LOUISVILLE (PNS) — For the Rev. Olivia Stewart, participating in the Christian Formation Symposium — a gathering of seasoned practitioners from across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — was “awesome.”
“It made my heart really big,” she said. “I’m more excited now than I’ve been in a long time.”
An ordained PC(USA) minister, Stewart directs the Children’s and Youth Discipleship ministry at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
She was one of 30 practitioners invited to the event held at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky. The gathering was birthed out of the Christian Formation team at the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which serves the ministry areas of children, youth, collegiate, young adults, Christian education, and camp and conference centers ministries.
“We wanted to have a conversation with those who are doing excellent work in the church, across our ministry areas,” said the Rev. Dr. Jason Brian Santos, PMA Coordinator for Christian formation. “We wanted to see if we could identify a handful of Christian practices that we could emphasize in and weave through every age and stage — from birth to the end of life.”
As pastors, children and youth workers, campus ministers, and camp and conference leaders worked together with PMA staff on best practices and transitional approaches for Christian formation, they acknowledged a deeper truth of their experiences in the wider church.
“We need help in our presbyteries and churches around what Presbyterian Christian formation is about,” said Ryan Timpte, Director of Children’s Ministry at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church in California. “Many still think of it only as Christian Education or the Sunday School hour.”
“In my context, we have done a great job of making graduates of programs, not lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ,” added the Rev. Stephen Emick, Pastor of Spiritual Formation and Discipleship at First Presbyterian Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “We still think and talk programmatically because that’s what we know — what we can control and quantify.”
But as they listened together to one another’s voices and to how the Holy Spirit was leading them in their conversation across what has been “silos of ministry,” they discovered that maybe this “daunting task” in front of them was possible. They had a goal to identify key practices for life-long Christian formation.
“Every table I’ve sat at has been in agreement with where we need to go,” said Ryan McKenzie, Programming Director for Zephyr Point, a camp and conference center on Lake Tahoe. “Maybe it’s not as tough, as we think it is.”
Stewart agreed that hearing all the voices in the group seeking to find common practices for every age and stage in the Christian life was incredibly hopeful.
“Our ministries and the way we program to children, adults, youth and young adults have been so separated,” said Stewart, adding they “are all moving towards integration, to creating environments where we can practice our belief that all of us — including children — have the capacity to worship. I’m more hopeful that through the common practices we identify all of us can learn from each other, including adults from children.”
Nearing the end of the two-day symposium the group whittled its list of nearly 50 words describing Christian practices and formational activities down to five. In alphabetical order, they are hospitality, prayer, Sabbath, service and story-telling.
“Keep in mind this is only the beginning of the conversation,” said Santos. “The next task is to unpack how each practice contributes to Christian identity and formation, while at the same time attending to how we transition folks from one stage to the next. Simply put, we’re rethinking the whole process of how we make disciples through age and stage ministry.”
“I think this is really important work,” said Jessica Tate, the Executive Director of Next Church. I’m grateful to the Christian Formation Team for pulling us together to reflect on the 10,000-foot view, around questions of faith and salvation.”
by Paul Seebeck, Presbyterian News Service