Where to Begin? Lessons from a Small Congregation

St. Mary’s Lutheran Church*, one of the congregations where we did our research, imparts three lessons for beginning an effective adult faith formation process.

Lesson 1: Create buy-in among current active members

After attending a conference led by Paul E. Hoffman, author of Faith Forming Faith, Pastor M followed Paul’s advice and offered a summer Scripture study group to introduce the small group process to current members. This group met between four and six times throughout the summer, engaging in the kind of Scripture meditation Kent described in his post from September 7, using questions about a biblical text that “allow the Word to be proclaimed so that the individual and the community embrace this story as their own account (confession) of who they are.” Because St. Mary’s is a small congregation, the participation by members over the summer, which people reported was very positive experience, was enough to convince the congregation as whole to venture on this new path.

Lesson 2: Begin with a group of inactive members

St. Mary’s boldly started with two small groups that fall. The first was an existing group of retired women who welcomed a young woman (living with one of the retirees because of a temporary housing crisis) into their study group. The young woman and retirees bonded closely over their weekly meditations on and sharing about the story of Jesus. The group convinced Pastor M of the power of the process to form community, especially across generations.

The second small group included inactive or” estranged” members who were connected enough to the congregation to participate in this new venture. Pastor M described the impact on one woman in this group, who was “being folded back in the community” of faith and was now (three years later), active in the congregation and in the adult faith formation process.

Lesson 3: Embrace the practice of serving a meal before the Scripture study

Pastor M, a self-described “convert” to this practice, commented more than once about the power of sharing food together as a way to form community. The goal of an adult catechumenate is more than strengthening the individual’s relationship to Jesus Christ. Baptism, through which the Trinity claims individual persons to be sons and daughters of God, also brings God’s newborn children into the community of faith. It’s within the church that each person engages in the life-long process of dying to sin and rising to Christ, of turning away from self-centeredness to become Christ-like witnesses of God’s love in the world. A shared meal introduces individuals into the joy of communal life and the spiritual support, the bearing of one another’s burdens, that St. Paul exhorts us to in Galatians (5:2).

These three lessons share a common theme: that the adult catechumenate is “not an instructional process, but a process of faith formation,” according to Pastor M. Of course, imparting information is part of the package, but the primary task is forming disciples. This is a lifelong task that at St. Mary’s began by strengthening the faith of committed members; that in the next step drew an estranged member back into the active life of the community and who was transformed into a disciple committed to sharing the Good News with others; and that over the course of three years of an adult faith formation process, always included a shared meal to create and foster community among the neophytes and their sponsors.


*A pseudonym

Photo (by Rhoda Schuler): St. Mary’s Lutheran Church during Lent