Reclaiming Faith Formation

When I first came to faith in Jesus, I floundered. I was 18, I had just started college, I came out of a family that largely didn't discuss issues of faith, and the only exposure to a community of faith was a confirmation class in a Lutheran church my family attended once a year. More or less I was told: “Now that you believe, here is a list of things that ‘good Christians’ does.” Based on where I was, I didn't like the church very much, and I was largely disinterested in the idea of God. I wasn't a very disciplined person; I barely graduated high school. Then in coming to faith, I was thrust into a very disciplined practice, one that not only was interested in the idea of God but everything hinges on his existence and presence in the world. Can you see why I might have floundered?

As I stumbled through those early years of faith, I finally managed to discover some level of discipline and even the ability to discern the voice of the Spirit of God. I eventually would go on to California Baptist University (CBU) upon acknowledging a call to vocational ministry to study theology. There I learned how to study the Bible well; I had world-class professors who not only helped me to understand right thinking about the Kingdom (good orthodoxy) but also helped me understand how to be engaged in right action in the Kingdom (good orthopraxy).

While attending CBU, I ran into many other students who shared my experience. Some of them came to faith at an early age, some later. Many of us had a shared experience, we came to faith and were given a list of things that “good Christians” do with little instruction beyond that.

There had to be another way to learn the teachings and practices of Jesus though right?

In the early years of faith, I rejected anything that smelled of my previous experience. In those years of confirmation (before coming to faith), a bad taste was left in my mouth. The experience was stale and largely narrow. It was one of the things that pushed me away from God, rather than drawing me closer. However, during my studies at CBU, I became intrigued by church history, particularly in the areas of how the church approached faith formation. Oddly enough an experience that served to push me far from God began to draw me closer.

As I peeled back the layers of church history, I discovered that the ancient Church had a process of faith formation that was very rich and comprehensive. It dealt not only with how a person would have good orthodoxy but also good orthopraxy.

The process is called catechesis.

The catechetical process has been used in a variety of ways. Some traditions use it solely to teach the ways of Christ to new converts leading to baptism. Others use it as a process to bring people from unbelief into belief. In either way of using catechesis, there is a structure that the church used to help a new or potential convert know what it means to be a part of the church. In the ancient church, it was not sufficient enough to leave a person to figure out what it means to be a Christian on their own.

Catechesis in the ancient church consisted of four stages and three rites. Robert Webber put together a helpful table in his book Ancient Future Evangelism.

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Regarding this process Webber writes: “The journey of disciple making and Christian formation is clearly ordered around the cycle of believing, behaving, and belonging and is accomplished in the context of the worshiping community.” Notice that in the process Webber outlines we see that discipleship begins before conversion and is carried out through the life of a person.

I am convinced that the catechesis used by the ancient church was largely based on what they knew about how Jesus called and instructed his disciples. While it may not be clear as to when the disciples were baptized, we clearly see Jesus calling the disciples to come and see (Lk. 5:1-11), as they believe he teaches them the ways of the kingdom (Matt. 5-7), he prepares him for the work ahead (Lk. 14:25-34), and he sends them into mission (Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15; Lk. 24:46-47; Jn. 20:21; Acts 1:8).

Jesus regularly invited the disciples to believe, behave, and belong. In the midst of these things, Jesus would then refine the disciples in a variety of ways that sought to see them fully mature in their faith and action.

Why not use a structure like this in faith formation today?

The church today should return to such a process. Catechism is not only helpful in the work of seeing a disciple mature (as is it’s primary use in most church traditions today) but also to introduce people to the Kingdom. In the catechetical process, you are offering people a place to belong on their road to belief. It is an opportunity for the pre-convert to not only learn how to think about God but also how to live in the community of faith.

To often I am concerned that many churches see a person come to belief, yet leave them there with some version of the sentiment “Peace be with you, go and do likewise.” Imagine if we brought a person from pre-conversion to maturity in Christ and along the way allowed them to practice believing, behaving, and belonging. It would not have to follow such a structure of the ancient church; it simply might encompass the four primary parts of the process: evangelize, disciple, spiritually mature, and membership (assimilation).

The process is a marathon, not a sprint.

We must be careful though not to let the process become a program. The very nature of a process is to recognize that one is transformed in the heart, mind, and will. This doesn't happen in a cookie cutter fashion. What is most beneficial is to have a frame with which to work in but allow the content to be fluid as the person is being transformed by the gospel. As you work through the gospel with a person, you must be fluid enough to address issues as they arise rather than expect them to fit into programmatic frameworks.

By embracing such a structure toward faith formation, we can focus both on the church being a mile wide and deep. Seeing the multitudes come to faith in Jesus, while also see them grown in their maturity. In some ways, it is like pushing a bolder down a hill. You first have to spend time getting it into position; it can be a long and slow process. However, once it catches momentum very little can stop it. Let the church reclaim a process of faith formation that not only sees people come to faith but see them mature to active participants in the kingdom through the church.

Paul Hoffman (BAT California Baptist University, M.A. Southwestern Seminary) is the planting pastor of KALEO Communities in Portland, OR. @paulchoffman