I see four broad ways in which parishes are doing adult formation — lecture, interesting conversation, experiential, and entertainment.
The first two are probably the most used. Clergy and lay educators are familiar with lectures from their own experience in college and seminary. So, we do what we have seen. Lectures are useful and necessary adjuncts to experiential methods but on their own they are most often a poor fit for the learning needs of people. Interesting conversation is often very helpful in feeding people’s desire for inclusion and connection with others. On it’s own it will in time become narcissistic but as part of experiential programs it is essential.
Formation as entertainment is all too often what parishes end up with when they squeeze things in between liturgies on Sunday. It’s not really enough time to develop proficiency. It also cuts across the time in which we build a sense of community through informal time with one another. There’s nothing wrong with showing slides or a video of “my trip to the Holy Land.” We just need to remember that such offerings don’t do much in shaping healthy parish culture or developing competence in spiritual practices.
Experiential methods (*see below) are going to have the most impact if we want people to develop Christian proficiency. They need the opportunity to actually try a practice and then in a disciplined manner reflect on, and learn from, the experience. That process is the one in which people can learn to engage the Eucharist, say the Daily Office, find effective ways of being reflective about life, participate in community and serve others.
I find it useful to consider the matter in terms of pastoral and ascetical theology — What kind of oversight and leadership, structure, and spiritual life do we need in the parish church to effectively form Christians, in our tradition, for this age? How might we effectively and efficiently engage the task of living the Christian life and reflecting upon it? What kind of person and human community do we want to form? How might the parish contribute to that task? What are the practices that will best do that in our time? What are the “spiritual life maps” that offer us an integrated and systemic approach?
I’ll play out one aspect of this. I’ll use the spiritual map from the In Your Holy Spirit books —Eucharist, Daily Office, Community, Refection, Service. I’d ask parish clergy to explore these two issues:
- How might this parish help those members who wish to become proficient in living the Christian life do so within a three year period? What mix of training, coaching, integrating practice into the routines of life, and reflecting and learning from the experience help the person become proficient?
- How might the parish: a) establish a climate that supports and nudges people toward apostolic faith and practice (without being heavy handed in the process, while also accepting people where they are on the journey) and b) set in people’s minds the five areas of the spiritual map? Of course if we manage to accomplish the first that will helps us with the second. A core of people with basic competence in living the Christian life will help set the needed climate and will over time influence the way others think about the areas of proficiency that are central to that life.
What I come up with when I consider those questions, and then return to the issue of how to use the various modes of educating and training, is the need to place the emphasis on experiential methods. The parish needs:
- A Eucharistic Practices session in which participants get to actually engage a practice and then reflect upon it.
- Programs in which people explore ways to say the Office as part of the routine of daily life. For example, for a week they try an approach they think will work for them and then they are helped to assess how that went for them. They are then helped to modify the approach as seems best.
- Opportunities to consider how they participate the parish community and the other communities they are part of. If they wish an chance to stretch themselves in how they participate.
- An exploration of practices that for them as they attempt to gain perspective and insight in daily living as well as practices to effectively connect daily life with faith and the presence of God.
- Ways to have people see how they are already serving in the routines of daily life — in family and with friends, in the workplace and civic life. The starting place is organic — in as much they have been incorporated into the love of Christ they will express that in daily life. They can also be helped to consider ways in which they might serve others within the parish (by joining a daily office team, by helping with coffee hour). A few will also be interested in how they might join with others in the parish in acts of service for people outside the parish. However, it is critical that we keep the emphasis on the daily life of the baptized. That's 99% of how the parish serves the world.
All five items to be done in a manner where the person: learns actual practices, has the experience of reflecting on experience and making changes based on that reflection, and is provided with coaching along the way.
*About learning from experience and spiritual practice
It is a core assumption that we do not learn from experience itself; we learn from disciplined reflection on experience. The learning process is really one of learning about our experience from a structured reflection on our experience. The method is sometimes called --- E - I - A - G.
E – Experience
I – Identify
A – Analyze
G – Generalize
This has been a core learning method in experiential education. With adaptation it has been used in team development and Organization Development efforts.
Experience – Actually doing the spiritual practice. Not just talking about reverence but bowing to the altar or to one another. Not just adding about the Daily Office but doing it for a week.
The reflection on the experience then has three phases.
Identify – This is a description of what actually happened.
Analyze – We explore and examine the experience that has been identified. We may look at the impact or effect of the behavior(s) involved; share how we felt, what we thought, how we acted, etc. Look at our judgments – was the behavior helpful or hindering? Analysis may include relating the experience to some theory, model or research from pastoral or asctical theology of the behavioral sciences.
Generalize – An opportunity to state what we have learned; to generalize what has been learned into other situations. Based on the analysis, we can say what we might do in a similar situation, what we might have done differently in this situation, what conclusions we have drawn, etc.