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?


Is it OK to call Jesus “My Personal Lord and Savior?”

Evangelization sends all of us out into the world to meet, engage, care for, and share our faith in Jesus Christ with all. And that can mean questions. Some that come with a lot of baggage and background.

On a few occasions people have asked me if Catholics believe that Jesus is their personal Lord and Savior. Other times faithful Catholics have expressed discomfort or surprise at hearing this phrase used in a Catholic setting.

What then do we make of the phrase, “my personal Lord and savior?” Is it okay to say, “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior?”

The Thomas Take on “My”

Every year on the Sunday after Easter, we hear the glorious account of the disciple Thomas declaring his faith in Jesus Christ with the acclamation, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). So it seems that speaking any of the many titles of Jesus with the descriptor (possessive pronoun, if you want to go all grammar-fan on this) my is appropriate and in continuity with Christian spirituality going back to the first century.

Church Teaching on the “Personal”

“My” and “personal” aren’t the exact same thing. And, Thomas says “my Lord and my God”–he doesn’t mention this whole “personal Lord” business. So, we turn to the passing on of the faith in the Church — Church teaching — as a source for better understanding of when “personal” is used to describe the divine.

The term “personal God” appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (i.e. § 35-37). “Personal” is also used to describe true relationship with God. The CCC explains that we are to live from the mystery of faith in a “vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” and speaks of “personal salvation” (§ 2558, 1534).

In 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI preached, “only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we truly become Christians.” Again in 2010, he explained, “Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The Verdict?

Using the words “my” and “personal” to describe God (or other names — Lord, Savior, etc.) is part of Catholic tradition. But, to do full justice to the question, I still need to ask, is it okay to combine them into “my personal Lord” or “my personal Savior”?

I suppose there’s the grammatical angle. And from that perspective, combining my and personal seems a bit redundant (I admit, a totally a non-theological issue). But testing out an internet search engine’s predictive autocomplete suggestions revealed just how common using “my personal…” is in our language! After typing in “my personal,” the search engine gave me the autocomplete suggestions of:

  • My Personal Credit Union
  • My Personal Testimony
  • My Personal Friend
  • My Personal Hero
  • My Personal Experience
  • My Personal Opinion, and
  • My Personal Favorite.

Whoa. “My personal…” was more common that I’d thought. I suppose there’s no reason to toss the phrase out for purely grammatical reasons.

But more importantly, in the end “my personal God/Lord/Savior” does not communicate any beliefs that are outside of orthodox Catholic faith. My personal Lord and Savior affirms what we believe–that “faith is first of all a personal adherence of man [and woman] to God”–it’s a “personal act” (CCC, §150, 166). And affirming this in no way negates the complementary truth that, at the same time:

Faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith. (CCC, §166).

So go ahead, name and claim Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Make it a “Catholic” thing to do. And if it invites questions — great! Use this as an opportunity to share the depth of what these titles mean to you. Demonstrate that it’s not just a cultural catchphrase or bumper sticker line, but a real experience that guides your life and fundamentally changes how you act and view the world. And share how God graciously extends an invitation to personal relationship with Him to all. You never know how the Holy Spirit might work through an inquisitive (or even slightly awkward) question.\

This post also appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com.

A Re-Post for Reformation Day: “A Catholic’s Gratitude to Evangelicals”

A re-post of something I wrote back in 2011…“A Catholic’s Gratitude to Evangelicals” (and yes, I know that many who consider themselves to be “Evangelicals” do not note Reformation Day with its Lutheran overtones…)


Catholic Takeaways from “Increasing Young Adult Participation in Churches and Other Faith Communities Today”

Yay! A new report from Faith Communities Today, “Increasing Young Adult Participation in Churches and Other Faith Communities Today”  has come out. All research organizations have different strengths and weaknesses–I appreciate the way Faith Communities Today provides a cross-denominational, and even cross-religion look at trends and challenges.

Okay, so what catches my attention in this report…

–9.1% of Catholic congregations (not sure if this is just parishes or also campus ministry centers) have “significant” young adult participation, which is defined as having 21% of more participants between ages 18 and 34 — okay, so clearly there’s room for improvement

–Young adult participation is higher in the south and west, compared to the north and midwest — this probably mirrors larger demographic trends regarding geography

–Congregations with one full-time clergy person were least likely to have a significant level of young adult participation. Congregations with no full-time clergy were more likely to have a significant percentage of young adults, although less than average. A significantly higher percentage of congregations with young adults reported having two or more full-time clergy —  Young adults who participate in congregational life are probably highly intentional about their faith (since it’s going against the cultural currents, so to speak) and want a vibrant parish life. Vibrancy usually comes from having many leaders (clergy or lay), including volunteer leaders. This speaks to the importance of equipping Catholics to live out their baptismal call, rather than wrongly relying on “Father” to do it all.

–“Congregations reporting many programs were nearly twice as likely to have significant young adult participation as those reporting few or some programs.” — Young adults aren’t joining parishes out of cultural concern or habit, they want engagement, vibrancy, and a reason to belong

–Young adults are attracted to congregations with higher proportions of men — definitely a challenge in many Catholic parishes where women are overrepresented in prayer ministries, Bible studies, etc. Probably points to the importance of intentionally cultivating men’s ministries.

–“New congregations organized in the past decade were more than  three times as likely to have a significant number of young adults as those organized before 1976.” — Okay, so a parish can’t change when it was founded 🙂 but, I think there’s still a lesson here. Parishes can launch spin-offs…i.e. off-site ministries, a specifically themed/marketed sub-ministry within a parish (see: Christ the King in Ann Arbor’s Upper Room as an example of this), etc. These aren’t merely programs, but initiatives that create a new organizational identity within the parish.

Good food for thought for one post. I’ll delve into the second half of the report in the future.

Balance Between Large and Small in Catholic Parishes

Over at Reclaiming the Mission, David Fitch offered this interesting analysis of the balance between the small and large in Christian communities of faith: “How To Avoid Becoming a Cult (or for that matter A Large Consumer Mega Church): Oikos versus Ekklesia” While many of the commenters ask some good questions about his methodology and standards for what aspects of Christian history are normative and/or formative for today, I’m choosing to look at his points through the lens of what resonates for Catholic parishes?

Thought #1 – The Need for Large and Small Communities Fitch writes:

In a culture where we no longer can assume people are Christians, I contend we once again need to separate oikos and ekklesia in the local church. Perhaps in a Christianized world, say the 1950’s, we could afford to do both at the same time. We could hold large gatherings open to the public where we do the Eucharist and not lose its meaning, and central forming force. But today, in many places, we can no longer assume everybody knows what it means to surrender and be present to the very presence of Christ, his forgiveness, reconciliation and new life, in the bread and the cup. If we don’t maintain the oikos/ekkelsia distinction, bad things happen.

[Note Throughout: Fitch uses the terms “church” and “Eucharist” with different meanings that in Catholic theology.] The main point for us–parishes are pretty big these days. Maybe attending a large weekend Mass was “enough” at some point as a “central forming force,” I agree that today it is not. Small gatherings, among those in Christian fellowship or journeying/seeking together, provide a place for the formation that then makes the large gathering (i.e. Sunday Mass) able to be entered into fully.

Thought #2 – Small Spaces as an Antidote to Consumer Christianity
Another point from Fitch:

I contend, when the Sunday morning attractional event is so central, it determines the other smaller social spaces. People get trained into consumerist events as the basis of their Christianity.

Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White describe the “consumer exchange” mentality they observed in their large Catholic parish–and I’m sure they’re not the only place to experience this! Having a balance between the large and small in a parish helps parishioners realize that the Church is NOT a “consumer exchange.” While many perceive Mass as a failure if they don’t “get something out of it”–a small group makes it more obvious that Christians are present in all settings to both give and receive. Realizing that one has to be fully present and participate in a small group can be a gentle way of coming to the realization that Mass also requires the same sense of intentional presence and participation.

In closing…

Not surprisingly, I disagree with Fitch’s ultimate conclusions about how a church should worship, as he misses the visible aspects of communion that are essential to the Catholic faith. However, his observations about the consequences of a lack of balance between the large and small in Christian life offer interesting points of reflection for those of us in Catholic ministry settings and parishes.

Information Booth for Visitors?

Oftentimes when visiting a “evangelical” or non-denominational Christian congregation I see an information table or booth in the lobby or main entrance of the church. There is usually a designated person at the booth to help answer questions, offer contact information cards, and provide information packets/folders (and sometimes small gifts) to visitors/guests, as well as answer any questions from regular members of the congregation (i.e. “How do I sign up for the women’s retreat next month?”).

While many Catholic parishes have printed information available in brochure stands or fliers, rarely do I see the regular use of an “information booth” and attendant. So, naturally I wonder, should parishes make use of this communication/hospitality strategy?

Reasons to have a manned information booth/table/desk: 

  • Provides a central location so that average people in the pews, ushers, and greeters can direct visitors/guests to someone who is ready to be friendly, helpful, and provide information (because let’s face it–ushers and greeters are busy with other tasks and can’t carry around information on every aspect of parish life a visitor might be interested in, and many of us in the pews are a little shy or uncertain–a designated location gives us all a way to respond well!)
  • Human interactionIt’s becoming less and less common in our society. I can mail packages from the post offices using a machine, check-out my own groceries without talking to a clerk, conduct banking from a mobile device, and swipe a proximity card to enter a fitness center–all without face-to-face contact with a single other human being. While I enjoy many of these conveniences, there’s something about making eye contact, informal chit-chat, and a handshake that gives us an opportunity to connect to others–an information booth creates a place for this, so that if a visitor wants to talk to someone, there is no chance they could wander in and out of Mass, without ever receiving more than a “hello” from others.
  • Providing the right guidance and promptingIt’s not uncommon for a parish to have dozens of different fliers, pamphlets, brochures, and posters in a narthex or lobby area. While this might be great for people in the parish, how does a visitor know where to start? Offering a manned information desk creates the place for a little “conversational triage” — for example, finding out if a visitor needs childcare during Mass, if they are specifically looking for a prayer group, etc. 
  • It can even be useful for active parishioners. Parishes are busy places. It’s not easy to keep track of everything that’s going on–and sometimes people have questions about what’s in the bulletin or an announcement they just heard at the end of Mass. While each of us could always wait and call the rectory/office or send an e-mail, how many questions go unanswered because of this inconvenience and the speed that life races by? An information booth can help everyone in the parish get questions answered right away, and even save trips to the rectory/offices (which are often only open on weekdays).
  • Even if a visitor prefers to remain anonymous, the presence of a person specifically prepared and volunteering his or her time to provide hospitality and information says, we care. The visitor sees the witness, and knows that if he or she ever wanted to ask more, there is an informal place to do so that doesn’t involve finding time to make a trip back during the week to visit the rectory/parish office. 

Reasons NOT have a manned information booth/table/desk:

  • Lack of space in narthex/lobby/gathering area (or presence would impede flow of traffic too much).
  • Might make some visitors uncomfortable (as if they are expected to stop or have to pick up information).
  • Requires volunteers from parish, proper training for volunteers on being hospitable and offering guidance, and/or involvement from parish staff.
  • Any others?

Conclusion: The reasons I could think of to have a booth are much more compelling than my reasons against the technique. What are your thoughts? Are there any key reasons not to try out this practice that I haven’t considered?