Deep Faith: A holistic approach to spiritual formation

Rachel SGRachel Gerber is denominational minster for Youth and Young Adults for Mennonite Church USA. This is the first in a series of reflections from participants at Deep Faith: Anabaptist faith formation for all ages, held Oct. 6-8, 2016.

“Fresh as the morning, sure as the sunrise, God always faithful, you do not change…” God of the Bible, Sing the Journey, 27

As we sang this refrain in the Chapel on the Mount at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary at the Deep Faith: Anabaptist faith formation for all ages conference last weekend, I was reminded again of the infinite nature of Jesus’ kingdom message for humanity. Even after many millennia, God, indeed, has not changed. Jesus’ message of life has not changed. As John Roberto, one of the keynote speakers shared, “The gospel message and mission for believers have not changed. But the mode with which it’s translated has.” To this end, the Deep Faith conference spent three days exploring these themes of how faith formation best connects in the 21st century.

At the end of our gathering, I overheard a conference participant say, “I was expecting to hear more about how to do intergenerational classes, but what this conference provided me was far richer. Faith formation is so much more expansive than just what we do in Sunday school.”

As one of the co-planners for this event, my heart swelled three times its size. As a formation minister for Mennonite Church USA, if I leave nothing else to the church, what I do hope my small blip in history leaves is this: Christian formation spans everything we do as people of faith. From our architecture to our word choice, from how we greet one another at the door to how (or if) we allow space for doubts and questions of faith.

As a minister of youth and young adults, this is key. For far too long in our faith communities, we have siloed our children, especially our DeepFaith_Mark_smallyouth. Of course peer influence and connection are important developmentally at this stage, but they also need to be known by the greater whole of the congregation and not just from a select few adults that have been arm-twisted to be a sponsor. There also is a pervading culture that still understands youth ministry as mostly fun and games. It’s about being silly and crazy and staying up late. Yes, youth ministry needs to have an element of fun. But it also needs to have substance and a depth of rootedness. Our youth seek meaning and fulfillment. They wonder who they are and where they fit in.  And they will seek out these answers at all costs. They will find answers to their questions someplace.  But will the answers they find be true? Does money bring happiness? Does sex bring acceptance? Does war bring peace?  How will our children know the goodness, the hope, the infinite life that Jesus brings if we are not available to listen to their longings? What happens when instead of creating safe space for them, we turn silent when they seek answers, because we don’t want to say the wrong thing, or because it feels too personal, or maybe because we don’t want to admit that we simply don’t have a good answer.

And so we end up feeding them pizza.

Let me tell you, a lot of people and organizations can offer pizza. And movie nights. And wild-extreme-blow-your-socks-off events.

But if we reduce youth ministry to entertainment rather than equipping, if we are more focused on roping our youth in than sending them out, we have failed our youth because we have failed to see youth ministry as ministry. Instead we have turned it into youth programming. Or to put it crassly — babysitting. And this is a bunch of hogwash. Let me tell you, programs rarely make a difference, but genuine encounters with people always do.

As our children and youth feel a connection in our congregations, they develop a deep sense of belonging — that their presence is not only valued, but needed. Church becomes less of someplace to go, and much more about something they are.

A deep, lasting, durable faith grows within our youth when they are invited to participate alongside a community that actively lives out its love for Jesus in the world; when they see the faith we proclaim actually makes a difference in life.

This is faith formation. It is a holistic approach to spiritual formation, not to be confused with Christian education. Authentic faith formation is a call for everyone in the congregation — not just the pastor, not just the parents, not just those on the Christian Education committee, not just those who seem to relate well to youth. This is a call for the entire community.

We all belong to one another in this journey towards deep faith.