Turning the church faith formation model on its ear
Written by Connie N. Larkman
February 3, 2014

The Rev. Ivy Beckwith thinks everybody has it within them to radically change the church approach to faith formation -- you just have to put on your thinking cap. Think intentionally about why your faith works for you -- and share your story.

Sharing stories is one component of a new way of approaching faith formation that Beckwith brings to the United Church of Christ. As team leader of the UCC's Faith Formation Ministry, Beckwith says her role is "helping churches imagine what could be in faith formation, instead of perpetuating what is."

More programs are not the answer, Beckwith believes. More involvement with each other is.

"Churches that are serious about facilitating positive faith formation understand that it is not about finding a better program or a top notch resource but that faith formation is a way of being church," Beckwith says.

She challenges churches to step off in faith, and do things differently. For example: in a concrete, educational model of faith formation, for many churches of whatever type, Sunday school is the mainstay for children. It's a first step to formally educate people into spirituality. Even though you add prayer and Bible study, it's still essentially school. Beckwith would rather see churches use a formational model. Instead of teaching the Bible and interpreting the message, tell the Bible story and "peel it back" -- find ways to reflect and let the children interpret what the story means to them. That way, it becomes personal.

"What I hope to do is help people, help churches, change the attitude in how you think about faith, and nurturing the faith within," Beckwith says. "Churches that are serious about facilitating positive faith formation realize that it is not found in copying exactly what some one else does but grows, instead, out of the ethos and culture of that individual faith community."

Creating age appropriate experiences and sharing them as a church community, Beckwith believes, can be an effective tool.

She cites one example that she used as minister to children and families at Congregational Church UCC of New Canaan, Conn. During the services on Children's Worship Sunday each month, worship was more experiential, and that made it reflective and personal for not just the children, but for members across generations.

During the Children's Chapel celebration of Epiphany, for example, a manger was set up in the sanctuary, and large cardboard cut outs served as the wise men. Members of the choir dressed up as the three kings, and sang during the service. The children cut out stars and each wrote on a star their gift for Jesus. The stars were left in the manger as gifts.  Beckwith later used the children's stars to create a bulletin board for the entire church, so all members could reflect on what the children wanted to give to Jesus.

"Churches that are serious about facilitating positive faith formation know that it happens through the interaction of different generations," Beckwith says. "These congregations are intentional about bringing the generations together and helping them to build relationships to each other and tell their stories to each other."

Finding faith, in Beckwith's mind, happens in three spheres -- during intergenerational interaction in a faith community, in the home with parents, and in worship -- which is age appropriate and pans across generations. In each of those three spheres, rituals, stories and relationships are all important components.

"The family is highly important in learning about faith, she says. "Parents want to talk about faith, but often don't know how. It's sharing stories -- why we value certain things, why we go to church as a family. The story behind that ritual, why being part of a faith community is important to Mom, for example, needs to be shared.

"Churches that are serious about facilitating positive faith formation are churches who honor story -- both biblical and personal -- and who understand the power of our imaginations infused with God’s spirit to take those stories and make them transformative, helping the community to love God and live in the way of Jesus.

"It's not about using spiritual formation to bring people back to church. It's about using faith to help people see what church is."


Ms. Connie N. Larkman
Managing Editor & News Director
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115