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Faith Formation: How Does It Happen?

Note: this is part three in a series on the principles undergirding Christian Education.  You can read the first installment here and the second one here.

One theme comes across again and again in the study of how faith is passed on to children and adolescents—the whole life of the church is involved in educating people about their faith.

The classic work is John H. Westerhoff, III’s Will Our Children Have Faith?  He enumerates eight areas of congregational life involved in educating our children:

  1. Ritual participation
  2. The environment—the physical space of the building and how our senses are engaged in it
  3. How the community orders time, including what it highlights from its history
  4. How we encourage people to spend their time and use their talents
  5. The ways we interact with one another, including how business is conducted and decisions are made
  6. Role models
  7. The spiritual disciplines or activities that we are encouraged to practice regularly, and
  8. The language that is used

Notice that he hasn’t listed Sunday school or Vacation Bible School or church camp.  Those are all specific programs in which the faith formation can occur, but it is occurring at all times and everywhere through those eight dimensions of communal life.

Developmental theories have informed us that all children are born with a faith capacity that has to be encouraged through relationships with other people.  How the faith develops is influenced by the cultural context and the emotional and attitudinal contexts in which the child is raised.  If they experience families and communities that are safe, hospitable, and open, then they are most likely to develop a mature, outward-oriented faith.

And though these days we aren’t as focused on clearly defined developmental stages, it remains clear that the faith needs of children and adolescents change as they grow.  Experiencing the faith through play, feeling a sense of belonging, being able to search and doubt, experiment and ask questions, putting their faith into action, and finding something to commit to and be passionate about, are all part of the growing process.

I’ve learned two key lessons from Kenda Creasy Dean, who is one of the best writers on youth ministry.  One is that adolescents learn best not through a program, but through relationships.  So, the way they learn faith is by watching it modeled by someone they trust, respect, and admire.

The other lesson is that teenagers are deeply passionate.  They want a faith that matters.  They want to be a part of something that is worthy of committing themselves too.  A nonchalant attitude to faith with teenagers is the exact opposite of what the developmental research shows inspires them.  They want to see a passionate, meaningful, impactful faith.  The key is to model that for them and invite them to practice it with us.

Let me return to John Westerhoff, who summarizes this approach to faith formation:

Christian education requires that we help persons regain their God-given ability to wonder and create; to dream and fantasize, imagine and envision; to sing, paint, dance, and act.  It requires a recovery of our natural ability for ecstasy; our appreciation of the new, the marvelous, the mysterious; and a sensual and kinesthetic awareness.

In my next column I’ll write about why faith formation of children matters so much. 


421 South 36th Street, Omaha Nebraska, 68131
(Located at the corner of 36th and Harney Streets)






First Central Congregational Church