In my role as a Regional Catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries, one of the questions I hear from church leaders is: How can we organize our practices, groups, and curriculum for lifelong faith formation? Some of these churches are looking for a comprehensive plan from cradle to grave. Sometimes faith formation can feel like reaching into a disorganized tool box – searching and grabbing for the right tool at the right time with a promise to someday organize the chaos.
One simple way to organize faith formation is around the liturgical calendar. Many churches already acknowledge certain liturgical seasons, mostly Advent and Lent. But those aren’t the only two seasons. Here’s the church calendar in a nutshell:
- Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas.
- Christmas itself is a mini-season—a celebration of 12 days (ever heard of the 12 days of Christmas?)
- Christmas-tide ends with the feast of Epiphany on Jan 6. That kicks off the season of Epiphany, which lasts from 4 to 7 weeks depending on where Easter falls. Sometimes this season is also referred to as Ordinary time, which has a different emphasis.
- Next there is the season of Lent, which last 40 days and concludes with an Easter Vigil on Saturday night.
- Easter Sunday is the beginning of a 50-day period of exploring and living into the resurrection power of Jesus.
- Easter ends and gives way to the third great feast of the Christian calendar—Pentecost— another 50-day period where the church is empowered and sent to be light and salt in the world.
- Ordinary Time stretches from Trinity Sunday (50 days after Pentecost) to Christ the King Sunday (the Sunday before Advent).
Have you ever thought about shaping your church’s faith formation practices around these meaningful seasons? Each season has its own postures and practices. The key posture of Advent is waiting (looking forward to celebrating the first coming of Jesus in the manger but also waiting for his return as the glorified King). While we wait, we’re invited into two key practices: singing and groaning. We sing and celebrate God’s arrival (Emmanuel—God with us) and we groan while we live in this broken and painful world, hungering for Christ to return and restore all things.
Many churches have found it helpful to encourage their congregations to embrace Advent’s posture and practices. In fact, at Granite Springs Church we invite people to embrace the season by engaging in a number of faith formation practices. First, we encourage people to show up to church on a regular basis. Second, we designate a key passage from the Bible that sums up the season. For instance, in 2016 our Advent passage was Isaiah 9:2-7, with a special emphasis on verse 6: “For unto us a child is born. . . .” Not only were our adults encouraged to memorize this passage, but our children in Sunday school and young people in middle and high school ministries were memorizing Isaiah as well. Third, we invited people to be a part of a Lectio Divina group. These groups spent time meditating on the passage that was to be preached the following Sunday (basically a sermon-based small group with a meditation bent). Fourth, we encouraged a home-based practice for families. We passed out Jesse Tree kits that contained a devotional and paper ornaments that corresponded to each devotional reading. Families cut the ornaments out and hung them on the family Christmas tree or on a designated smaller tree.
Epiphany has its own posture and practices. The key posture of Epiphany is beholding and spreading light. Over the course of Epiphany, the lights are being turned up on Jesus’ identity— we are seeing more and more clearly that the Jewish baby born in the manger is the glorified King of heaven and earth. It’s also about spreading the good news of Jesus to everyone both near and far, symbolized by the story of the Magi. So the practices of Epiphany are living and spreading the good news of Jesus.
Like Advent, how might a church invite people to live out the posture and the practices of Epiphany? What groups might be formed? What Scripture could be memorized? What home-based practice could be encouraged? How might curriculum be written or chosen? Same thing for Lent, Eastertide, and the season of Pentecost.
A church can go even deeper into these seasons by following the Lectionary. The passages designated for preaching are on a three-year rotation, which provides a steady and varied biblical diet. Moreover, by following the Lectionary a particular church participates with thousands upon thousands of churches all over the world in hearing, meditating on, and wrestling with the exact same passages.
Following the liturgical calendar gives structure to what can seem like random faith formation practices. It also helps churches deal with the issue of uniting increasingly diverse congregations, which I’ll talk about in my next article.
If your church already celebrates Advent, consider living more deeply into the season of Epiphany or some other season. Many churches decide to jump in and jump out of the liturgical calendar depending on if it “works” with what they want to do. For many years, I belonged to a church that did this—they always dropped the calendar after Easter Sunday. I can personally tell you that I still benefitted from this picking and choosing. However, jumping in and out doesn’t maximize the formative power of the calendar and may even create confusion about your church’s “identity.”
Again, following the liturgical calendar is just one way to think about and organize faith formation in any particular congregation. It’s not right or wrong, but it is a creative and consistent way to help people live into the story of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.