Spiritual Formation for Adults: Interview with Dr. Holly Inglis

Holly Inglis

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Holly Inglis, primarily on the topic of adult education. Dr. Inglis is Church Educator at Wellshire Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. A graduate of Earlham School of Religion, Dr. Inglis went on to receive her D. Ed. Min. from Columbia Theological Seminary. At Wellshire, she is responsible for ministries to children from birth through fifth grade and their families, as well as for adult education. She is also a curriculum consultant for Sparkhouse. Along with this interview, here are her five tips for creating memorable adult formation programs.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a self-proclaimed church geek, a lover of labyrinths, an advocate for nurturing faith at the root in the home, and a believer that the church should be a laboratory for nurturing faith so that it can be practiced in the world.  I have served as a co-pastor with my husband for 5 years and as a church educator for 20 years. 

How did you get involved in adult spiritual formation?

I taught my first adult Bible study while I was in college.  From that point, I realized I found joy in teaching adults and being present for ‘aha’ moments in their spiritual formation.  Over the course of my ministry it has been the opportunity to teach and lead adults that has continually deepened my own spiritual growth and brought me the greatest joy.  What ignited my love of teaching was discovering that by teaching I learned so much.  I hope I pass that excitement along to all those who are engaged in teaching. 

One of the things we found when we developed CnC for Adults is that most adults have never had a chance to explore their faith since their own confirmation. Has that been your experience as well? 

I would agree in part.  I’m not sure most adults have never had a chance but I would say that most adults have not seen the need to explore their faithA lot of adult education seems to focus on exploring the application of our faith to life but rarely seems to directly offer the opportunity to reexamine the core beliefs of our faith, to examine the biblical stories we may have learned in Sunday School, or the prayers and liturgies we say each week but may not understand or have appropriated into our own life of faith. 

It’s sort of like having a minimum wage job as a teenager and never looking for a different job or never getting any increases.  Most of us would certainly not be satisfied with that for very long, yet we are satisfied to maintain our understandings of how God works, how humanity acts, and how we relate to one another that we were either taught or adopted in earlier stages of our lives. 

Another thing that has come up is that many adults are coming to Christianity for the very first time. We cannot assume they received any basic Christian formation at any time. How do you work with newcomers to the faith? And how do you meet the needs of those who are brand new along with those who have been brought up in the Christian tradition?

Unfortunately, this is not a problem common to too many churches I know.  However, we have had many adults who have come from other denominations but have not participated in church in a long time.  They are essentially newcomers to the faith as well.  The tricky thing is to offer ‘101’ level Christian education opportunities without making the participants feel stupid or that you are dumbing content down for them.*  

We’ve found that newcomers and longer term members alike are hungry for basic in-depth Bible information.  This is not the same as Bible study, which most newcomers shy away from because they believe they won’t know enough.  We’ve had success mixing newcomers and longer term members in intensive studies such as Disciple or Kerygma year-long courses. [Ed. note: I also hear good things about The Bible Challenge, available from our publisher, Forward Movement.]

We try very hard to watch our Christian lingo in publicity and in our educational offerings so that we don’t drive newcomers away because they don’t understand words like ‘discipleship,’ or ‘stewardship,’  Instead we use words like ‘being and acting like a follower of Jesus,’ or ‘generosity.’

An important aspect of adult spiritual formation is service.  Serving others and acts of justice are a beautiful way for newcomers to get connected.  We make an effort to invite new attenders and new members to join in service and to make sure they are connected to someone serving with them who has been a Christian for a bit longer.  

Overcome the mindsetWhat are some of the questions adults are asking? What issues are they facing? And how do you address them?

Adults are asking, “What difference does it make?”  What difference does it make that my church is Presbyterian or Lutheran or Episcopalian?  What difference does it make that we talk about serving others every week?  What difference does my faith make in my daily life, in my social life, in my family life, in my job?  What difference does it make if I attend worship one time or four times a month? 

The issues adults face are as varied as the reasons they participate in a congregation.  The most common issue we see is the pressure of time for adults with children.  On average, our families with children attend worship 1.3 Sundays per month.  In a recent survey, among a variety of activities that nurture faith, a majority of our families identified “regular family meals” as their top priority.  Among the next highest priorities were “praying with your child” and “serving others as a family”.  One of the lowest priorities was “attending Sunday morning Christian education.” This survey told us that adults want to give time to nurturing faith formation for themselves and their children, but that Sunday morning may not be the ideal or best time.  It also told us that gathering around the table was important. 

We set out to do several things:  adjust our expectations of adult attendance on Sunday morning, figure out ways to be present (not physically) with our families as they gather around their tables, and work at making clearer connections between the family table at home and the family table at church, reinforcing the importance of gathering at the Lord’s table regularly and acknowledging that when you are not around our table we miss you.  We are in the process of creating Table Talk for families of all configurations to do together as they gather for a meal and other creative faith formation activities that tie “table to Table.”

I believe other issues adults face involve the connection of their faith to their life transitions, such as downsizing, loss of a job, retirement, empty nesting, divorce and more.  I think the church could do much more to address these transitions, beginning with acknowledging them and offering seminars to address not only the practical aspects, but the spiritual aspects of these milestones as well.  We offer an annual workshop called, “Living Well, Dying Well,” which looks at the practical issues of dying and addresses the spiritual issues of the family and of the one approaching death. 

What works well for adult formation? And what doesn’t work?

To work well, adult formation needs to be flexible in content, style and location.  Sunday School on Sunday morning is no longer the primary delivery system for most adults.  We must take into account technology, social media, on-demand media, and most importantly what neuroscience has shown us over the past 10-15 years about how we learn.  This means offering content online for individual use, offsite for those who may be uncomfortable entering a church building or as a means for outreach, small groups for those who seek intentional community, service-learning opportunities for those who learn best hands-on.  It’s a full time job!

Effective content needs to be delivered in a variety of styles.  Not every volunteer teacher is comfortable with leading a discussion or lecturing for 30 minutes.  Matching your teaching style with the content is important.  Is a Bible study best taught through lecture or through group self-discovery, or both?

Adult faith formation works well when leaders understand some basics of faith development.  I’m speaking of more than just some Piaget-Erikson type of development but some general understanding of James Fowler, John Westerhoff and other developmental theorists is helpful.  If we realize that not everyone understands God, the Bible, faith, or church the same way we do, perhaps we can overcome the mindset that there is one way to approach faith formation.    

Evaluating the needs of your learners is important; some learn best in a content-driven format while others learn best in a group-process format.  One-size fits all mentality doesn’t work well anymore.

*We're totally biased, but this is exactly what CnC for Adults was designed to do: offer the basics without dumbing things down and allow people to go deeper and explore their faith from an adult perspective. Please check out our sample material in the sidebar, or visit the CnC for Adults webpage.