Thursday, April 29, 2010

Comparing Numbers and More on Faith Formation 2020

From the National Council of Churches 2010 Yearbook on Growth and Decline:

Some decline...
Compare to...
  • Jehovah’s Witness +2%
  • Church of God +1.78%
  • Latter-Day Saints +1.71%
  • Assemblies of God +1.71% (and just when I thought I could identify at least some patterns...)
  • Roman Catholic Church +1.49% (I am sure you can guess why this threw me for a loop, but even on the surface level, note that there is no "official" main website evangelizing for the Roman Catholic Church here...there is the vatican website, but its relationship to seekers is entirely unclear)
Worthy of note, the growth of the Roman Catholic Church is a return to previous year's patterns.  Last year they had an unusual decline.  The Latter Day Saints, Church of God and Assemblies of God folks, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses are also following a standing pattern of growth. 

On the side of decline, this is a second year in a row of decline for UUs and also for Southern Baptists.  The Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church have a history of decline too.  This decline has been discussed among religious leaders, according to my own recollections for at least a half decade now, as the "possible demise of mainline denominations."  (Please note: Although the UU pattern was previously one of growth, I won't claim that it was a growing "denomination," as it had never come close to keeping up with population growth.  Also, check out the 2009 and other previous yearbooks.)

In 2009, the National Council of Churches quoted its Yearbook Editor Eileen Lindner as having said: "There are no clear-cut theological or sociological reasons for church growth or decline."  This is the challenge of a document like Faith Formation 2020 (see post from Apr. 24).

However, Lindner does go on to say: "Many churches are feeling the impact of the lifestyles of younger generations of church-goers -- the 'Gen X'ers' or 'Millenials' in their 20s and 30s who attend and support local congregations but resist joining them."  That's part of what Faith Formation 2020 says.  Surely the folks over at Lifelong Faith Associates used the data in the yearbooks as part of their research for Faith Formation 2020.

Just thinking off the top of my head, there are some statistical possibilities related to the Faith Formation paper.  Let's call the growing set of churches GROUP G:

1.  GROUP G is responding most effectively to current cultural trends, or...
2.  GROUP G is doing the better job of serving those who are bucking cultural trends, rather than slowing down to keep the cultural majority in the fold, or...???

In light of the recommendations that seem to be forthcoming from Faith Formation 2020, I have some questions regarding GROUP G as it compares to GROUP D (the declining group).  The answers to the questions might test some of the hypotheses/assumptions behind the reommendations as well the recommendations themselves.

1.  Are there patterns of lifespan Religious Education/Faith Development in GROUP G that are not in GROUP D?

2.  Is GROUP G doing something unique in regard to guiding and providing opportunities for people to live into the "Christian way of life" that GROUP D lacks?  What is the relationship of GROUP G to the daily life of congregants, and to the world outside the church walls, and how do these relationships compare to the same relationships in GROUP D?

3.  Are GROUP G churches intentionally intergenerational?  Is implementation of religious education/faith formation happening on a regular basis outside of age-segregated classroom structures?  Are all generations included in all aspects of the church, from worship to leadership?  What does leadership training for young people look like?  How are generational transfers occurring?  And most importantly, how does this compare to patterns in GROUP D?

4.  How are GROUP G churches personalizing and customizing faith formation opportunities, and are there patterns that are different than in GROUP D churches?

5.  Is GROUP G fashioned around significant milestones and transitions across the lifespan?  How about GROUP D?  (I'm also wondering if in traditions where this is true, outside of the Christian tradition, whether there is currently a pattern of growth or decline.)

6.   Who is engaged in mission and service in GROUP G, and who in GROUP D? 

7.   How is spiritual formation and transformation promoted in GROUP G and GROUP D across the lifespan?

8.  Are there differences in regard to ethnic diversity levels of GROUP G and GROUP D?  Are there patterns of cultural responsiveness in one group or the other?

9.  How is a conversation in the public arena being fostered in GROUP G, and what are the similarities and differences between GROUP G and GROUP D in this regard?

10.  Does the learning experience in GROUP G churches show a significant pattern of being multi-sensory, image rich, experiential, and varied?  What are the differences between learning experiences in GROUP G and GROUP D?

11.  What is the investment level in parent/home faith formation efforts in GROUP G vs. GROUP D?

12.  Are GROUP G churches making unique use of digital media?  Are they accessible 24-7 through this media in a way or to an extent that GROUP D is not?  What is the relationship between virtual and face-to-face interactions in GROUP G and in GROUP D?

13.  Does GROUP G have more "3rd space" meeting places?  Does GROUP G have more "house churches?" 

15.  Are their faith formation apprenticeships being offered in GROUP G?  How about in group D?

16.  How does GROUP G create links or bridges between faith formation programming and involvement in the church life?  What are the equivilant patterns, if any, in GROUP D?

17.  What are the expectations for church involvement in GROUP G, and how are the expectations communicated?  In GROUP G, are congregants expected to create plans for the development or expression of their faith?  Does this happen to any degree in GROUP D, as a whole?

18.  To what degree are "Christian life immersion" experiences taking place in GROUP G vs. GROUP D?

Okay, that's a lot to chew on-- sorry-- but to the extent you are educated in any way about the traditions listed in either group, please consider chiming in with what you know about any of this. 

On the other hand, this post is not to assume that those traditions that are growing can necessarily point the way into an uncertain future.  I would like to also do some comparisons between the numbers and population growth.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Unique Look at The Pastoral and Prophetic

There is much written about the pastoral and prophetic roles of religious leaders.  One of the faculty members with whom I am excited to study at divinity school is a professor named Leonora Tisdale.  Her most recent book is Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach, which is due out August 9th. It's on my "I can't wait to read this" list.  Though I haven't read it, hearing her speak about it makes me feel confident in recommending it to you.  Along those lines, let me reflect for a moment on the pastoral approach to a prophetic voice, from my perspective as a religious educator. 

Over the years, I have developed an interest in forming a neurologically-grounded understanding of learning.  My interest has stemmed from multiple sources:

1.  A special interest in neurology developed during my study and brief work in public health
2.  Foster parenting a number of different children, during which time I observed the interdependent relationships between neurology and learning
3.  My own neurological challenges
4.  The learning needs of my children

A few years ago, I began studying the work of Judith Bluestone, a neuroscientist who herself had autism (sadly, she recently passed away).  She developed a method of "gentle enhancement" to improve the life experiences of people struggling with neurological issues that make them feel uncomfortable in the world.  In her book The Fabric of Autism, Weaving The Threads Into A Cogent Theory (which deals directly with autism but indirectly with any number of "atypical" neurological experiences with the world), Judith wrote two things in particular that provide an important frame for my understanding about learning:

First, she said, everybody learns.  Everybody, no matter their issues, is capable of growth.

Second, she said, all behavior is communication.  When a behavior is no longer needed, it ceases.  Meanwhile, it provides information about the experiences a person is having.

Judith was using these points to address educational challenges of "autistic people" or "people with autism" (which version is most respectful varies by personal preference, so I'll use both), but I began to test these assertions through observation, not only with myself and my children, but also with the folks in my congregation.  As her assertions are universal declarations, in order to be true, they must be true for all people in all cases.  I've been trying to find a case where her assertions are not true, and the only exceptions I make are for cases of coma.   

It has taken me much practice to become even minimally fluent in behavioral communication, and I have a great deal still to learn, but I've yet to truly disprove Judith's assertions.  Meanwhile, as I have incorporated these understandings into my work, I have been better able to minister.  So regardless of whether these are accurate statements, they are pragmatically helpful.

Some questions, however, arise.  For example, if all people are learning, what slows or dampens the learning experience and what optimizes it? Is it impossible for it to halt altogether, for a brief period of time?

As an educator, I have known one universal "brake" on the learning process: fear.  When people are afraid, learning ceases.  If they are fearful for long enough, they will return to learning, but they will learn abnormally.  That is, they will learn according to their fear.  In  fact, I shouldn't say "abnormally," as it is more accurately described as normal learning in abnormal conditions.

My anecdotal guess at the "brake" for learning is corroborated at least in part by another theory, called "brain-based learning theory."  This theory purports, among many other things, that a state of "relaxed alertness," or an absence of fear even in a highly challenging environment is necessary to lasting internalization of information.  When people are behaving anxiously or fearfully, then, it is helpful communication that learning may be slowing or even temporarily ceasing.

Bringing this full circle, the prophetic voice is one that most likely calls people out of the place of comfort and into the place of challenge.  Except in cases where the moment is exactly right and people are completely ready to receive the message, in order to be heard, and internalized, the pastoral voice is needed in the prophetic message.

Being challenged is one thing.  Being made fearful, or having one's anxiety level rise to a non-productive level is another.  The religious leader's responsibility is not just to speak the word of God, but to create an environment conducive to it being heard. 

To throw in another poorly articulated metaphor (advance apologies), the wise religious leader lives out God's breath through two lungs: the pastoral and the prophetic.  With each inhale and exhale, there are two sources.  The "master" is able to breathe sometimes more from one lung or the other, but the key is knowing from where to breathe, how slowly, and how gently. 

Here is to us each growing into greater mastery!  (I'm visualizing a "yoga master" when I speak her of mastery. What are you picturing?)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Faith Formation 2020

Back in my public health days, the big document was "Healthy People 2000."  Currently, the big document in that field is "Healthy People 2020." 

In a nutshell, every ten years a report is produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regarding national health, and objectives for health promotion are thusly set.  These objectives guide national and local health programs and their funding. 

Having written grant proposals and run programs related to the "Healthy People" reports, you can imagine that a few months ago when someone told me about "Faith Formation 2020," I tuned in.  Sounded familiar.

So let's have a look. 

This is the webpage for Faith Formation 2020:  Being religious in nature, unlike "Healthy People," "Faith Formation" is of course not a government project but the project of a private organization called Lifelong Faith Associates.  I haven't yet been able to locate a lot of information about the organization: who funds it, what kind of governance structure it has, whether or not it is for-profit, how it conducts its research, and so forth.  Then again, I haven't looked very deep.  If you find the info, please do post it.

I do know that "Faith Formation 2020" is generating a little buzz, at least in the UU world, though it is unclear how much of that is at the association level and how much is trickling down to the congregational level.  The basic premise is that there are some important cultural trends at play in our society, and that these trends will directly and significantly impact the future of religion in the United States. 

Also unlike "Healthy People 2020," "Faith Formation 2020" is not providing firm objectives/goals yet for faith development.  The organization is still calling the project a "working paper" and a "first draft."  Still, there is some indication from the documents to date of the recommendations to come.  I'm interested in what other folks think.  Personally, I am not sure the nails are being hit on the head yet, though there are some compelling ideas to start the conversation.

You can take a survey for the working paper here:, though it is unclear to me how this data will provide empirical value.  What I like about the survey is that it is, as far as I can tell, the first glimpse at what could be coming down the pike in terms of recommendations or objectives.

There is a Lifelong Faith journal that I understand is recommended, though you'll have to pony up for it.  I have not yet done so.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Opening Prayer

I begin this blog with a prayer.  It seems to be the only fitting way to begin.  Commitment to regular spiritual practice is a critical element of vital religious leadership.  Prayer is a spiritual practice in my own life.

Generally, my most regular prayer practice is to pray for people, especially for the people in my ministry. 

Spirit of Life and Love, known by more than a thousand names, one of which is God, may the people who read this blog be blessed.  May they be safe and loved.  May their religious leadership be true to your goodness. May mine as well. 

Also in my prayers especially today are S, M, L, J, G, B, C, A, C, S, T, J, H, S, K, L, S, C, H, K, J, K, D, L, J, M, A, E, N, T, V, L, C, W, D, P, S, N, S, S, J, T, A, D, K, N, D, H, S, C, S, C, S, W, S, S, D, K, L, S, T, W, D, A, E, V, D, M, A, and Y. 

For them and for all others, may there be healing, safety, peace, clarity, health, love, respite, joy, companionship, inspiration, sustenance, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and hope.  May they have what they need and serve through their gifts.  Amen.