Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Deep Into the Marrow

The Next Generation: Deep Into the Marrow

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” St. Paul to St. Timothy (II Timothy 1:5)

Last month’s column in this series focused on the neglect of the role of the home in making disciples. Dr. David W. Anderson calls this “The Great Omission” in the life of the North American church over the last century.

In response to this situation, Anderson and his colleagues at The Youth and Family Institute (now better known as Vibrant Faith Ministries) have birthed a vision for the 21st century church that they call the Vibrant Faith Frame. It’s a perspective—indeed, a whole “vocabulary”—for describing the church’s DNA, “basic stuff for the life of the church that goes deep into the marrow of its very being.” (All quotations in this column are from Chapter Two in From the Great Omission to Vibrant Faith.)

Six Locations of Ministry

Let’s face it: American Christianity has all too often reflected the individualism of American culture. The ministry of the church has focused inordinately on one’s personal (read “private”) relationship with Jesus. Such an approach forgets that “to be the church and pass on faith in Christ requires attention to all that God does and all that God calls Christians to be in the world.”

The Vibrant Faith Frame broadens our horizons by asking us to consider at least six “locations” of ministry:

• Children and youth. In contrast to our tendency to place kids on the periphery, the Vibrant Faith Frame views “children and youth…[as] central to the life of the church.”

• Homes, in which persons live “in close connection to one another in family-type relationships that offer foundational care for people.”

• Congregations, which “represent the larger network of relationships that connect Christians” to one another.

• Community, the social environment in which Christians have “their most direct experience of faith made active in love that serves [the] neighbor.”

• Culture, a community of communities in which language shapes meaning and interprets human experience.

• Creation. Christians live “as stewards of God’s handiwork…serving all that God creates, redeems and sustains.”

One might envision these six locations as concentric circles that ripple outwards—like a stone tossed into a pond. Shot through these “six locations of ministry” is an emphasis on the highly relational nature of Christian faith and life.

Five Principles of a Vibrant Church

If the Six Locations describe the context for ministry that responds to all that God has created and redeemed, the following Five Principles reveal the unique heart of the Vibrant Faith Frame:

1. Faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships—often in our own homes. A simple way to understand this pivotal principle is to ask a group of Christians to do some history-sharing around the question: “Who or what has influenced your life of faith?” As staff members from Vibrant Faith Ministries have posed this question in a variety of settings they have discovered consistently that folks name those with whom they are in primary life relationships: parents, grandparents, siblings, children, godparents, etc. To be sure, pastors and church staff members are also mentioned on such lists—though usually not so much because of the positions they held as because of the relationships they had with the individual who is naming them. This reality of faith being formed through relationships is borne out, again and again, by research in the sociology of religious formation.

2. The church is a living partnership between the ministry of the congregation and ministry of the home. Consider an analogy that compares a congregation and a grocery story. Both are places where people receive food for life. But congregations and grocery stores are “secondary social systems.” You can munch on some food while in the grocery store (as long as you remember to still pay for it at the checkout counter!)—but mainly you acquire food there, in order to eat it throughout the week somewhere else, usually in the home. So also, the “food” we receive in our congregations—God’s Word and Sacraments—is intended to be “taken home” and “eaten” on a daily basis. (Don’t we say that, teach that and believe that?) Quite literally, we do not—and we ought not—eat once a week at church and then starve ourselves the other six days until we can eat again at the next weekly worship service. This second principle envisions a “dynamic relationship between the activities of the congregation and the activities of the homes that are engaged in the congregation.”

3. Where Christ is present in faith, home is church, too. This third principle carries the first two principles to their logical conclusion: the home can be thought of as “the domestic church,” a “critical arena for faith formation.” This is why, for example, Martin Luther assumed that his catechism would be taught primarily by heads of households—and why these domestic “priests and pastors” were enjoined by Luther to lead daily worship (devotions) in their homes, at the beginning and ending of each day and around every meal-time. This principle also recognizes how homes are often the doorway to Christian faith and life, because “sometimes the best way to get people into the congregational church is first through the home church.”

4. Faith is caught more than it is taught. Please read this principle carefully. It does not say that faith isn’t taught—faith is most assuredly taught! But what is taught (in a confirmation classroom, for example) “lives” or takes on flesh-and-bone only as it is also “caught” from other Christians, in daily life. This is why faith-mentors are so critical.

5. If we want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults. I have grown weary of hearing congregational leaders moan over “the loss of our youth.” I am, frankly, tired of hearing about how “our kids leave church as soon as they are confirmed.” Such laments take aim, in my judgment, at the wrong cohort in our communities. If you are so concerned about our children, where are the adults in their lives? This fifth principle of a vibrant church “ups the ante” for all the adults in our churches, adding what the Vibrant Faith Ministries folks call a “cross+generational focus.” This principle challenges us to see that “all Christian adults are Christian parents, thereby making a difference in the lives of children whether or not the adults are the parents of the children….[A]ll children are our children. In recent years, it has been suggested that each child should have three to five to seven adults who do not live with that child in the home and yet invest in the child’s life in healthy, supportive and faithful ways.”

The Four Keys

OK, so you’re starting to catch the vision, right? So, how do we live into this vision? The Four Keys are offered as “embedded practices” that form and nurture Christian faith in the fabric of daily life, often in the homes that make up our congregations.

Over twenty years ago the Search Institute of Minneapolis (a social research organization that helped give birth to Vibrant Faith Ministries) discovered that faithfulness in youth and adults tended to result from things like “the frequency with which an adolescent talked with mother and father about faith, the frequency of family devotions, and the frequency with which parents and children together were involved in efforts, formal or informal, to help other people.”

Out of this basic research arose the notion of the Four Keys in which all members of a Christian household can participate:

• Caring Conversations: opportunities every day, often around meals, for family members to share their joys and struggles, their laughter and their tears.

• Devotions: moments of praise and prayer in the midst of daily life—upon rising, as bread is broken, before going to bed, etc.

• Rituals and Traditions: practicing forgiveness, offering blessings, observing milestones in the Christian life, adorning one’s home in ways that honor God.

• Service: moving out into God’s world, for the sake of our neighbors, “being part of a community.”

The Four Keys, we must emphasize, are not a replacement for congregational life. Rather, they are ways that congregational life “spills over” into daily life, in households where Christians live out much of their Monday-through-Saturday lives. Congregations, indeed, can be places that also practice the Four Keys—and that furnish Four Keys resources and ideas for use in the home, where Christian people actually live out many of the other 167 hours of each week.

AAA Christian Disciples

No, this is not an advertisement for the American Automobile Association! The upshot—the outcome—of shaping or reshaping our discipleship around the locations, principles and keys of the Vibrant Faith Frame is the birthing and nurturing of Jesus-followers who are authentic, available and affirming. Authentic disciples are not perfect disciples, but they are honest and “real”—“free to serve, free to believe and trust God, free to live, free to love and free to fail at it all.” Available disciples seek “to be present and aware of others and creation…available to be [tools] of God’s work and will for the world.” Affirming disciples, in the midst of sin, death and evil are disciples who believe “that God’s word gets the last word, and it is a word of hope.”

Whetting the Appetite

This column has been written to whet your appetite for more—to offer some hors d’oeuvres that will leave you hungry for the full meal. If you and your congregation are ready to dive deeper into the Vibrant Faith Frame perspective I invite you to do five things:

• Visit the Vibrant Faith website at www.vibrantfaith.org;

• Read--or, better yet, read and discuss with others--a book like David Anderson’s From the Great Omission to Vibrant Faith: The Role of the Home in Renewing the Church (2009, The Youth and Family Institute);

• Pray about and talk with others about ways you, your home and your church might live more deeply into this vision of partnership between homes and churches;

• Take a team of disciples from your church to the next Vibrant Faith Ministries conference or other VFM event in our region. Watch future issues of Northern Lights for information about such learning events.

God bless you, your home and your congregation.

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe

Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. How and why have congregations sometimes placed children or youth on the periphery of the church?

2. Who or what influenced your life of faith?

3. How is your church already living out the Vibrant Faith Frame (please be specific)?

4. How might your church pass on the Four Keys to the homes of your parish?

5. How ready is your congregation to embrace more fully the Vibrant Faith Frame?

This is the third in a series of columns on Bishop Wohlrabe’s “Next Generation” vision (available at http://www.nwmnsynod.org/BISHOP'S%20PAGE.htm) for the NW MN Synod. These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry. Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

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