I’m a pastor of spiritual formation at my church. I also work for Faith Formation Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. That means I have a lot of faith formation “tools” in my toolbox. Some tools are very specific. Some are good for a wide range of applications. Some are weirdly shaped, small and precise. Some are weighty and blunt. But the seven listed below are my favorite and most powerful “go to” tools.
To put it simply, words create worlds. The words we use construct realities that people inhabit. Words repeated over time are extremely powerful. Encouraging, honest, and kind words can make us feel valued, strong, and capable. Cruel, angry, and mean words can destroy our sense of self, damage our ability to cope with life, and diminish our physical health. Words spoken in the home, pulpit, playground, and classroom are “world-forming.” We need to be thoughtful and careful about how we use language. Our words should inspire rather than shame. Build up rather than break down. Cast vision rather than condemn.
Six: Scripture Memory
It’s good to have some key Scriptures tucked away in your heart. When you memorize, you work with the Spirit to “remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). It’s my hope that every Christian would have certain key psalms memorized: Psalm 23, Psalm 1, John 1, Philippians 2:5-11, to name a few. It’s not rote memory, but a practice of focused attention. It’s a simple but thorough way to dwell in the Word of God. Jesus himself had large pieces of Scripture memorized. Don’t get overwhelmed; just start small and let it build from there.
Five: Lectio Divina
Lectio divina (Divine Reading) is an ancient prayer practice. It has four movements: Read, Reflect, Respond, and Rest. Lectio divina is a helpful way to guide people how to hear God in Scripture, meditate on key words or phrases, speak those words back to God in prayerful response, and rest in God’s unfailing love. It can be done individually or in groups, and it engages the heart, the mind, the imagination, the emotions, and the memory. Read more about Lectio Divina.
Four: Prayer of Examen
The prayer of Examen (Saint Ignatius) is an exercise in paying attention to your everyday, ordinary life and finding God there. The prayer centers on two key questions: For what moment today are you most grateful? and For what moment today are you least grateful? There are other variations of this exercise, but essentially it’s about looking for that moment when you were the most open (to life, to God, to self, and to others) and for that moment when you were shut down, and then praying from those places. This tool can be used individually or in groups. It’s also an excellent prayer that couples or families can practice together at home. Read more about the prayer of Examen.
This is an extremely formative practice that is often overlooked. Many people long to belong to a community. But how does that happen? One way it can happen is when we share our stories. When we share stories, we feel heard and understood, and that increases our sense of ownership and belonging. Storytelling is learning to narrate your personal story under the overarching story of God’s narrative: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. We have to learn how to “speak” our faith. It can’t remain as ideas or theologies in the head. We have to practice and learn how to tell stories. Learning to share your story (testimony) with family members, coworkers, and friends can be extremely stretching and faith forming. Communities that create space for storytelling become places where grace is likely to flourish. Storytelling builds connection and acts as an antidote to pervasive loneliness. Our God is a storytelling God. We were made in God’s image. We’re storytellers too. To learn more, visit Faith Formation Ministries’ Faith Storytelling Toolkit.
Two: The Lectionary
The lectionary guarantees that we get a steady diet of Scripture. It takes the power of selecting sermon passages out of the hands of pastors and places it in a tool that has proved itself over centuries of church life and worship. Plus, it unites churches all over the globe who are hearing and wrestling with the same passages. Let me be completely honest here: I’ve been a part of many churches over my adult life, and I’ve known well-intentioned pastors (not using the lectionary) who’ve preached a steady diet of “pet” passages. More difficult pieces of Scripture tend to get ignored, and that’s not good for the health of a congregation. I’m all for creativity and responding to where and how the Spirit is leading, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. The real challenge is to be creative within some boundaries--in this case, a structured Scripture diet.
One: The Liturgical Year
Over the years, I’m come to understand the formative power of the liturgical calendar. If we are serious about spiritual formation, then we have to get serious about time. If we don’t live into the liturgical year, then we are living by a different calendar that has its own formative power. If we’re not following the Christian liturgical calendar, then we’re probably following a North American calendar, which orients us inside the North American story. In the end, we have to ask ourselves if we are more American than Christian. To think that our orientation to time, how we mark it, and how we celebrate certain seasons and holidays (holy-days) has nothing to do with our discipleship is a dangerous diminishing of what it means to be human. Why not avail ourselves of the power of the liturgical calendar and help people live more fully into a different story--a story that centers on the saving work of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
These seven tools are my favorite and most powerful faith formation tools. The tools I’ve chosen highlight the themes of story, Scripture and prayer. In some ways, faith formation is simple. It’s about growing in the areas of hearing, reading, and reflecting on Scripture; prayer; paying attention; service and storytelling, practiced both individually and communally.
Now that you’ve had a chance to peer inside my tool box, what are your favorite faith formation tools, and why?