If the United Methodist Church is serious about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we’d better get serious about adult faith formation. As a former colleague used to say: "You can’t teach what you don’t know; you can’t lead where you won’t go."
In other words, disciples encourage others to be disciples. If we are not seeking to follow Jesus Christ in our own lives, we will not be inclined or particularly influential in advocating Christian discipleship as a way of life.
Adult faith formation is a key factor in equipping adults as disciples of Jesus Christ. Adult faith formation takes place in worship, Bible study, retreats, small groups, classes and any setting that enables adults to practice spiritual disciplines and reflect on their lives in light of Scripture, tradition and context. For too long we have settled for semi-regular attendance at worship and little-to-no participation in other settings to deepen adults’ relationship with God and neighbor.
The good news is that numerous congregations throughout the denomination have begun to focus attention on this gap. They are identifying core knowledge, skills and experiences necessary for mature Christian faith and are engaging adults in the "Methodist way."
Here are some lessons these congregations have learned about effective adult faith formation:
Plan intentionally and build in accountability. Congregations that take discipleship seriously, intentionally plan for adult faith formation. They develop a body of experiences that encourage adults to grow in faith and live as disciples of Jesus Christ. These congregations are clear about their identity and purpose, making connections between these experiences and our Wesleyan understanding of God’s sanctifying grace. They have explicit expectations that adults will be accountable for learning and growing in faith.
Provide multiple entry points. One size does not fit all. Adults have varying experiences with church, the Bible and the Christian faith. Vital congregations offer experiences designed for newcomers, for mature Christians and for people in between these two groups. They sponsor classes and other small groups at a variety of times throughout the week. They provide different types of activities to engage people’s emotions and minds, such as study, conversation, prayer, outreach, spiritual direction and more.
Build on adults’ life experience. Adults do not arrive at worship or a small group setting with a blank slate. They have knowledge and experience that has already shaped their understanding of the world and that affects their interpretation of faith. Vital congregations help adults identify, reflect on and make meaning of significant life experience and how that experience relates to their understanding of discipleship.
Emphasize connections between faith and daily life. Some models of faith formation have focused primarily on information. These models have sometimes neglected to help adults think about the meaning and application of the information. Vital congregations expect transformation in the lives of congregants. Together adults engage in an on-going cycle of action, reflection and action.
Communicate often through various means. Adults are busy with the demands of everyday life. They need to hear ideas reiterated often for the ideas to be remembered. Vital congregations have pastors who preach about spiritual formation, who teach and/or participate in adult small groups and who encourage adults to discern what they need to continue growing in faith. These congregations use print, electronic and other means of communication to promote opportunities for growing in faith and living as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
In 1786, John Wesley wrote: "I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power."
If we are serious about Christian discipleship in 2011, adult faith formation is a crucial element for experiencing the power that Wesley described. Our congregations can live the "Methodist way," not only in form, but in power, in passion and in purpose!
Dr. Krau is director of adult formation and discipleship at the Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, Tenn.