CE in the Land of Pandemic Restrictions

The dedicated folks of Christian Education want all children and teens to know that while we can not be together physically in groups of joy-filled Christian fellowship, we are all together in spirit, joined through the simple mandate given so long ago: to Love God and to Love Others!

What better way to show our love than to cut and tie fabric? The Fleece Blanket Project, to benefit those in need through Action, Inc of Gloucester is in full swing with enthusiastic participation. Safeguards and sanitizing always, kits have been distributed, blankets are getting created and families are chatting about those living under circumstances less than ideal. As we approach Advent, we tie each knot and remember the less than ideal conditions a young Jesus was found in. We are not just creating a cozy gift. We are recognizing the divine spark in both the givers and the recipients. Holy, Holy, indeed.

Families are also invited to share in the glory of this Advent season by participating in a download package created by Illustrated Ministries. The package will come via email with weekly enhancement ideas and challenges to share with your family no matter the configuration. All adults? No worries. Just say “Yes”. To RSVP to this unique opportunity, contact Jeanne Westcott via email at Jeanne.fpchurch@gmail.com

Downloads full of activities, ideas and devotionals will arrive to your email for the first Sunday in Advent, November 29. Each week of Advent is represented in one download. So simple to remember The Reason for the Season!

In addition, if you have not spoken with Jeanne directly, please feel free to contact her at 413-328-4802 to tell her about your hopes and dreams for Sunday School and Youth Fellowship. Dream big! Program offering decisions will be made with community input so let’s chat.

The Best Practices of Faith Formation Part 1

Sunday School and Youth Groups have been the prepared and fertile soil beds for planting the seeds of faith, community awareness, empathic development, and church polity for as long as any of us can remember. This, in conjunction with the faith practices of the family, have served children in much the same way that our educational system has. As teachers and supportive adults, we have presented the A B C’s of God’s Word and modeled the characteristics of Christian life to the best of our abilities. At every turn, we hoped and prayed that the messages we tried to impart would indeed be accepted and, perhaps even, devoured by the young minds and souls before us. With enough repetition, and a few games and artistic endeavors thrown in for good measure, it is always our greatest wish that the children before us will acquire the heart and mind to want to know God and to follow in the ways of Jesus.

Research and observation have given Christian Education some ideas about methodology to help us meet our primary goal, which is, in fact, faith formation and spiritual awareness. One of the most enlightening ideas, although seemingly obvious, is that children, no matter their age, are already having an experience of God. They are already experiencing “the sacrament of the present moment”, a phrase used by theologian Jean-Pierre de Caussade to describe a child’s full awareness of the presence of God. They know inherently and sensorially the essence of relationship, of belonging. A feeling of connection to one’s self, to parents, to family, to the material world and to God is the basis for feeling comfortable and receptive with teachers and all those who minister.

Another of these transcendent ideas is that children like questions. I realize that this isn’t a radical piece of information. Spending an hour with any 3-year-old will tell you how much children like to ask questions. The important part is that adults are under the impression that their primary job is to effectively answer all and any of these questions. Adults are sometimes uncomfortable with unanswered questions. We like to tie up loose ends and take advantage of teachable moments. Children don’t mind having a question go unanswered. In fact, it is in keeping with the previous concept of relational consciousness to present a child’s question back to them. For example, in a recent conversation about the greatness of God, a child inquired, “If God is so great, why didn’t he save all the dinosaurs?” In teacher mode, I might have responded with the science of species development or with the esoteric “God’s plans are not always understood by mere mortals like us”. In relationship mode, I instead answered in a way that is foreign to my teacher self and said, “Why do you think God might have let the dinosaurs die off?”. The conversation that followed matters little but the 8 or 9 minutes of fostering relationship that took place served as an example of what discipleship is: love in action.

In the next installment of this piece, we will peek at analytic vs. experiential learning and how, we, the entire church family, can minister to our youngest participants and how they can help us understand how we are all part of the ongoing story of God’s love for humanity!

Best Practices in Faith Formation: Part 2

In the previous installment of this piece, I presented two pivotal concepts that are the foundation for the “how-to’s” of Christian Education. The first, was that all children are experiencing God, right now, regardless of what we do or do not. The second, was that living with a question is a welcome situation and one that adults will need to befriend to effectively guide the spiritual formation of our charges. These two concepts, to support the efforts and direction of Faith Formation programming, must first be merged to present a new model for our child and youth leaders as partners with our kids. We will minister as guides who walk together on the path of discipleship. This model of teacher serves the idea that children are already members of the kingdom of God as children and that they need not reach an age of reason or accountability to effectively walk this path.

So how do we serve the children and youth who are these wonderfully creative agents of the world, made in the image of God, ready to walk the path that holds no age restrictions? We walk with them and share with them in child-honoring ways. These ways include the knowledge that transcendent experiences of faith do not always translate into words. Given that, as guides we need to provide a variety of avenues for disciples-in-training to express their experiences and pose their questions. Words alone aren’t going to do the trick.

The lecture model, appealing to the cognitive exclusively, is the least effective learning method in our repertoire. In fact, when children listen alone, it is determined that they remember a mere 10 percent of what has been imparted. When we add visual learning to the mix, including pictures, music and maps, the children’s retention increases to 60 percent. Include hands-on experiences such as singing, building, competitions, puppets, and active research, and the student retains 90 percent of the intended concept. Experiential planning honors the way young minds learn and allows guides to share their own experiences of doubt and confidence, trial and resolution, negotiation, and compromise, as they work on any given project, side-by-side. Equally important is for guides and teachers to open themselves to receiving the stories of God that children share, as they choose to, as we respect the individuality of the child’s experiences while affirming them as real and legitimate members of the faith community. As the children teach us, they learn even more, as do we!

Recalling the words of Jesus, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Mt. 11:25).  May we all minister while together, we disciples do as was intended by our Creator: strive to be ever more His Image.

In the last installment of this piece next month we will examine a plan for intentional faith formation to include all seekers from birth onward. Until then, look for God in every face, and don’t forget the mirror!

Best Practices in Faith Formation: Part 3

As I come to the end of this three-part series, I recall an experience I had with a very brilliant and rather precocious fourth grader. After telling my students a detailed biography about the adventures of a sea-faring lad, this young man raised his hand and said, “Why should we believe what you say? How do we know you’re telling us the truth?”. I was  initially a bit wounded, thinking that my students should trust me and take what I tell them as fact without question. In a moment of silent consideration though, I realized that this was an opportunity I might never have again. I cleared my throat and said,” Well, how might we fact check this information?”

This began a practice in my classroom that lasted throughout my time as their teacher and guide, until they graduated to new institutions of learning after grade eight. I am still thankful for the moment of clarity and for the quieting of my ego that day. The entire scenario could have gone so many ways, but none other would have resulted in the students taking responsibility for their own knowledge in such an effective way. We, in partnership, lived with emerging questions and engaged ourselves as learners on a journey of knowledge and discovery.

Walking the path of discipleship is very much the same in process and property. The lifelong journey includes information (what we know and believe), formation (who we are and what we are becoming), and transformation (how the world is changed because of who we are and what we do). It also seeks to find Christian identity, spiritual discipline, and biblical literacy. Beginning as soon as we learn that the faces we consistently see are the ones we come to trust and respond to, we are prepared to grow in faith. The whole church and all its ministries together are responsible for the formation and nurture of its seekers wherein the spiritual developmental phase of any given individual is acknowledged and honored.

In our planning and implementation, utilizing as many experiential learning modules as possible, we devise and implement programs and offerings that meet the spiritual maturity of each person and then engage them to grow both as disciples and as a community. We examine our current offerings and tools and seek to adjust those that fall short of that which does not help the participants know and experience God or to grow and serve as disciples. Utilizing our congregational strengths, accepting that we all minister to one another and that our Faith Formation never ends, (even at Confirmation), we integrate generationally and share our stories of grace joyfully. Approaching our Christion education in this way allows us to walk together in respect and gives the individual the freedom to think critically and creatively, using these gifts from God to better know ourselves as God sees us; as Beloved Children All.

Christian Faith Formation is an active partnership whereby followers become leaders and our spiritual essence, which we have housed from birth, is given opportunity to blossom with respect, love and creative participation in our faith homes. Listen to the seekers and hear their questions. Feel their pain and their struggle for reconciliation between known and understood. Offer a study, a mission, or an experience that you are passionate about. Share your story of your Faith Formation journey. Remember, as you engage in this process, what it feels like to be close to God.

“Look! I am doing a new thing: now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it”? Is 43:19