Lessons that Stick: Forming Faith in the Congregation

Lessons that Stick: Forming Faith in the Congregation

This article first appeared in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch on March 7, 2013. It is by Christopher W. Keating.


A Facebook friend shared the news that Mrs. Hutchinson, a woman who had taught at Bonita High School in the southern California high school I attended, had died. It took me a minute, but then I remembered: “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

Mrs. Hutchinson was my typing teacher.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I am old enough to have learned typing on actual typewriters in high school. It was my mother’s idea. She made me take typing the summer before I was a freshman. I’m not certain, but I think she and the mother of one of my friends hatched the plan. Surely it was not pure coincidence that found the two of us spending early summer mornings learning the finer points of home row keys, backspacing, and carriage returns.

I can still smell the paper and the ink.

The lessons she taught—fff,jjj,fjfjfj—stick with me today, just like the keys on the ancient turquoise typewriters that filled her classroom.

It occurred to me the other that  teaching was probably not the way Mrs. Hutchinson wanted to spend her summer, either.  But she did, just like she spent many years teaching typing and business courses to generations of students in the 1970s and 80s. Surely she must have been a dedicated soul, a woman who no doubt went to sleep to the sounds of tinny carriage return bells.

When I heard of her passing, I realized that I had long forgotten those summer days of learning how to type. But I type every day. It has been years since I attempted algebra, geometry, or biology. Don’t get me wrong: I can still spot a quadrilateral when I see one.  It’s just that a day does not go by when I don’t find myself using a keyboard. The technology has changed—the trusty IBM Selectric has gone the way of vacuum tube televisions. But the lessons remain.

Mrs. Hutchinson’s lessons have stuck with me my entire life.  All of this started me thinking about the lessons we teach our youth in our congregations, and the opportunities we have to impart life-shaping skills.  Are we helping them learn what it means to be people of faith, equipping them with life lessons? What are the vital bits and pieces of faith that our youth need to know? Are there spiritual equivalents of typing skills, basic information which will remain with them the rest of their lives?

When I talk with the youth of our church, I want them to discover that prayer is not just a laundry list of items requiring God’s attention. I yearn for them to know that prayer is a way of opening yourself to an ever deepening relationship with God. I want them to see scripture not as a weapon used to win cunning arguments.  Instead, I hope they may discover the Bible as filled with stories of how God’s people have wrestled with belief, doubt, faithfulness, and courageous action.

For generations our churches have been engaged in passing on the rudiments of the faith. We do this in many forms. We offer education programs. We teach Sunday school lessons, bring out flannel boards and buy curricula. We also model faith through worship and practices. We pray, we teach, we celebrate, and we give. In some cases this is done extraordinarily well; in other situations improvement is needed.  As another of my teachers, Sondra H. Matthaei, an esteemed professor of Christian Religious Education at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City used to say, “Every church and every pastor is engaged in Christian religious education. The only question is whether it is done intentionally.”

Intentional faith formation includes every aspect of the church’s life. It also involves every member of the church’s family, from the youngest to the eldest. Intentional faith formation makes faith sticky, like a journal filled with Post-It note observations about life.  In the confirmation class I am currently teaching, we will soon gather on a Saturday morning to make bread for communion. I’m hopeful that their understanding of church will rise with like yeast. As the dough sticks to their hands, I am hopeful that lessons about community and grace will stick to their hearts.

It includes the entire community–families, congregations, teachers, and students, grandparents, mentors. At the heart of it all is a desire to be guided in the way of Jesus who demonstrated what it meant to live for others. It is not easy, nor quick.

Learning how to type was not easy. I know there were mornings I would have rather pulled the covers over my head and skipped class. But thank you, Mrs. Hutchinson, for your patience and dedication. Your lessons have stuck.


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