Garden Variety Christian Formation
Two Stabs at a Model of Formation – Good Try, But They Miss the Mark
Two very different models of formation have appeared on my laptop or tablet lately. Both had good points to make, but neither seemed to me a complete model of what formation in the 21st century needs to look like. Derek Olsen, in an Episcopal Café article, suggests that the resources needed are already available from a plethora of sources and simply need to be vetted, perhaps by a volunteer. Diana Butler Bass, in her excellent book Christianity After Religion, proposes mentoring relationships, whereby formation would take place one-on-one.
I am all in favor of online resources – I write them frequently. But these resources are simply tools of formation. Someone has to come up with the content, and content might be terrific; it might not be. Simply vetting the content will not make what we need for formation magically appear on the screen. One-on-one tutoring and mentoring is extremely useful, but collaborative learning and working and listening within groups is, I think, as much or perhaps more valuable. Thus, neither of these proposals provides direction for the ministry of formation or address current challenges and opportunities in this important work.
Formation as Gardening
Mature Christians don’t just happen; somebody has to nurture them, tend to them, help keep them watered, and then even help figure out what to do with the fruits of the harvest. Spiritual formation is akin to cultivation of our gardens – planting seeds, waiting patiently for sprouts to appear, keeping young plants well watered and fertilized, then watching in awe as the harvest feeds others.
Formation is cultivation of the human soul. Formation is growth. Formation is cultivation of our congregations towards the full stature of Christ to provide abundant life for all.
So . . . how does our garden grow?
- We need a plan. If we are going to provide Christian formation opportunities, we need to provide the good stuff. We need to give people what will help them grow, not a bunch of junk. What we think is luring children and adults with “fun!” and “entertainment” may actually be akin to feeding people with fatty, high sugar crap that will not help them grow in the Christian faith.
- Who will do the work to grow this spiritual food? Much like Episcopal congregations, gardens and farms come in every size – vegetables planted in pots or planters, small backyard gardens, larger community gardens, and even large plots that feed thousands. All of these pieces of the earth can produce food – just in different ways. So it is with the ministry of formation: growth can take place almost anyplace, as long as seeds are planted in good soil and there is plenty of light and sunshine. (Growth generally will NOT take place if seeds stay in the dark, never get watered and are left in the basement, out of sight – as some formation programs are.)
- If we start a garden, we do need some supplies. Even if you have great soil and an abundant water supply for your garden, you’ll likely need good seeds, a trowel, and a water hose or bucket to help you do your job. Formation, likewise, can best be done with quality seeds and tools.
- New technology makes new hybrids possible. We might want to consider grafting successful programs of the past onto new platforms of technology. Yet all these efforts take skill and time. Attempting these efforts would be akin to setting up a greenhouse or a trial garden – someone will need to provide the space and resources and give the gardeners a living wage to be able to sufficiently devote their time and skills to the task. Support of agriculture is often done by major state universities; the church might consider support of its own greenhouses to make sure proper development is done. (And leaving development up to for-profit corporations might not give us what we need. Making money and formation of Christians are usually not completely compatible.)
Workers in the Vineyard
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the workers who came along late in the day got the same pay as those who had been around a long time. Why? Perhaps these workers were able to arrive on the scene with fresh eyes and new insight. They could look at the efforts of the longtime workers and see what worked and what could work better. Fresh eyes and energy are priceless.
As we endeavor to tend our gardens, I would hope we would look at the scene with fresh eyes. We might have ideas for new crops, new techniques, and new-fangled tools that just might lead to renewed growth, to a renewed church.
Cynthia Coe is is a Christian Formation Consultant based in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is a member of the Diocese of East Tennessee Christian Formation Team and serves as a consultant to Episcopal Relief & Development and worked on two new children’s curricula: “The Abundant Life Garden Project” and “Real Heroes versus Rita Mosquito”. You can read her entire article at ETChristianFormation.