Faith formation in a changing world

“People want to connect, but they want to connect in different ways than the way we are all still connecting in worship and adult programs,” said Lisa Elliott, director of religious education of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven, Mass. Eliott was reaffirming the central message of a General Assembly workshop Thursday on the Faith Formation 2020 initiative, presented by the Rev. Phil Lund, district program consultant of the Prairie Star District, and the Rev. Sue Sinnamon, director of faith development for the Southeast District.

Faith Formation 2020 is a collection of books, strategies, and resources designed to help congregations of many denominations meet the challenges of today’s changing society. Lund outlined some of the ways society is changing.

“Religion used to be a family institution,” Lund said. “You lit the candles, you said the prayers” together as a family. But that’s no longer the case.”

Lund pointed out other ways that society is changing. The influence of growing individualism on religious identity means that “people don’t want to be told what it means to be religious,” he said. And different generations tend to have different ways of doing religion. For example, people from the Baby Boom generation dominate leadership of many congregations, but they often underestimate the importance of digital media.

“I think digital media is incredibly important,” Lund said. He said that young people 8 to 18 years old on average spend 7 1/2 hours a day with various forms of digital media. Sinnamon described a new online worship service being offered by a liberal Christian congregation in Nebraska. Called Darkwood Brew, this online congregation has a weekly hour-long online video service, streamed live on their Web site. There are connections to reflect on all week long, and those who “attend” the online service are encouraged to join small groups, either online or face-to-face groups.

“This is an example of how one local congregation is doing faith formation online,” Sinnamon said. “If your mission [as a congregation] is to provide a vibrant faith experience of Unitarian Universalism,” Sinnamon said, then you have to ask yourself how best you can reach the people you want to reach.

Lund reminded us that this is the time for “beta testing,” that is, for testing out new and experimental approaches. “We can’t be afraid to fail,” he said. The Rev. Barry Andrews, minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y., was in the audience, and he pointed out that most religious leaders are not as well equipped to do this work as they might be. Sinnamon said that while that is true, religious leaders look for places to learn about these new approaches, and inventory what they’re already doing.

For more information, Lund will be posting the slides from the presentation on his blog, Phil’s Little Blog on the Prairie.

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