By Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development
Leaders across the Christian Church are wondering if this season of pandemic chaos and trauma has given us a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a “reset.” In response, some are developing structural changes along with new patterns of worship and content delivery and relational outreach. At Vibrant Faith our focus is always tied to a simple truth: Vibrant faith in Jesus Christ, lived in community, transforms everything. In that spirit, let’s explore how God’s call for a reset in the Church might go deeper—more foundational—than structural changes or ministry-delivery innovations.
Over the next weeks we’ll take a deep dive into a new by book by Dr. Patrick Manning, Chair of the Department of Pastoral Theology at Seton Hall University—it’s called Converting the Imagination:Teaching to Recover Jesus’ Vision for Fullness of LIfe (Pickwick, Eugene Oregon, 2020).
This book was written for an academic audience of religious educators, but Manning does an amazing job of 1) identifying the causes behind ineffective (but widely embraced) faith-forming practices and 2) articulating a tested process for engaging people with Jesus’s invitation to fullness of life. In this post and the three that will follow, I’ll share Manning’s pre-pandemic insights into ministry strategies that no longer work, and his pedagogical approach for “converting the imagination.”
Ministry leaders are facing a universal challenge—it’s getting harder and harder to capture and keep the attention of children, youth, and adults. Manning’s take on this reality is that the way people “come to a living faith in Jesus” has simply changed. Because we have clung to models that aim to teach people ABOUT Jesus, a culture of creeping secularism and an epidemic of anxiety and mental illness have undermined our impact. Manning says these cultural shifts have reduced “the way we’ve always done things” to obsolete, ineffective, and even meaningless (!) methods.
The challenge is to find new ways to make faith-forming a process that infects people with a new worldview and a renovated life story. That’s a much deeper, more profound outcome than our typical formational practices produce. Manning believes that our focus needs to shift from what we know to how we see. Our role, he says, is to help our churches grow laser-focused on becoming a “fund of meaning for the community and all of its members. For Christians, participating in the Christian community’s common vision of reality inspired by Jesus is essential to the life of discipleship.”
Manning, a Catholic scholar teaching religion at a Roman Catholic University, stakes his claim on a big issue fraught with all kinds of historic baggage in American church history: Conversion. He believes that:
“Jesus’ teachings have continued to gain a hearing down through the centuries because he spoke to the fundamental concerns of human existence–our yearnings for peace, meaning and fulfillment. Speaking to these concerns, he taught that the real obstacles to fulfillment stem from problems of the heart and imagination. Accordingly, when he entered the world,to save humanity, he did not come to vanquish enemy armies or overthrow rival kings. Instead he invited humanity into the path to healing that passes through interior transformation (that is conversion.)”
Resisting the Pressure of the Moment
The need for a reset in our faith-forming practices has been coming for years—even decades. In many ways, the pandemic simply exposed and accelerated our need to deconstruct and reconstruct. But we feel under pressure to re-gather and “re-norm” as soon as possible, especially in our children’s and youth ministries. In the face of this pressure, resetting the way we think about (and imagine) faith formation might seem like a luxury. But, as we all know, this window of opportunity will close again, so I encourage you and your church to resist the temptation to revert back to old patterns and methods. Let’s use this season to learn from Jesus to see in new ways, and then learn to teach people to re-imagine their own life stories through the lens of Jesus’ story.
In the next post, I’ll share and explore Manning’s first step in his teaching methodology: Stimulating the Imagination.
Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.