It’s no wonder that most pastors and church folk would like to never think or have to talk about the political/social divide in our society ever again. It is literally tearing churches – and pastors – apart. Accepting the warring categories in our culture as they infect the church, and fighting things out on those terms, is impossible. It will never lead to wholeness. I believe the church is urgently being called today to play a role in this divide, but on very different terms.
The best way I know to talk about faith formation is to imagine it as equipping. We need to be deeply formed as followers of Jesus Christ. We need to understand that the love and grace of God is part of God’s intention for the world. Crucially, we need to experience the claims of discipleship as re-ordering all our loyalties. Faith does not dissolve allegiance to family, community, or nation, but all these are ordered and informed by loyalty to God and the values we see in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Learning how to live out these values in the world is the essential work of faith formation. I believe this is life-long work – equipping ourselves to live faithfully in the world.
So much discourse in churches today – among pastors, in sermons, among church leaders – is too focused on church things. Explanations of why we picked that text for church. Explanations of why we choose to do this in worship, but not that. It’s almost like we have become a bunch of people who have gained “proficiency at being church.” When we gather, all we can talk about is…church. In a world that has completely divested from faith or religion, this malformation leaves us with no cultural conversation partners. What needs to change in our faith formation, so that we go in search of these cultural partners – outside the church – as much as inside? At its most relevant, faith formation is missional. It is crucial that we see faith formation as not just “Church 101.”
In this light, most pastors and church folk are struggling with values that go far beyond “masks or no masks,” “vax or anti-vax,” or even “Trump or anyone-but-Trump.” We are reaping what we have sowed by not investing in life-long, robust faith formation for every person.
There was a time when the church was a protected group in culture. Sundays (and often Wednesday nights) were held open with no counterprogramming so that churches could do their thing with zero competition. Those days are long gone, but churches have been slow to adapt to the fact that we must now compete in the marketplace of ideas if we want our adherents to continue to prioritize what churches offer. What church folk need, most of all, is equipping to live their life in the world. Why do we keep talking only in terms of church – church calendar, church language, church jargon, church practice – when that is just a small fraction of the life we all lead?
And, most urgently, in this moment, the world is waiting. It is waiting for church folks to show up in the public marketplace of ideas – not to attempt conversion – but to share the “reason of the hope that is within us” and to offer love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control, alongside all the good contributions of others in our culture, as we seek – together – to repair and mend our social fabric. This is where we will both learn and deploy faith formation for the 21st century. The world, in all its complexity and need, is starving for what we can offer.