyness, part of the rushing around, part of the requirements to be a good kid who received the affection they so desired. And when that well ran dry, they left.
This led Dr. Clark to research and write Sticky Faith with Dr. Kara Powell. What made faith form and stick? What made faith develop, grow, and remain deep seeded in youth into adulthood? These are the same questions the CRC (and so many other churches today) are asking.
But what about that proverb…found in the Bible…God’s holy Word? In many ways, Proverbs 22:6 is very true. Good curriculum, good teaching, good preaching, and good programs can help nurture faith. Good research, solid investigation and dedication will lead to new and improved ways of assisting faith formation. The proverb is a truism that reflects wise Godly Biblical observation of what has been seen. But this one proverb never says there is a magic bullet or one magic program or even one perfect right way to do all this.
Faith isn’t always taught (teaching is very much a part of it). Faith is absorbed. Faith is digested. Faith is created in the arena of active Christian spirituality.
Faith is found and formed through mirth, drink, and chatter. It is formed living life with those who claim to know Jesus. It is formed at the kitchen table when the family talks to one another. It’s formed in how a father (who represents our heavenly Father which children in Sunday school are always told) treats the child, treats the child’s mother, treats the child’s siblings, or is even present emotionally at all. It’s formed by how a mother who faithfully attends Bible studies speaks about the cashier at Walmart who isn’t moving fast enough. It’s formed not so much by what the Sunday school teacher teaches as much as how they teach.
Faith is formed when they are able to see the well of faith lived out in us and then allowed drink deeply. It’s formed when they see we truly live what we speak; when we truly envelop, enfold, welcome into the life of the church these children we claim are important but are put off to the side instead.
As followers of Jesus, we may be the only Bible someone ever reads, including our children and teens. Your translation of the Bible helps form the faith they use to be willing to let the Holy Spirit work in their hearts and faith to stick. That is when deep faith is formed—mirth, drink, and chatter.