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Faith Formation: What's the trouble with moralism?

Churches are talking about spiritual formation and faith formation because they've seen the failure of information to form faith that changes people's inner lives and outward behaviors. A feature story exploring the switch from moralism to faith formation.

Even Google knows about the story. Enter “five smooth stones” and sling in the search box and you’ll get thousands of websites about David and Goliath. Many sites explain the story as some of you may have learned it in Sunday school, as a tale of courage.

Sermons posted online ask listeners to name their Goliaths, perhaps cheating, using drugs, doubting yourself because of age or disability, or problems as giant as AIDS and poverty.

Preachers describe David’s five smooth stones as the ammunition we need to face impossible odds. They exhort us to faith, obedience, prayer, humility, being open to opportunity, and staying true to our hearts.

Yet you’ve probably noticed disconnects between what people say in worship and how they live. That’s why more church leaders are talking about the difference between moralism and genuine faith formation. They’re asking how worship can form people to picture faith and life as so much more than lists of dos and don’ts.

Biblical principles, biblical people?

In an essay on moralism and Christ-centered preachingTim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, says he learned in seminary that he “had to preach Christ and not moralism from every text.” For years Keller thought that meant ending sermons with “Jesus as add-on.”

So a sermon on David and Goliath would point worshipers to Christ as an example of how to muster faith and courage to fight our giants. But even children know we can’t live up to Christ’s example.

Keller says reducing Bible stories to biblical principles sends the message “Please try harder or God will be very unhappy.” Some preachers put a positive spin on moralistic sermons, as in “We all fall down but God loves us anyway.”

Both ways make the Bible a story about us. Neither produces deep repentance or “gospel holiness.” Instead worshipers need to see each Bible passage within the whole story of God’s loving relationship with creation.

“If I read David and Goliath as showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure)…. Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others,” Keller writes.

Moral development does not equal faith formation

Reading the Bible as a handbook for right living may help us control others’ behavior. It also lets us ignore or limit our place in the unfolding story of God’s actions among us.

But reading the Bible as more—more about what God does than about what we must do—affects how churches do Christian education.

In his book Helping Our Children Grow in Faith: How the Church Can Nurture the Spiritual Development of KidsRobert J. Keeley explains that faith and moral development are both important…but aren’t the same thing. “Faith development is about helping children come to know and trust God as the Lord of their lives. Moral development is about helping children learn how to behave,” he writes.

Keeley says that letting the stories speak gives children a chance to wonder about what people in the Bible did and why. Consider Jesus’ parable about two people who behaved correctly. The Pharisee and tax collector both went to the temple to pray. However, they had different reasons for praying. So their prayers didn’t get the same results.

Helping kids see beyond actions to motivation sinks stories into their hearts. Pondering Bible stories leads them into mature morality. “As they focus on God’s Word, it becomes more a part of their lives and encourages a faith that has depth,” Keeley says.

Meanwhile, popular culture overflows with examples of Christians who are not known by their love or depth of faith.

Philosophy professor and author Dallas Willard says that churches are talking about spiritual formation and faith formation because they’ve seen the failure of information—teaching, preaching, and knowledge—to form faith that changes people’s inner lives and outward behaviors.

Willard says, “We have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live, and can hardly get along with themselves, much less with others.”

The mysterious God who knows and loves us

Sometimes teachers and preachers distill a Bible passage to a single doctrine or moral application because they want to make sure people get the message.

In Helping Our Children Grow in Faith, Keeley says, “If I introduce children to a God who is so small I can explain everything about him, I am shortchanging the children.”

He shows how to “simplify the story without being simplistic.” Draining a Bible story of its “richness, nuances of decision, and multiple points of view” works against letting listeners see how much bigger God is than our understanding or our questions.

In fact, Keeley says it’s essential to see that God is mysterious and complex. This sense of awe and wonder about God’s greatness leaves room for the Holy Spirit to fill the story with power and grab our imagination.

Old Testament characters didn’t always do what God wanted. But they knew God was God of the universe, someone “who cared about them as a people and as individuals. If we live with these stories in the ebb and flow of our lives, we can see that God is working in our lives in the same way that he worked in the lives of Joseph, David, and Samson,” Keeley says.

From Christian Education to Faith Formation

Jane Rogers Vann has been director of Christian education in many churches. She teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. But after spending two years studying a dozen mainline congregations, she noticed something surprising.

These thriving congregations were worship-centered. Members told of deep relationships, excellent church education programs, and active outreach and mission programs. They also expressed a sense of “something missing,” a deep yearning for a “felt sense of the transcendent,” Vann wrote in Hungry Hearts (pp. 3-6), a quarterly Presbyterian journal on spiritual formation.

“Across the centuries and around the globe Christians have always learned the Christian life from theexperience of congregational life,” she added.

Vann, like so many leaders, says that everything we do in church teaches, including what we omit or pull apart. Congregations with courage to name the emptiness are looking at how they got to where they are. They are reflecting on participation in congregational life. And they’re reorienting spiritual formation around baptism, communion, God’s Word, and the Christian year.

Everything we do teaches

Here’s an analogy to explain why churches are talking less about Christian education and more about spiritual formation or faith formation. Good cooks often love reading cookbooks. Yet reading those cookbooks won’t make you a great chef. Nor does reading about worship guarantee you’ll experience yourself as part of a community gathered around the risen Christ. You have to participate to cook or worship well.

Spiritual formation is a work of the Holy Spirit. It molds our lives into Christ’s likeness, drawing us into deeper intimacy with God and compassion for all creation. Our participation in the church, the body of Christ, is meant to reflect the unity that exists in the Trinity.

For early Christians, “to be formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ was to hear stories of Jesus and meet the risen Christ in bread and wine, eaten together. Worship was communal and participatory,” Vann said at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship.

In what she called “a quick romp through liturgical history,” Vann explained that the early church led potential members through an initial catechism process for up to three years. “Water baptism took place, usually, at dawn on Easter morning. They received a lavish welcome, kiss of peace, and their first communion.

“Then lifelong instruction began. People understood themselves to be living into their baptisms for the rest of their lives,” she said.

For various reasons, catechesis became separate from sacraments. By the 1500s, few worshipers regularly took communion. Catholic priests expected worshipers to watch, not partake, as they consecrated the elements. And many Protestants saw the Eucharist as “too Catholic.”

Social and economic factors in the U.K. and U.S. led to what’s true in many churches today. Families worship separately according to age. Baptism and communion have little connection with lifelong instruction. Education programs, which happen apart from worship, have been split into Christian education (volunteers teaching Bible stories) and catechism (clergy teaching doctrine).

Bath and meal

“Humans are pattern-seeking, storytelling, meaning-making beings. In congregations where the patterns, stories, and meaning of experience are valued, people find the clue to what might be missing,” Vann says.

People reflect on what they’re doing in worship, education, outreach, or any program. They ask, “Where is God in all this?”

This faith formation happens in stages that relate to developmental age. But the underlying pattern is simple enough for preschoolers to grasp. Fred P. Edie captured it in the title of his Book, Bath, Table, and Time: Christian Worship as Source and Resource for Youth Ministry. Bath, of course, means baptism. Table or meal refers to communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.

Seeing the Christian life as a journey of “discipleship springing from baptism can help to center and unify the church,” says a Presbyterian pastoral letter about renewing sacramental practice. The letter suggests five simple disciplines any congregation can do:

  • Set the font in full view of the congregation.
  • Open the font and fill it with water on every Lord’s Day.
  • Set cup and plate on the Lord’s Table on every Lord’s Day.
  • Lead appropriate parts of weekly worship from the font and from the table.
  • Increase the number of Sundays on which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. 

After merging Asian and English congregations, First United Presbyterian Church of San Franciscocentered a worship renewal project on finding a common identity in communion. Pastor and project director Kevin Manuel had worried a bit about the project’s visual arts element. “It seemed there wasn’t an artistic soul among us,” he said in a Worship Symposium seminar.

The whole community, even the very young and very old, spent a day of “prayerful papercutting” with liturgical artist Alice Helen Masek. They made cuttings for Maundy Thursday and Easter worship.

Manuel said the art captured their communion in Christ and was a “surprising catalyst of that communion…that inspired and renewed corporate worship.” He compared how Christ makes “himself known in the ordinariness and earthiness of bread and wine” to how cutting paper and praying together made the congregation aware of being bound together in love with the Lord.

Story and time

Along with baptism and communion, focusing on story and time creates patterns for a congregation to understand its life.

Story or book means giving God’s Word a central role in congregational life and worship, while time refers to keying worship to the pattern of the Christian year.

River Rock Church in Folsom, California, describes spiritual formation as a biblical journey of becoming better image bearers of Jesus. This journey is a matrix of four intertwining elements, adding layers of meaning as Christians mature:

  • Story we are to know
  • An Identity we are to grow
  • Practices we are to sow
  • Signs we are to show

River Rock members follow a Bible reading calendar so that they’re all “shaped by the Story of God.”

The Bible’s stories, metaphors, and images percolate through sermons, songs, and prayers. In that scripture-marinated language “we affirm who God is, whose we are, and God’s welcoming us into conversation,” says Anne Streaty Wimberly, an author and teacher at International Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia

Understanding God’s story gives worshipers a context for understanding their own lives. “In my tradition, testimony is also a way of teaching. And our young people very vitally and vocally testify about their lives in ways that teach us adults, if we give them the opportunity to do that,” Wimberly said at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship.

The liturgical seasons of the Christian year take worshipers through the story of salvation. Michael Pasquarello II, a preaching professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, gave a workshop on the formative power of the lectionary. He described preaching through the lectionary “as a means of leading and forming a pilgrim people across time on their journey to the City of God.”

Learn More

Create your own mini-seminar with these resources on worship and spiritual formation.

The January 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship included most of the people listed above. You can listen to and/or see presentations by Robert J. Keeley, Dallas Willard, Jane Rogers Vann, Fred Edie, Kevin Manuel, Anne Streaty Wimberly, and Michael Pasquerello II.

Don’t miss Robert J. Keeley’s book Helping Our Children Grow in Faith: How the Church Can Nurture the Spiritual Development of Kids. It tells how to create a child-friendly culture in your church and includes a drama presentation, “Traveling with Paul: Bringing the First Missionary Journey to Life.”

Find other books by symposium presenters here.

In Reformed Worship, John Witvliet wrote a concise explanation of moralism and Robert and Laura Keeley did a series on faith formation.

Download a resource book on faith formation for all ages, written by Laura Keeley. It includes ideas that have worked well in many Christian Reformed Church in North America congregations. WalkOn: The Year of Spiritual Formation offers best practices, church bulletin inserts, an Advent play, and more.

Fred P. Edie directs the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation. Read his book Book, Bath, Table, and Time: Christian Worship as Source and Resource for Youth Ministry, and essay “Cultivating Baptismal Spirituality in High School Youth.”

Intrigued by Tim Keller’s essay on moralism and Christ-centered preaching? Check out Keller’s newest book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

Want to create more visual openings for Holy Spirit moments in worship? Glean grassroots visual arts ideasfrom other churches. Eyekons offers digital images (separately or in CD collections) that work in contemporary and traditional worship.

Browse related stories about ancient future worshipbaptismfaith practices that renewhealing in worship, and intergenerational worship.

Start a Discussion

  • What do you think about the distinction these stories make between moralism and faith formation? Where do you see either element in your sermons, worship, education, or congregational life?
  • What might you like to change about your congregation’s practice of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, scripture use, or church calendar?
  • Describe cross-generational relationships in your congregation. In what ways do people of different ages interact? Do teens play hockey with their dads’ friends? At what age may kids join the adult choir?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to explore or define what faith formation is—and how it happens in your congregation?

  • Did you design a participatory project that helped people of different ages experience baptism or communion more deeply, perhaps by linking it to Easter?
  • Which methods—including drama, visual arts, renewed sacramental practices, reflection projects—have worked best for designing worship that strengthens congregational identity as people on a journey together to become more like Jesus?