I attended a workshop on Stealth Christian Formation offered by the Revs. Scott Gunn and Tim Schenck, aka the Supreme Executive Committee for Lent Madness, which they presented at the CEEP Conference a couple of weeks ago and asked if I could share their information more generally. They graciously agreed. Here is an overview of what they said.
Too often, they noted, traditional Christian Formation programs in churches involve tomato aspic. Or if not tomato aspic, some collection of casseroles at an evening program given a worthy and spiritual title such as “The Lord’s Prayer in Daily Life.” What Stealth Christian Formation is about is showing that there are many ways that we can create opportunities for spiritual formation in the life of the parish that can involve more people in more engaging ways that will lead to better outcomes in the long run.
Scott and Tim suggest three different forms of Stealth Christian Formation:
Christian Formation with a Twist This may be very similar to the Christian Formation programs you are already doing, but with either a change in marketing or a change in approach. Scott spoke of offering a program at his parish entitles Heretics in Good Company. Although the subject itself, on how theology has been shaped over the centuries, was in fact a general overview of church history and theology, simply putting the provocative word “heretic” in the title piqued people’s interests and drew in a wider range of people from the hard-core 15 that will attend the midweek offering even if it is titled Dry as Dust: Reading the Most Boring Bits of the Bible Without Any Supplemental Information Whatsoever. How you market a program may be just as important as what you present in terms of its appeal. Are you using language that speaks to people and gets them interested?
Christian Formation with a Twist may also mean offering what appears to be the typical (say) confirmation program, but within it incorporating elements that give the program new relevance and spark. The twist can be involving participants in teaching, creating something together, or goes beyond what is expected. To give one example from my own experience, we once offered a series to our youth Sunday morning program on war and peace; one of the most moving parts (for me, and I hope the youth) was inviting parishioners who were veterans to talk about their own experiences, ranging from the Battle of the Bulge to Vietnam to the first Persian Gulf war. It took the class out of the theoretical and lecture-mode and into a relational and experiential mode and made the topic very real and personal.
Christian Formation on the Side Talk about stealthy! People may not even know that this is Christian Formation. Christian Formation on the side can be things like bulletin inserts that may provide more information about the readings (for example), or inviting people to participate in spiritual practices through your Facebook page or other social media. I gathered from Scott and Tim’s presentation that these “on the side” forms of spiritual formation are a bit more like a side dish than the main meal, supplemental to more extensive forms of formation, but still tasty and nourishing. What are the small things you can add to your weekly offerings that will offer opportunities for people to sample tidbits of formation?
Here’s an example that we’ve just started doing on the CnC Facebook page: On Mondays we suggest a spiritual practice, such as “get enough sleep” or “slow down.” On Sundays, we follow up by asking people how it went.
During the workshop, Tim mentioned that we should not forget that preaching is a part of spiritual formation. I wouldn’t say it’s “on the side” exactly, but the truth is that your sermon may be the only piece of supplemental spiritual formation that many people in your parish get, so preach as well as you can!
Christian Formation To Go Christian Formation To Go is the spiritual formation that happens out in the world, such as (to name a random example) Lent Madness. Obviously, there are a ton of materials online and in books that people can use. But it’s also important to remember that spiritual formation happens in conversations, at work, at play.
It also doesn’t always happen at the church. At the workshop, someone commented that people were coming to formation programs held at a local wine bar, but that they were not then following that up by coming to Sunday worship. “That’s OK,” Tim said. “God isn’t under house arrest.” It may be that we need to let go of our own images of how people are supposed to be formed as Christians and instead leave that to God.
We’ve got Palm Sunday coming up, which seems a great opportunity to consider how we can transform the ultimate To Go item of the Christian year. What if instead of quickly turning the frond into a cross, we invited people to use that frond as a way to think about who they welcome, or who are the people from whom they want help, or who is someone who they view suspiciously…make it more than a moment at the beginning of the service, but a source for meditation as people go about their daily lives.
Scott noted in the workshop how many people in our churches seem to be afraid to read the Bible, that we’ve created a culture where the Bible is a completely foreign object. It seems that in that case, these three forms of Stealth Christian Formation may need to work in tandem so that people have the tools and confidence to believe the Bible is something for them!
You may have noticed at this point (as I did) that all of these forms of spiritual formation referred to either food or drink. This seems appropriate, actually, as we seek ways to feed people spiritually. Spiritual Formation is not a one-time thing and there’s no one right way to provide this kind of nourishment. But there’s a lot more out there than tomato aspic and we would be well advised to create a wonderful range of meals and dishes for those who hunger.
Image: Camouflage Last Supper by Andy Warhol, Menil Collection, Houston Texas. Images found here.