Engaging Adults in Formation (Part 1)

By Scott Hughes

We're adults?! When did that happen and how do we make it stop?Over the last few blogs I’ve advocated for a more experiential faith formation aimed at the many seasons of adulthood. Over the next two blogs I’ll give six implications of this shift by addressing formation throughout the growth of an adult disciple. Here’s the first three.

  1. By recognizing the range and diversity of experiences in adulthood, an effective way to engage adults in discussion begins with their experiences. The range of experience present in most adult classes can open up conversations to new insights that others might have missed. To be sure, there are the dangers when starting from experience. If left only with experience, it is easy for the group to end up with a “collective ignorance” or interpreting Scripture solely through the lens of our limited experiences. Other downfalls include only engaging in familiar scripture passages or ones that seem immediately relevant. However, for some adults taking advantage of their wisdom and life experiences might be the only door they are willing to walk through when engaging Scripture. From there it will take crafty leadership and/or mentoring relationships to develop a healthy encounter with Scripture. (I’ve often wondered what a sermon might look like if the opening 3-5 minutes were spent asking the congregation what questions, thoughts, and feelings arose as they heard the Scripture read!)
  2. Building on #1, adult ministries should be more intentional ministering to adults during their milestones and life transitions. This will require local churches to think more in terms of experiences instead of simply offering classes. (See the previous post about shifting toward formation [link] and questions to assess what experiences to focus on.) As John Roberto has asserted, “Adults are motivated to learn when facing life transitions. They seek learning and support to cope with changes in their lives that give rise to new developmental tasks, e.g., raising children, aging parents, financial matters, job changes, divorce, etc.”1 Both normative and non-normative life transitions are seasons when adults are open to learning new skills and formation experiences. Normative life transitions are events common to adult life such as marriage, birth of the first child, empty nest, retirement. Non-normative life transitions could be the loss of a child, divorce, dealing with step family integration, career change, caring for aging parents (the latter two increasingly become normative) and so on.
  3. This shift also impacts how we teach adults. The church’s formation efforts should draw upon what adults already know. It is imperative that churches move away from “teacher imparting wisdom to students” models of formation to models that might be summed up as “a willing guide who shares experiences, good and bad, to promote self-discovery, ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit.” This will not only be more attractive to adults in terms of where they are motivated to grow, but will aid them in seeing God’s grace operative in their own life. (This shift toward experience might begin with activities and skills, but not at the expense of basic content that adult disciples need to learn. Rather, the content is arrived at through different channels.)

Reflection Questions

  • What is one major life transition for adults that your local church could focus on over the next six months to a year?
  • How intentional is your local church ministering to adults at specific life transitions? (New birth, marriage, divorce, etc.)
  • How could your church help adult teachers or facilitators to envision their role as a “guide on the side”?

Optional activity

The next time you teach or facilitate a class with adults, open with the following question, “What do you already know about this (the class topic or assigned Scripture passage)?”