The Need for Christian Formation

It’s something of a truism that we’re formed by everything around us.

It’s common for people to point out that in the average church you’ve got at best two hours of people’s time a week to use to form them towards Christ—you might get a third of them for another two hours midweek—and everything else that is trying to form them has about six and a half days to do so.

It’s a fatal equation. We start with the fact that we are being catechised by everything we view on our phones, all the TV we watch, the games we play, the ads we see, and a bunch of structural artifacts in the world at large. All of it shapes us.

The classic way of framing it is that the Christian is more formed by their favourite Insta influencer than by their Pastor. That might be true. I think this is a real problem, but to get the shape of it right I’d like to push back in two directions on the way I’ve framed it.

Firstly, the things that are forming us are forming us in lots of directions. Some of them are bad, some of them are explicitly towards Christ, the vast majority are mixed phenomena. For example, it’s not so easy to say that the motorcar is explicitly terrible and should be eschewed by all people, even though it has had a long series of unintended effects on the way we understand and interact with the world and the church, some of which I think are really bad.

It’s not that the content we’re consuming might happen to be Christian, I’m a little leary of the idea of Christian content in the first place, but even if we assume it’s all good stuff my point is that all the other things that form us do so in a variety of directions. In other words, we can formed in ‘good’ directions that Christians can use to form themselves towards Christ by things that are not necessarily forming them towards Christ per se. All truth is God’s truth.

Though, I’m not sanguine about the average Christian’s ability to find dredge gold from the bottom of a murky pond without swallowing a whole lot of pond water. We need training and formation to learn how to do this.

Secondly, I don’t think counting the number of hours we do something is the only way to see the impact it has on us. Preaching, for example, is an act of encountering Christ by the Spirit in the text. It is inherently more powerful than the vast majority of everyday activities.

However, it’s also the case that we think modern devices like smartphones have greater formative effects on us than most technology that existed before them. I say ‘we think’ because everything here is very new and we’ve opened ourselves to a whole world without really thinking it through. The principalities and powers are strongly in evidence.

The problem isn’t as simple as counting the hours—which means the solution won’t be to be ‘in church’ for more hours than we’re outside of it—but the problem is still a real one that any Pastor you talk to can say they’ve seen in their congregations: people are formed by a whole host of stuff that isn’t Jesus. We don’t know how to think Christianly and we swallow the assumptions of the wider world very easily. You can see this at play in everything from the sorts of leadership and decision-making we employ in our churches through to the way we think about what humans are for.

What can we do about it?

The answer shouldn’t be ‘address all the formation issues in your preaching.’ You’re already trying to do too many different things in your preaching. Breathe. Preaching is for seeing Christ in the text, you don’t need to overcomplicate it. Though there’s nothing wrong with dropping some things in if you want to.

I said the answer isn’t ‘more church than not,’ but the answer does include ‘more church.’ Now, any church leader will know that it’s already a fight to get people to come to one thing midweek, and if you put more stuff on they won’t come.

OK. But that’s because of the problem outlined above. The Catch-22 seems inescapable, but the thing about inescapable problems is that the answer is that we need to do something. It almost doesn’t matter what.

Here are some things you could do:

1. Eat around a Table. The answer to formation is not ‘more preaching’ it’s community. You need to be in thick community with other Christians who you talk to every day. That takes years of work, so you need to start by starting. It’s OK if the good stuff comes for your generation’s children, keep plugging away at genuine community. Don’t assume that a midweek group is this, though it can be a place to get to know people to do it with. If you’re a church leader, your people won’t live this way unless you do.

2. Put some things on that involve opening the Bible. I could tell you exactly what I’d do, but it doesn’t matter what it is. We’re not in a perfect world scenario, so do something. Do something where you don’t preach again, but you either read the Bible together, or you teach or train people on an aspect of the Christian faith. It doesn’t matter if five people turn up. Do it for them, and keep doing it. If they are changed, your church will be too. You’re trying to turn around a ship over a long period of time.

If it were me, I’d be looking at running some interactive lectures through books of the Bible and on key ethical topics that people face day-to-day, maybe something like once a month. I’d also be creating opportunities to read the Bible together, not necessarily a ‘Bible Study’ with questions, but just reading and exploring the text around the table. I do this regularly with a group of 6-8 people, and I’ve done one offs through a whole book with around 50. I bet there are other things you can do too, if it lights you up, start it and see what happens.

3. Ask for help. This is really 2.5. Most preachers don’t know how to do the things in the previous point well. Which is fine, but most think they do, and so they will just preach again. If you’re a really good preacher your people will come and here you again, but instead you could talk with the teachers and trainers in your congregation for a bit of help on structuring something that will be accessible and collaborative. It’s a skill you can learn. Or, if you like, book me to come and do something for your church or to consult and help you to develop something.

4. Use all the channels you have. If you email your people every week, use it to teach. If you put out an Instagram story, use it to teach. Whatever ways you communicate with your people, use them to teach. We might be leary of the way that the medium is the message— and I think we should be, McLuhan had a point—but you can work with that with careful thought. The thing is you probably don’t know how to use, for example, an Insta story to teach. Neither do I: so talk to the young people in your congregation and get them to collaborate on it.

Will that fix our formation problem overnight? No. Are these the only things you can do? No. But do something about it. Do it now. Because waiting isn’t going to help anyone. When you do, have a realistic expectation, you’re turning an oil tanker not tacking a dinghy. Most importantly, remember this: Jesus is the Shepherd, he leads his flock, and he will use our meagre efforts to lead his people to himself.

Try something in expectation of what he will do.

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

To subscribe and receive email notifications for future posts, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.

Would you like to support my work? The best thing you can do is share this post with your friends. Why not consider also joining my Patreon to keep my writing free for everyone. You can see other ways to support me here.