In holding up faith formation as lifelong, we guard against the grave mistake that sturdy faith is something you acquire in Sunday school, youth group, or confirmation class and then simply possess from there forward. That’s the error of an elite, professionalized model where Christian education is about imparting the correct, church-sanctioned knowledge. It’s an error that most readers of this blog avoid.
I attended a conference recently that adds an entirely new dimension to this conversation. The opening plenary was an invitation to understand faith formation as an epic adventure. Faith formation professor Lisa Kimball (full disclosure: she’s my boss) and religious high school teacher Patricia Lyons invited the assembled group to remember that faith formation is not only lifelong but also life-wide—a key to ministry in a post-Christian world.
Lisa and Tricia claimed that the good news of our declining-church realities is that the institution is waking up to the importance of whole-person education. Faith learning and development takes place informally as well as formally, contextually as well as in a classroom—in all the messy, dramatic, terrifying, and joyful moments of everyday life. It is both as demanding and as exciting as the adventure games and tales so prevalent in our popular cultural imaginations.
I think that’s what Lisa and Tricia are getting at when they talk about life-wide learning in a faith context. Especially at a time when loyalty to a denominational tradition is minimal, we need to help disciples at every stage in the journey see that their everyday lives and their faith lives are one in the same, that the way of Jesus has everything to do not just with carrying the cross in the procession on Sundays but bearing everyday burdens like strained relationships and stressful school and work situations with grace and integrity.
Tricia told an incredible story about a game she devised when helping prepare young people in a Roman Catholic parish for their first confession. (I’m sure I’m messing up a detail here or there.)
It was an adventure game. As kids navigated the course, they had to answer questions about everyday situations (“You find $5 on the floor in your parents room: what do you do?”) and how they handle them. When they admitted a sinful choice, they had to carry the burden of some assigned number of hymnals. Then they continued through the course, sometimes accumulating still more books. The trick was that they could put them down anytime—one by one or in a whole heaping pile. Tricia just told them to set them down by the cross. (I think a chill came over more than a few of us as we realized where she was going with this.)
The kids played the game for ten weeks. By the seventh, she had moved the cross close to the altar in the church where they played. By the eighth, she set a chair by the cross with a stole on it. By the ninth, the priest put the stole on and simply watched, with Tricia, as the kids played. Finally, on the tenth week, the priest sat down in the chair, and the kids were all too happy to share about the things that were weighing them down. Learning objectives: achieved.
If there’s a more sensitive and ingenious way to teach children about a pretty difficult sacrament, I sure don’t know what it is. But it worked because it was a game, a serious game. A game that captured something of what it’s like to live the Christian life in all the fascinating places our lives take us—and will always take us.
So there’s our primer on lifelong, life-wide faith formation. Pilgrim’s Progress never sounded so interesting.
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