Adult Faith Formation: Asking the Hard
Adult faith formation in your parish is probably more successful than you realize. If you are like most catechetical ministers, you know that adult education should be a priority, but you wish it could be stronger in your community. In reality, you probably have a good measure of success already.
Indeed, there are problems. Offer opportunities for adult faith formation, and you will worry more about attendance than about the topic or the presenter. "We were hoping more people would come," almost every catechist repeats after almost every adult offering. But people are busy. People are tired. People hate to give up one more night, especially to attend an event that presumes they don't know enough. To attend is to repent for ignorance, and many folks won't make that admission public. It's much safer going someplace where they can just be entertained. And, God knows, we don't usually do that with adult education.
But, there are success stories. In one parish, we had success with several adult faith formation gatherings, but always for some perceptible reason. Bible study worked when we found that a small group attending the morning mass would stay afterwards once a week. At two Lenten catechumenate rites, the Presentations of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, attendance increased when we held them on weeknights when the pastor offered the parish a catechetical session on those texts. The weeklong parish mission succeeded because we involved virtually every organization in some phase of its preparation.
Even without success stories like these, adult faith formation is probably going better than you think - because it happens more often than you think. The religious formation of adults takes place in some very ordinary ways in a typical parish: homilies, marriage preparation, baptism preparation, the catechumenate, faith-sharing groups, scripture study, the bulletin, the diocesan newspaper, the parish website, spiritual conversation, and the texts and actions of the liturgy. All these events catechize adults. But none of them relies on the large group setting of an event we often consider to be "adult education."
The American bishops score a lot of points in their 1999 document, "Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation in the United States." The image in the title derives from the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-32). After the resurrection, two disciples walk unknowingly with Jesus while he catechizes them. Jesus breaks bread with them, and then disappears. When the disciples realize who it was, they ask, "Were not our hearts burning within us?" Every catechist knows that emotion. Our desire to share Christ with others inspires us to ministry.
The bishops' pastoral plan has a lot right. To begin with, they acknowledge that faith formation happens in groups of different sizes and on many different occasions, like those suggested above, and they thank those who promote it. They also affirm that catechesis happens under many guises. It does not always take place in a classroom, but in activities ranging from deeds of justice to reading in private.
Still, if your work includes adult education, you probably yearn for more success. Every parish deserves a viable adult faith formation program. Not everyone achieves it. Very few parishes devote adequate resources for it. Our resources support many other worthwhile activities, from the liturgy to the faith formation of children, but we all could do better with adults.
If you'd like to strengthen adult formation in your parish, the 1999 document will both help and frustrate you. It will help because it puts into words why adult formation is important and lays out strategies for making it so. It will frustrate because it does not tell you which topics you need, which catechists are the best, which programs work, or the top ten tips for getting people up from their couches, out of the gambling houses, and off the internet. It leaves a lot of that to you.
Nevertheless, the bishops' pastoral plan is a good place to start. Consider, for example, its Six Dimensions of Adult Faith Formation. These "are presented as content summaries to indicate what adult faith formation programs and opportunities seek to accomplish." They are the following:
These six dimensions should provide a good starting place for developing programs in your parish.
Do a quick self-study. Pull out a piece of paper or create a six-column table on your computer screen. Put one of these six dimensions at the head of each column. Now brainstorm answers to this question: "What is our parish doing right now that forms adults in faith according to this dimension?"
Under "Knowledge of Faith" include things like parent classes, phone calls, and the bulletin. Under "Liturgical Life" include things like prayer services and reflections on the Sunday lectionary. And so on. See what you come up with. Add any other efforts or communications you may not yet have mentioned.
Think about your chart according to the five approaches that the bishops mention in their document: liturgy, family or home-centered activities, small groups, large groups, and individual activities. Not every adult education opportunity takes place in a large group catechetical setting. Faith formation happens across many venues.
Is your chart looking full? There may be more formation in the parish than you realize.
But now, ask what is missing. Is one of the six dimensions shorter than the other five? Which ones get more attention than the others? What does this say about your priorities?
This exercise should reassure you about the amount of formation happening, but it may challenge you to expand its themes.
The question, of course, is how?
Once again, the bishops' document has it right. It will take personnel. It will take resources. It will take one person in charge. It will take a team of people to help. If those basics are in place, the rest can follow. If not, then before planning your next adult event, ask the hard questions about how to allocate funds and personnel to discern needs and execute solutions.
Adult faith formation deserves a central place in parishes. We all know that, and this document says it for us. It even quotes that juicy line from the bishops' 1972 statement "To Teach As Jesus Did" (43), that adult faith formation must be "situated not at the periphery of the Church's educational mission but at its center."
So, ask the hard questions. Does our parish budget allocate adequate funds for adult faith formation? If not, does that mean we are allocating too many funds for other ministries? What might those be? What steps must we take to give adult faith formation its place in the community?
Does our parish assign appropriate personnel for adult faith formation? Is there a staff person or a responsible volunteer who will oversee our needs? Have we found in our community those with the gifts and the desire to make adult faith formation come alive?
If the people, the budget, and the vision are in place, adults will meet Christ, and their hearts will burn with excitement.
Paul Turner is pastor of St. Munchin Church in Cameron, Missouri, and of its mission, St. Aloysius in Maysville. He writes "Bulletin Inserts" for Ministry and Liturgy magazine. His book, Your Child's Baptism, is available from Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago.