Ministry and mission were humming in the congregation. Average weekly worship attendance was booming, and we had just completed a capital campaign during the worst economy in 40 years. Following that capital campaign, we had pulled a new 12,000-square-foot multi-purpose Community Life Center out of the ground and positioned it so that our heavily wooded campus no longer obscured our presence to the local community.
Leadership development was rich. Members and guests were stepping up and getting involved in both low-stake and high-stake ministry spaces. It was the best of times!
Except for Sunday School. Sunday morning faith formation was waning, and participation was dropping. This was happening against a backdrop of growing family worship participation. But what we kept on hearing was that families were only going to spend so much time at church, even one they loved, on a Sunday morning.
So we played with all sorts of configurations. We tried concurrent faith formation/worship against my better judgment, and we moved worship services around. At the same time, our Discipleship Lead and I had become enamored with an intergenerational faith formation model. It made sense on many levels, the least of which was our growing congregation which was itself intergenerational. Coming from a Lutheran Christian background, we learned well Martin Luther’s frustration with the deplorable state of discipleship amongst Christians. He actually wrote The Small Catechism as an aid to faith formation in the home. The intergenerational conversation tapped into the DNA of our particular Christian history in exciting ways.
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We planned and prepared. We identified and developed champions. We built out the vision. We gave ourselves a nine-month ramp-up period to bring all the pieces together. We got leadership on board. We got our faith-formation teachers on board. We did mission minutes in worship regarding it. We created a communications strategy and a plan for its rollout. And we executed that plan with all diligence and faithfulness.
And in the fall of that year we launched. Within three weekends we knew we had huge problems on our hands. Launch Sunday was okay, but the second Sunday was precipitously smaller, and the third Sunday smaller yet. We gathered parents, grandparents, and some children and we began to explore what was happening. Amidst the various forms of the “we don’t like it” feedback, we discerned one critical thing: our families did not know how to sit and have meaningful conversations together for any real length of time. They were professionals at parallel play—riding bikes, playing sports, watching movies with one another, doing the carpool together with the video going on the screen in the back of the Odyssey. But when we asked grandparents, parents, and children to sit face to face, even with all the tools before them, and learn and play around faith together, they just…couldn’t…do it.
I have had many moments where I think my idealism has run full on into the pragmatic realities of human psychology and sociology—those moments where you believe all leadership should be democratic, but in reality the situation just needs a decision-maker to clearly define reality. A strong leader who can make the crazy go away, and help folks begin to work together again in some semblance of concert. That kind of thing.
For me, this was the reminder that for the idyllic picture of intergenerational faith formation to work, we would need to address the deeper social deficits of our culture first. We needed to build a faith-formation strategy not on the backs of our ideals, but the reality of the precious people we had been called to disciple.
Jesus did it like that. He formed faith with questions and dialogue that engaged those around Him from the vantage point of the competencies they actually had. To be sure, he didn’t leave them there. But it’s where he started.
The situation I describe above is the place where I was reminded that my starting point as a Christian leader needs to hold firmly to a Gospel that is incarnate—grounded in reality, so that those I had been called to serve could find themselves in it.
Rev. Dr. Nathan Swenson-Reinhold is a former lead pastor of a multi-site congregation. He’s been a ministry leadership coach for nearly two decades and is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC). He’s the owner of Summit Coaching and Behavioral Consulting LLC. He enjoys pen-turning, car detailing, reading science fiction, and playing acoustic guitar.