Faith Formation: Best Teaching Practices with Children and Youth?

Jesus-children“What’s the best curriculum for forming children and youth in Christian faith?” I am asked this question a lot. Here’s the short version of my response: We invite people into the way of life that embodies God’s love, justice, compassion, and reconciliation, by being, doing, and thinking about it together. The best curriculum for forming children, youth, and anyone else in Christian faith is guided participation in a community of practice where people are vibrantly, passionately risking themselves together in lives of faith in a world crying out for the love of Christ.

Guided participation in a community of practice puts a premium on both participation and practice. Watch children in play imitating the adults around them to see how even the youngest among us hunger to participate in the way of life they see enacted before them. That’s a good instinct to follow, because people–children or otherwise!–don’t become Christian by learning about what Christians do, say, or think (although at some point, particularly in adolescence and beyond, doing so can be an important part of deepening one’s faith identity). We become Christian, taking on the identity of one who is a disciple of Jesus, by acting the way Christians act, and by talking the way Christians talk. Over time through practice, even our hearts and minds are formed in this way of life.

How does this work? Let me offer an example from another life arena, music. I’m a fiddle player in an Irish band. I did not start life as a musician. It is an identity that has been shaped and formed through participation in practice. Years ago as a child, guided by those who were already musicians, I clumsily held my instrument and drew the bow across the strings in hopes of making a sound worth hearing. I learned the language that musicians use to make sense of what they do by hanging out with musicians. Over time, I “became” a musician. My hands, formed over the years by daily practice at whatever level of ability I had at the time, took on the shape and action of musician’s hands. My ears began to hear the music in the way that musicians hear, and I began to play as a fiddle player. Making music, especially Irish music, now resides in my mind and heart. It has been a journey, one that I am still on. But over the years of guided participation in practice within a community of experienced musicians, I have taken on this identity. In a similar way, participation with a community in practices of neighbor-love, worship, stewarding resources, takes central place in Christian formation, shaping a person’s hands and feet, heart and mind, to constitute a way recognizable as Christian. Children and youth need to be in a vibrant community where faith is practiced, and where they are invited into the practices, to take on the identity of being Christian.

As a “curriculum” of faith, guided participation in practice is not mere socialization through osmosis, as if just showing up were enough to form people in an identity. Showing up matters. But we already know that socialization alone leaves people doing lots of stuff without understanding why or what it means. Christian practices of celebrating the Lord’s Supper make little sense to an outside observer unfamiliar with the story in which they are embedded, a story in which Jesus renders all ordinary eating holy by telling his disciples “whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me.” The story makes sense of the action; the action gives meaning to the story. Just as “showing up” alone is not enough, “thinking about faith” alone is insufficient for forming disciples.

Guided participation in practice isn’t just doing. It includes sharing an essential skill, that of fully and actively practicing our faith in our everyday lives and making theological meaning out of the stuff of everyday life. Sickness, birth, aging, celebrating new jobs, gay marriage, deciding how to spend money, wondering how to make sure everyone has enough clean water, celebrating birthdays, suffering (ours and that of other people), how and what we eat, institutional racism, how we dispose of our trash, dealing with failed marriages and celebrating life-giving ones, job layoffs, and all the rest that is part and parcel of our everyday lives in the world–we Christians need to cultivate the skill of making sense of these experiences through the lenses of our faith stories that can in turn inform our actions. For that, we need places and ways to learn and inhabit faith stories.

When people ask me about the best curriculum for forming the faith of children and youth, they may not like what they hear back from me. I “get” why my response is so unsatisfying. I’m not making it easy on committee chairs who need to buy materials for next year’s programs by endorsing a particular brand of curricular material. Don’t get me wrong: There’s an important place for choosing good material. But the best classroom experience cannot take root if it is not embedded in a community life in which all kinds of people join together to practice being agents of God’s love, justice, compassion, and reconciliation in the world that God made, redeems, and loves.

–A version of this blog appeared in the “Passing on the Faith” series,

Play and Theology

Children PlayingPlay is a serious theological subject! Recently I have been thinking about play and its relationship to Christian theology, helped by conversations with Jerome Berryman and practitioners of Godly Play at the recent gathering of the North American Godly Play association in Toronto. Theologians have been paying attention to play for a long time. Aquinas and Augustine wrote about it centuries ago. More recently, in the mid-20th century, Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Play created a short-lived stir by reframing play as a crucial aspect of our humanity, connecting play to human freedom. Moltmann suggested, contrary to those who view play as a way to pacify people and draw their attention away from the serious theological business of social transformation, that play (like art) is a way to construct “counter-environments” and “anti-environments” to the status quo that give people the freedom to imagine new futures. Fear and worry keep human beings stuck on the ground, Moltmann says, while freedom begins when people act without fear. Play draws people into freedom. Moltmann’s thinking helps me make sense of how the Christian understanding of resurrection works to free people, to empower us to live differently in the world: when the very meaning of death has been changed, so that one need no longer be afraid of it as ultimate terror, then Christians are set free and empowered to act in world in bold and courageous ways, risking even death.

All that might sound a long way from play, especially in its associations with children and Godly Play classrooms–but it’s not such a far stretch to get from God “playing with” and re-imagining the meanings of human life and death through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the teaching of a way of life to children and other faith-novices that proclaims our freedom to live creatively and courageously in a world that constantly stinks of death. Moltmann in the early 1970’s asked, “How is it possible to play and laugh when people die in Vietnam?” Decades later we might similarly ask, “How is it possible to play and laugh when young men like Trayvon Martin, and elementary school students in Newtown, CT, and so many other unnamed young people in this country, die everyday as a result of gun violence?”  With Moltmann, I argue that we turn to play not as a way of turning away from or covering over the harsh realities of violence and struggle in our society, but as a way of practicing the resurrection life that lets us imagine alternative futures to these stories.



Older People, Vital Churches?

Joyce with Libby Gibson at St. Mary's Church, Barnstable, MAWhat makes a church vital?

This weekend I was with the Congregational Studies Project Team and Fellows on Cape Cod for our June meeting. We are a group of scholars and researchers who study congregations and other religious assemblies/organizations, and create resources for persons (especially congregational leaders) interested in engaging in disciplined reflection on their own congregational contexts. When the Congregational Studies Project Team meets, we typically visit and discuss a local congregation to see what we can learn about American religions more generally, and about congregations in particular. We think together about questions such as what factors contribute to the apparent vitality of some congregations, and to the decline of others.

On Sunday we had the pleasure of visiting St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Barnstable, Massachusetts, where VTS alumna and adjunct faculty member Libby Gibson is the rector.  This parish, located in a picturesque small town on the Cape, has incredible resources: an active and engaged membership base with strong lay and clergy leadership; a lovely location and physical plant including beautiful gardens (complete with a memorial garden for pets!); and a commitment to local mission. The church also boasts some 75 new members this year, about half of whom are 40 years old and younger, with the others being in the 60-and-above age group that matches this area’s demographic as a retirement destination. Indeed, sitting in the congregation, while there were some younger worshipers, the dominant hair color was gray. And the primary “tone” was vitality! The energy and warmth of the community were palpable during worship and beyond it. People lingered in the pews after worship to talk to their neighbors, and then lingered some more over lemonade in the fellowship time outside. We heard about vibrant ministries with the parish and beyond it, out in the community.

Can a congregation with a large proportion of older adult members be a vital church? Common stereotypes about both “vital church” and “older adults” seem to say no, posing these two terms as opposites.  But I see such stereotypes to be based on some myths about older adulthood that just don’t hold up well under scrutiny. The first of these myths is that older adulthood is automatically synonymous with poor health. While it is the case that older adults experience increasing health issues across time, there exist significant differences between individuals, as is the case during other points along the life cycle. But in addition, there also are huge differences between older adults in their sixties and those in their nineties. Gerontologists note that with the increasing lifespan of persons, it is no longer even possible to automatically speak of older adults as a single homogenous group with shared characteristics. Most of these scholars distinguish between the “young-old,” the “older” and the “old-old.” The young-old are older adults who are active, mobile, and perhaps with retirement or transition out of full time employment, may even have increased time and energy to offer toward things about which they care such as church involvements. We spoke with many such people in the church we visited today. The middle “older” group, gerontologists note, also are active and engaged, but perhaps experiencing some problems with mobility that begin to place some limits on their engagements. Among those classified as the “old-old,” generally octogenarians and above, the fuller impact of emerging health issues becomes more widely visible, and yet still it cannot be taken for granted that all adults in this life phase are the so-called frail elderly. Writer and researcher George Vaillant suggests that as human lifespans increase, the actual length of time older adults experience acute disability is decreasing.

What this means is that congregations populated with a preponderance of older adults like the church we visited today may well evidence a lot of energy and vitality, particularly when many of those older adults are in the active “young-old” phase of older adulthood.

A second myth that makes it hard for some people to equate older adulthood with congregational vitality is the notion that older adults as a group are primarily “receivers” rather than contributors to congregational life. This simply is not the case. Older adults contribute in a variety of ways to the vitality of their congregations. Financially, they support the church with their stewardship at a rate of $46/1 compared with younger adults. In terms of hands-on ministries, many older adults are active in service, teaching, and justice ministries of their congregations. Older adults provide a large amount of congregational pastoral care through their formal and informal visits, phone calls, and prayer ministries. They are important story-bearers for faith communities where mobility and other factors can create a dirth of long-term narratives for understanding a congregation’s walk of faith across time.

Vitality is not merely a synonym for youth. It refers instead to a person or community’s ability to engage life fully. It is about participating in and sharing the abundant life of God in the world. We did hear stories at St. Mary’s celebrating the presence of younger members among their many newcomers. But we also heard stories about how various church members (including older members) are able to create initiatives within this church around the things about which they have passion, such as environmentalism and the celebration of animal companions; education and the importance of church members sharing their gifts with children in less privileged communities elsewhere on Cape Cod; and again and again, the importance of intentionally choosing to be a welcoming, inclusive faith community. Against the commonly heard story that the mainline church in the U.S. is in decline in part because of its aging demographic, the story of St. Mary’s suggests that such a narrative is too simplistic. It seems to me that the vitality of this congregation is less about age demographics and more about a critical balance between the nurture of internal community (stressing welcome, warmth, and celebrating the gifts of church members) with that of external community (extending God’s grace into the world by taking their gifts and commitments outside of themselves in mission), all fed by an expertly led and joyfully celebrated liturgical life.  What do you think makes congregations vital?