Experiential Learning and Faith Formation

Experiential learning has become a trendy word in K-12 and university-level classrooms, for sure. But what about in faith formation and religious education?

Thankfully, in many Catholic circles the idea of faith formation or religious education as simply “classes” like any part of a school curriculum has faded away, in theory. Life change. Entering into a relationship of prayer, adoration, and deepening friendship with Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit is now a part of what many consider, “faith formation.” However, have our methods really changed? Or, is it still all based on the classroom model?

Enter this interesting report on Mariners Church, Moving Discipleship from Teaching Content to Life-Changing Experiences. Though not in a Catholic context, there are many takeaways that Catholic ministry teams can consider. This congregation:

  • Got rid of the “menu of options”–trying to offer something for everyone, all of the time and transitioned to one core program, offered repeatedly throughout the year [here’s some encouragement and a  Catholic parish that took that step!]
  • Increased the length of this program from 6-wks to 10-wks (church leaders had originally assumed that people would only sign up to do something for 6-wks)
    “We ran a lot of discipleship models before based on what we thought people would be willing to do…When we changed and went to a much higher demand with 10 weeks, 5 nights of homework, three additional meetings for experiences, we were concerned, no one would do it. What we learned was that people were willing to step up to where ever we set the bar for them.”
  • End program with a commissioning into ministry (towards community, congregation, etc.)
  • Focused more on training leaders to facilitate rather than teach content
  • Embraced experiential learning:“when it comes time for Rooted participants to learn about serving, for instance, the groups don’t get a sermon—they serve in the community together for a day. Learning about confession and accountability is an experience during which Rooted attendees are “super transparent,” confess strongholds and sin in their lives and every individual is prayed over to break the strongholds. Learning about prayer is a three-hour “prayer experience” participants can’t believe they’ve completed when it’s over. “Everybody always says, ‘There is no way I thought I could pray for three hours,’ Shelly says, ‘but I heard from God for the first time, we need to this more often.” I heard God’s voice.’”

Catholicism is inherently experiential–this is “the point” (to put it non-theologically) of our lives of liturgical worship. Yet, as the experience of Mariners Church reveals, there are concrete steps (that may require major change) to embracing experiential learning as part of faith formation–it can’t just be a theoretical approach. Even many forms of “liturgical catechesis” in Catholic parishes are more “classroom” than “experiential.”

Consider, what do you think the role of experiential learning should be in discipleship/faith formation/religious education? How can your parish make this a reality, rather than an unreached ideal?

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