Garden Variety Christian Formation
By Cynthia Coe
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
As I was watering my little springtime garden and pondering what I could constructively say about this topic, I found a model for formation right smack in front of me – a garden. Jesus taught using gardening images: the mustard seed, the true vine, workers in the vineyard…the list goes on and on. Even the wine and bread of our Eucharist are agricultural products of wheat, water, and grapes.
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. Leaving folks to simply read whatever they find on the web seems to me much like walking into the forest to get your food and taking your chances – you might get fed, you might not. I sense that this is what happens in many of our parishes – adult (and even children and youth) formation can be a haphazard affair, based on the current interests of those in charge and the availability of speakers to come give a talk.
This may seem radical, but perhaps we need to take a look at what we want to “grow.” What does a “mature Christian” look like? What do we consider nourishing “food” for all Christians? And don’t we think we need to provide this “food” on an ongoing basis to maintain health and help our flocks grown towards the full stature of Christ?
In planning a garden, we might first decide what we want to serve, what we could reasonably grow in our soil, and how much time and space we have to devote to the task. Then, we would plant seeds (ordering them online, buying them at the local garden center, or even using heirloom seeds saved from the past). We would put these seeds in good soil, keep them watered, make sure the young plants had plenty of space to grow, and protect them from the weeds, pests, and wild animals. (There is, of course, no guarantee that our plan will “take.” A lot is left up to the Holy Spirit and can be a mysterious process. Yet we will grow nothing if we do not plant seeds to begin with and undergo proper watering and maintenance.)
What we don’t want is a diet of twinkies and junky canned foods. 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.
Many Gardens, Many Gardeners
Who will do the work to grow this spiritual food? That question could be answered in a multitude of ways and could vary in every little piece of God’s kingdom. 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.)
Workers in the vineyard (or gardens) might be professionals, volunteers, or those who just have the passion for the work – as long as they are mindful of their jobs and get the work done. Do they have to be Master Gardeners? No, but some good videos, books, and the availability of Master Gardeners to give advice would not be a bad thing. Like all gardening work, it’s the time and attention that matters. (And time and attention to the ministry of formation may be sorely lacking in many congregations.)
Each garden, no matter its size, will have to be tended on the local level. When push comes to shove, someone needs to get down in the dirt and work. These tasks cannot be done remotely. Yes, we can buy our spiritual food in the market places, but that gets expensive (and we may not get the nutrition we really need). Could we hire gardeners? Sure. There is absolutely no reason why we couldn’t hire professional teachers to do the skilled, dedicated work required to help people grow – schools do it all the time.
Seed Companies and Garden Centers
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. There are good resources and not-so-good resources for formation, just as there are fruitful seed varieties and others that might not germinate or might not be quite what we need. And as much as “programs” are dissed by the “faith is caught” school of thinking, the reality is that formation needs tried and true tools such as teaching methodologies to get the job done. (Just leaving the task to your own devices might be like trying to garden without a trowel or a defined garden space; you could do it, but it might not be effective or efficient.)
Just as heirloom seeds are growing in popularity, reclamation of traditions of the past might be seeds we would want to plant in our gardens. 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.
Recommended Resource of the Month: Diana Butler Bass’ new book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (available online for about $15 hardcover and about $13 e-book). This is her best book, in my humble opinion – very insightful and thoughtful. Anyone who cares where Christianity is going should read it.