My colleagues are often astounded when I note that, although our congregation’s average Sunday morning attendance is approximately seventy-five, we have, on any given week, between thirty-five and fifty persons involved in adult faith formation, with half of them coming from the larger community. At our congregation, adult faith formation programs have become the major source of new members and Sunday visitors and have brought vitality to our congregation. People have discovered that our congregation is committed to a lively, theologically-solid, spiritually-grounded, and open-spirited faith.
When I first arrived at my Cape Cod congregation three years ago, I stated that I hoped to initiate a few adult education programs. One well-respected member responded, “No one ever comes to educational events at our church. Prepare to be disappointed.” Another confessed “we’re really not that interested in theology.” The results have been the exact opposite. With the support of the congregation’s leadership, I have initiated a community of prayer and learning that has become essential to our congregation’s identity and mission to the community.
Today, people receive a plethora of religious information on cable television and the internet, and it is imperative that the church add its voice to media presentations on the life of Jesus, scripture, God, the Gnostic scriptures, and world religions, not to mention the superficial and often harmful theologies often presented by popular televangelists. In a time in which many assert that post-modernism privileges experience over doctrine, open-ended theological reflection has become more essential in the pulpit and the congregational classroom. Congregants need to nurture the mind as well as the spirit and heart to creatively face the challenges of our pluralistic age. They need safe places in which to explore their faith questions and challenge childhood ideas about God and humankind.
Although there is no one way to encourage congregational faith formation, I have found the following approaches essential to a robust, intellectually lively, and inspirational adult theological education program:
First, pastors need to reclaim their identity as rabbis and congregational theologians. Pastors need to become students of the faith, devoting at least a tithe of their time to study beyond their sermon preparation. Seminary is the beginning and the end of a pastor’s theological journey.
Second, pastors need to look for the theologian in each congregant. We are not preaching to a theological vacuum, but to people who have deep theological questions, most of the time unaddressed even in church. Every person who asks questions of life, death, meaning, and vocation is a theologian. Congregants often feel anxious about asking questions about what’s most important to them, for fear they will be misunderstood or that their ignorance will be exposed. Yet no question is unimportant and foolish when it comes to our faith. In the first few weeks of my time at South Congregational Church, I announced that “every question is on the table,” “bring your thoughts, questions, and ideas,” and “this is a mistake free zone, a place where no question is too big or too small.” I also made clear that despite my education, I didn’t know all the answers and that there is “more than one right answer to many important questions of faith and practice.” People took me at my word and began to ask questions, express doubts, and suggest themes for study.
Third, pastors need to be in conversation with their congregants, listening for their questions. At my congregation, virtually every adult faith formation program has emerged from congregants’ questions or suggestions. In our midweek bible study, I choose a person each quarter to determine our theme. Thus far, we have studied “Job and the Problem of Suffering,” “The Journeys of Paul” and “Jesus’s First Followers.” We’ve just started a series, “Transformation! The Varieties of Biblical Spirituality,” exploring scripture accounts of the many ways people experienced God. Our weekly theological reflection group has studied, “Death and Dying,” “The Trinity,” “Christianity and the World Religions,” and is currently studying “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles.” We have a first Monday group that focuses on a mystic, exploring both her or his theology and spiritual practices. A week ago, one participant asked if we could do a short study on the “Gnostic Gospels.” We will focus on that theme during July.
In response to our adult faith formation focus, one participate noted, “This the first time in my seventy years as a Christian, I’m really learning about the Bible.” Another asserted “this is place where I can come with all my questions and explore the relationship of Christianity with what’s most important to me.” A third affirmed, “I’m learning that faith is dynamic and not stuck in the past. I don’t have to believe what I learned in my childhood fundamentalist church to be a Christian.”
Fourth, as a pastor, aim high in your studies and teaching. Pastoral ministry is creative, and within every pastor is an artist, either in creating new materials or interpreting the work of others. One of my mentors advised his students to “prepare every sermon and class as if it could be published.” While most of my sermons and classes aren’t published, the very aspiration calls the teacher to excellence and creativity. Adult faith formation is holy ground and worthy of our best efforts. Pastors who commit themselves to a teaching ministry experience greater vitality and insight in their various ministerial tasks.
There is some truth in the saying, “if you build it, they will come.” When it comes to adult faith formation, if you listen and respond, and provide various time options, they will come. The journey of faith is exciting. When we offer opportunities for prayerful study, our church will be transformed and people will come to church anticipating new insights in every class or worship service.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA and author of nearly forty books, including A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care; Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.