Photo: Brian Quan and Elsie Rempel helped to lead communion during the closing session of the Deep Faith conference, held Oct. 6-8 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Photo by Hannah Heinzekehr.
“At a time of roiling tension and polarization, it is no small thing to have a learning community that can be a space to wrestle with questions of faith in nonanxious ways. We need to tap into deep wellsprings of wisdom and community practices that will form our faith over the long haul.”
These words from Sara Wenger Shenk, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary president, welcomed 109 participants onto the AMBS campus in Elkhart, Ind., for two-and-a-half days of learning, discussing and practicing faith formation techniques for a changing church. The event was jointly sponsored by AMBS, the Anabaptist Faith Formation Network, the Mennonite Camping Association, Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, Mennonite Church Manitoba, Mennonite Church USA, and The Gathering Place—and planned by a binational committee.
The event featured three plenary sessions and 30 workshops by faith formation practitioners, covering topics ranging from engaging children in spirituality to choosing the best children’s Bible to late-life spirituality and models for intergenerational faith formation.
“One of the best things about this event is that everyone here could have been a workshop presenter,” said Andy Brubacher Kaethler, planner and AMBS professor of Christian formation and culture. “It’s great to have so many practitioners in one place and learning together.”
On Thursday, Oct. 6, John Roberto, executive director of Lifelong Faith Associates, spoke on reimagining faith formation for the 21st century. Roberto emphasized that, for the first time, churches need to tend to the spiritual lives of people across 10 generations, as well as individuals on a diverse spiritual-religious continuum, ranging from the completely unaffiliated to the active.
“The message didn’t change and the mission of the church didn’t change,” said Roberto. “But our delivery systems are problematic. We need a new faith-forming ecosystem.”
Roberto encouraged participants to utilize technology and to adopt a do-it-yourself attitude to create faith-forming ecosystems that reach people both in person and online, while keeping the focus on the mission, message and the people the church needs to reach.
“We want to create faith formation that’s digitally connected, not digital faith formation,” said Roberto. “Sunday worship is one extension, but we want to create a whole week’s worth of material for going deeper.”
On Friday morning, Oct. 7, Rachel Miller Jacobs, assistant professor of congregational formation at AMBS, talked about models for “ordinary time forgiveness,” or forgiveness that is not taking place in “worst case scenarios” but rather smaller occurrences of harm that face people on a day-to-day basis.
“Discussing the reality that we offend each other is important as Christians,” said Miller Jacobs. She cited the Protestant and Mennonite proclivity to split or divide ourselves from other Mennonite Christians who are perceived to be “more spotted and wrinkly than we.”
Miller Jacobs tested a flow chart of steps for internal and external work to address forgiveness and harm in these “ordinary time” situations. Participants offered feedback and asked questions to help continue to refine the model.
On Saturday Oct. 8, Brian Quan, lead pastor of Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church (TCMC), a multicultural and intergenerational congregation, spoke on the importance of intergenerational faith formation.
Quan told the story of his family’s entry into the Mennonite church, when members of TCMC came to his house and told his parents about the free Chinese language school the church was offering for kids. Quan began attending classes and ending up being shaped and mentored by members of the congregation and eventually called into pastoral ministry.
Quan emphasized the importance of passing on “heart stories” from generation to generation as a way of passing on faith to children. Quan identified four activities that are most important for churches when connecting with new generations of youth: teaching shared values, guiding decision making, holding meaningful conversations and discussing personal values.
“Often teens don’t know how to speak about faith because they haven’t heard about it,” said Quan. “Teachers, parents and grandparents, we need to recover the language of faith so that we can pass it on.”
Throughout the weekend, participants participated in times of singing, ritual and prayer, and the final Saturday session ended with a litany of Communion and song.
Worship on Oct. 7: