A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, May 20, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.

Scripture:  Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 4:11-16

Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            To start my sermon, I would like you borrow your imagination.  I’m going to say a few words, and I invite you to pay attention to the images that they evoke in your imagination.  Sunday School; Christian Education; Faith formation.

Now, if I could, by a show of hands, how many of you got a specific image when I said, “Sunday School”?  I did, too.  My image was of a classroom with a handful of children and an adult, papers in front of the kids, the teacher speaking.

By a show of hands, how many of you got a specific image when I said, “Christian Education”?  My imagine wasn’t nearly as specific as it was for ‘Sunday School.’  It had morphed into more adults, and an attempt to visualize concepts and theory.

And by a show of hand, how many of you got a specific image when I said, “Faith formation”?  My image might as well have been a blank piece of paper.

And yet, faith formation is one of three central missions of the church.  (The other two might be labeled “loving God” and “loving neighbor.”)

Faith formation is the work we do in grounding people in the faith.  Think of a potter with a lump of clay.  She pushes it, kneads it, shapes it, forms it into something.  She might do it free hand; she might use tools or a wheel.  She might form it into something utilitarian (like a bowl) or into something artistic (like a sculpture).  But it is through her work that the lump of clay is transformed into that something else.

Faith formation is like that.  It is the work of pushing, kneading, and shaping that forms us into disciples of Jesus the Christ.  The potter – this is where the metaphor breaks down – is both us and God.

“To be a self,” wrote H. Richard Niebuhr, “is to have a god.”[1]  The thing is, and Niebuhr acknowledged this, sometimes we choose the God of Jesus Christ and sometimes we settle for lesser gods, like the gods of family or job or soccer or fame or accumulation of stuff.  One task, then, of faith formation, is to help us choose the God of Jesus Christ, rather than one of those lesser gods.

There is no time in life that is more focused on the development of self-identity than adolescence.  One of the reasons that friends can have so great an influence – typically greater than family or parents – during adolescence is that the adolescent is breaking away of the identity of being part of the family in an effort to develop a self-identity.  And so, the lure of these lesser gods can be particularly strong at this point in a person’s development.

That is not to say that the lure of these lesser gods is felt only by teenagers.  All of us can direct our lives toward the common gods of power and status, money and education, drugs and alcohol, family and jobs.  I believe, however, that at our core, as human beings, we have a desire for the uncommon God.  We hunger for a god that is bigger than the self.  Hopefully, this hunger will drive us beyond the choice of an inadequate god, a god too small to transcend our limitations and who therefore can neither save nor transform us.  Hopefully, those of us who are past adolescence will take a cue from the teenagers in our midst and join them in the search of the God that is bigger than the self.[2]

Our reading from Deuteronomy is a central scripture for Judaism.  It is known as the Shema, the first word of the reading.  “Hear, Israel,” or “Listen up, Israel,” it begins.  “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all you might.”  When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus quotes this scripture.

The reading continues, admonishing the Israelites to keep this commandment and the others in their hearts, to recite them to their children and make them the topic of conversation at every opportunity.  Make them omnipresent in your life by wearing them and posting them on the door to your house so that you’ll see them every day.

It is easy to hear within this reading a responsibility to our children:  to teach them our religion.  But more and more I’m thinking less and less of this responsibility.  Our religion is not something to be taught.  Knowledge is not wisdom.  Teaching our children information about God or information about Jesus or information about the church has little value if we do not do something deeper as well.  The job of faith formation is not to pass on a religion.  The job of faith formation is to help us all choose a way of life.[3]

If we listen carefully to the reading from Ephesians, we hear that God has given each of us gifts for a purpose: to build up the body of Christ.  Paul says that this work is to continue “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”  Or as Eugene Peterson translates it:  “until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.”[4]

The thing that I notice here is that the work, this utilizing the gifts God has given us, doesn’t finish when our kids are confirmed or when they graduate high school.  Our work isn’t even just for our kids.  Our work is for all of us, to help all of us grow in faith, to mature in faith.  Paul goes on to talk about what looks to me like a faith formation feedback loop:  “we must grow up … into Christ, from whom the whole body … promotes the body’s growth in building itself up…”  We are here for one another so that all of us can continue to grow.  And when we serve each other, when we help each other with our faith formation, we get formed.

So I’ve been wondering what this looks like.  I think we see this in our adult Sunday School class.  Here, a group of people wrestle with questions and build each other up in the body of Christ.  I think we see it in the Spiritual Direction groups, where the members prayerfully reflect on faith questions that get raised out of the lives of the groups’ members.

I think about a time back in the distant past when I was in seminary, doing my internship.  It was junior high youth group meeting night and I had gathered with the kids in the large youth room, despite the fact that I was sick and should have been home in bed.  As the kids bounced off the walls, I put my head down on the table.  I didn’t have the energy to try to get them to focus on whatever program I had created for the meeting.  One of the kids must have noticed me, because in the midst of the cacophony, I heard him say something like, “Jeff must be really annoyed with us.”

I didn’t lift my head from the table, but I said, loud enough for them to hear, “The funny thing is, I love you guys.”  There was a pregnant pause.  And then the cacophony began again.

I am convinced that I did more faith formation in that moment than I did with that program or all the other programs for the rest of the year.  Faith formation happens when we build each other up in the love of God.

A few months back, I read an article[5] that managed to find its way to the top of the pile on my desk last week.  It’s an interview with a Lutheran pastor about a program he stated called FAITH 5.  It’s a family-center faith formation program that asks parents and kids to commit themselves to five minutes a night to simple faith encounters.  When the first kids is ready to bed, the family gathers and walks through these five steps:

  1. Share your highs and lows for the day
  2. Read a verse of scripture from Sunday’s worship service or Sunday school class
  3. Talk about how the highs and lows of the day relate to the scripture (the hope is that behind this sharing is the question, Is God actually saying something to you?)
  4. Pray for one another’s highs and lows
  5. Bless one another before turning out the lights on the day.

The family is where most faith formation happens – whether it happens intentionally or not – so why not be intentional about it.  Parents therefore are the most important part of the faith formation of their children.  And parents who are intentional about this find that their children are a key element of the parents’ faith formation.

Yes, many parents think that they aren’t equipped to talk about faith.  But Paul didn’t tell the Ephesians that they had to be mature in the faith in order to build up others.  He said that we call are called to build each other up, no matter who we are or how ill equipped we might think we are, so that all could mature in faith.

It occurs to me that this FAITH 5 program is designed for families with children at home, but it could work just as well with a couple, or with singles meeting on the phone or chatting on line.  The reality is that we need each other as we grow in faith.

There’s an important moment in the synoptic gospels when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”[6]  It’s not that Jesus is wondering who he is for himself.  He knows who he is.  He’s curious how he’s being seen.  The crowds have said that he’s John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets come back to life.  But Peter says who Jesus is.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

There’s an important question teenagers ask as they try to figure out the answer for themselves:  Who do you say that I am?  Will we answer – regardless of what they’ve done or what’s been done to them – “You are a beloved child of God”?  And as those of us who are well beyond those teenage years, as we continue to be formed in our faith, when we ask that question, will we hear – regardless of what we’ve done or what’s been done to us –“You are a beloved child of God”?

All of us, regardless of age, regardless of where we are on life’s journey, “are looking for a soul-shaking, heart-waking, world-changing God to fall in love with,”[7] and if we do not find that God here, in the body of Christ, each of us will settle for a lesser god we find somewhere else.

And so, we are stewards of – even as we are in – formation.


[1] Quoted in Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry (Nashville: The Upper Roo, 1998), 17-18.

[2] Ibid, 16.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Peterson, E. H. (2002). The Message: The Bible in contemporary language (Eph 4:13). Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress.

[5] Rich Melheim, “How faith is formed: Family Affair,” Christian Century, 22 February 2012, p. 22.

[6] See Matthew 16:13-20, Luke 9:18-20, and Mark 8:27-30.

[7] Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, op. cit., 9.