“Changing Times, Changing Responses” was the title of the keynote address given by The Rev. Dr. John Westerhoff at the Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity conference held this past May. Author of numerous books and groundbreaking articles regarding Christian formation, his keynote reflected on the past, present and future of how we faith is passed along from one generation to the next.
“Formation takes place whether you like it or not. You are always being formed by something.”
During the “Age of Faith” we connected with the holy through intuitively thinking and knowing, often through the arts. As we entered the “Age of Reason,” science took center stage giving us the chance to use our imagination and question, deny and embrace our understandings of God. In recent years, we have entered a post-modernity era in which there is rapid change in all specters of life. Throughout each of these eras, the Church has continued, never existing in a vacuum.
“What do we remember, and why do we remember it? What’s stored in our memories?”
Our story is God’s Story. No matter what time or age that we live in. Our challenge is to bring God’s Story to a new generation in this “Age of Loneliness.” The Church is called to be a counter-balance of intimacy and community in a world that is often focused on “doing” rather than “being.” The Bible has been with us throughout the ages: we must remember that it is a book that questions us – it is not about how we should ask questions of it.
Formation, as I define it, is the participation in and the practice of a particular way of life. It is a natural process; it occurs whether or not we plan for it. In cultural anthropology it is called enculturalization. It is not a question of “Are we forming people in the church, home, school, or neighborhood?” it is “How are we forming them? And are we being intentional?”
So how does formation occur? The answer in greek is catechesis— which in english is christening. Now regretfully, christening for many people became baptism. And while it is possible to use the word that way, it is not very helpful, because there is a difference between adjectives and nouns. If I ask you, “Are you a Christian?” the answer is relatively simple; if you have been baptized, the answer is yes. But if I ask you, “Are you Christian?” now you have a problem on your hands; you may think about it and at noon say, “I’m not sure”; by four o’clock “It’s iffy”; and by six, “Not at all.” To be Christlike is about a way of life.
Our problem is that the church is filled with people who are Christians, but do not intend to be Christian. We have to live into the reality of our baptism. Baptism tells us the truth about ourselves; we spend the rest of our lives becoming who we already are. Who we are is established in our baptism, and formation is the process of christening or catechesis that takes place by our participating in and practicing the Christian life of faith in a community that understands itself as being the body of Christ.
The early church did not convert people in the world and then bring them to church. They attracted people because of the life that they lived, and when people came to them and asked why they lived as they did they said, “Come live with us. Model your life after ours. Imitate us. Be formed by living with us. We are not going to do something to or for you but with you.” That process of nurturing was also converting. It transformed lives as well as formed lives; the process is the same.
The Church can easily become like all the other institutions in our society today – an organization of specialists who focus on just a part of one’s persona. The Church is called to be a community of faith, not an institution. How do we do this?
A community that will pass on faith to its children will share a:
- Common story that holds us together. A story that has meaning and purpose.
- Common authority that allows tolerance of difference.
- Common ritual that is central to its daily life and culture (liturgy = work of the people).
- Common life that is related by a covenant with its members; a family that focuses on being valued for their uniqueness rather than performance and competition.
Again, you can now listen to his presentation in two downloadable files – Part 1 and Part 2. Each are about 30 minutes long and might be good resources for teacher trainings or simply sharing with your teachers for their own reflections. Here are some reflection questions that might start conversations:
For Part 1:
- How do you view Church history? Where do you believe we are today? Where do you believe we are ‘going’?
- What can we do to bring the arts (music, art, drama, etc.) back into our churches as well as our teaching?
- How are you a product of “modernity”?
- How do you abide in God’s reign? How do you contribute to God’s reign?
- How does Scripture question you?
- How do we develop communities of faith instead of structures of institution?
- What is the story in your ‘bottle’?
- What do you believe the role of a leaner is? A teacher? How is this different (or similar) to Dr. Westerhoff’s understanding?
- What is the difference between faith and belief?
- What is your image of God?
- How would you define ‘character’ in terms of being a Christian?
- What’s the difference between ritual and worship?
- Do you believe Tertullian’s quote, “Christians are made, not born.”?
- How do we ‘echo Jesus’ and help others become Christ-like?
Read more of John Westerhoff’s understanding of Christian Formation in the soon-to-be-released 3rd edition of “Will Our Children Have Faith” that now includes a Study Guide written by Sharon Ely Pearson. Listen to Dr. Westerhoff’s keynote along with some discussion questions from Changing Times, Changing Responses.