Diana Butler Bass, in Christianity After Religion (HarperOne, 2012),describes growing up in her father's flower shop. From an early age, she would play in the shop and sweep the floors. As she grew older, he trained her hands in how to work the flowers. After much practice she became a florist in her own right.
She said her mother formed her into Methodism in much the same way: "Inheriting faith meant standing—or kneeling—besides one’s parents and learning the practices that composed a spiritual way of life."
She is no longer a florist or a Methodist. While her parents taught her how, they did not teach her what was compelling about it or why she should devote her life to these practices, she says. She was given no reason to follow her familial path—other than this is way they had always done it, or we need someone to take over after we are gone.
In today’s culture, people have choice about faith and work, she observes. In our choice-based culture, meaning and purpose are extremely important. People make choices based on these concerns.
I found her thoughts very provocative. Visiting a new-church start a few years ago, I noticed the pastor doing a most unusual thing. As the acolytes were coming forward to light the candles, he told the congregation what they were doing and why. He did the same thing as he introduced the Great Thanksgiving for communion—he talked about this being an ancient practice of the church that recalled and named the works of God.
In a very simple way the pastor was teaching the congregation not only what they do, but why they do it. He did not suppose that anyone—even those who had grown up in church—had been apprenticed into the faith and understood why they should choose or continue on this path.
That reflects my own experience of growing up in the church. There were wonderful saints who loved me and invited me to watch them pray, sing, and serve, and to do likewise. In my Norwegian-heritage household, we did not talk deeply about the things of faith; we just did them.
All that did have formative power. I had a positive experience of Christian community. And it moved me to keep exploring.
But it was not until I reached seminary that I was invited to probe deeply about why this whole Christianity thing mattered and what were the implications for my life and how was it going to shape how I lived my life. It is there I chose the faith I was given by my parents and church.
Not everyone is going to go to seminary. That should not be the only place where someone can learn and claim why living the way of Christ matters. That is the work of the church.
A key quality of a vital congregation is their corporate covenant to spiritual practices. As a community, they have determined the key practices that matter in living the way of Jesus: they teach them, they talk about why they matter, and they make them a priority. This is how faith is passed down from one generation to the next.
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church