Making a Shift

By Scott Hughes

woman's arm with hand on car gear shifter

Copyright: lzflzf / 123RF Stock Photo

In the first blog in this series, I introduced the notion of the four seasons of adulthood (young adults, midlife adults, mature adults, and older adults). These can be helpful categories in thinking about how adults change and develop and in describing the responsibilities adults are likely to undertake during each season. These categories for adults do not have rigid boundaries. Even within these categories are subcategories and even overlapping experiences. For instance, a couple or a single adult might be an empty nester while still in midlife. Caring for children (or even grandchildren) can occur during mature adulthood.

The idea that adults are still developing and growing necessitates that churches shift out of the predominant educational model of formation (if they haven’t already). The fine folks at Vibrant Faith contrast the traditional (education) approach with a networked approach. A traditional approach focuses on classroom, curriculum, and the church hall. Contrast that with a networked approach that focuses on formation, life experience (50+ years as adults), and on- and off-campus resourcing. While this is not the only way to think about this shift, it is beneficial. Perhaps another way of looking at this shift is the move toward a much more incarnational model of formation that focuses more on the lived experiences and transitions that occur during adulthood. This model will be more demanding on church staff than offering classes, small groups, or Sunday school that will generically appeal to all adults. It will require churches to be more relationally minded to determine the needs that exist within the church community.

Another change that Kevin Watson (The Class Meeting) and Thomas Hawkins (Apprenticed to Jesus) as well as others are observing is the need to move away from curriculum as the center of formation. For many small groups and Sunday school classes, the predominant question is “What are we going to study next?” The shift toward a formation model that focuses more intently on adult discipleship should aim more at experience and relationships. So instead the question might be, “What experience, topic, or activity might we need to help us grow in love of God and neighbor?”

Dr. Richard P. Johnson wrote, in an article in Lifelong Faith magazine, “Ongoing faith formation is most effective when it’s directly linked to our maturation process. The developmental tasks of life provide us with the framework and essential opportunities for living our lives with a purposeful, intentional, and integrative response to the grace that God continually showers on us” (Spring 2007 Lifelong Faith). I have noticed churches have moved from the language of “Christian education” to “spiritual formation” (which is a helpful start) toward an “ongoing faith formation…directly linked to our maturation process.” In a recent conversation with a friend and colleague of mine (Rev. Ken Hagler), we explored the distinction between faith formation and spiritual formation. The latter is directed more at individual growth, and the former is targeted toward the growth of the entire community. Whether you agree with our distinction or not, the move toward “formation” in regard to discipleship is certainly advantageous.

Education can too easily be equated with “head knowledge.” Formation is aimed at holistic transformation. Formation happens through the total life of the church: worship, nurture, and evangelism. Focusing on formation gets us closer to the goal of being conformed to the image of Christ, which is certainly more in line with the goal of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world…”

Reflection Questions

  • What do you think of the distinction between education and formation?
  • What do the offerings (classes, experiences, etc.) of your local church for adults say about how you think of adult formation?
  • How dependent are your adult classes on finding the best curriculum?

Optional Exercise

Discuss with an adult group: “What experience, topic, or activity might we need to help us grow in love of God and neighbor?”

Check out “Tool 1. Researching the Needs of People” (page 33 on for a more extensive list of interview questions for a focus group.