By Walt Wiltschek
ELKHART, Indiana (AMBS/Mennonite Church USA) — More than 100 people from across the United States and Canada gathered at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) Oct. 6-8 to explore “Deep Faith” at a conference focused on faith formation for all ages.
The event grew out of conversations at a 2014 Mennonite Camping Association convention, which led to participants envisioning a first-of-its-kind conference “by faith formation workers, for faith formation workers,” according to planning team member Elsie Rempel of Charleswood Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“We chatted about learning from each other, and planning for an event began,” Rempel said.
Three keynote speakers — John Roberto, president of Lifelong Faith Associates; Rachel Miller Jacobs, assistant professor of congregational formation at AMBS; and Brian Quan, lead pastor of Toronto (Ontario) Chinese Mennonite Church — addressed the conference, which also featured daily worship, an assortment of workshop choices and optional evening activities.
Roberto, from Naugatuck, Connecticut, explored the theme “Responding to Trends that Affect North American Churches Today.” Weaving together images, humor and stories, he looked at the huge changes affecting culture and
faith and highlighted the growing diversity across the life span, the need for intergenerational spaces and the decline of “religious transmission” from one generation to the next.
He challenged participants to “imagine a new future” with new ways of carrying out faith formation.
“The message didn’t change, and the mission didn’t change. The gospel is just fine,” Roberto said. “The delivery system is problematic. That’s where we’re getting stuck.”
He proposed a “new faith-forming ecology” that is family-centered and intentionally intergenerational, spans the life cycle, and takes advantage of new technological tools and the abundance of material that already exists online to extend its reach and impact.
“People are already online,” Roberto said. “If we can be part of their everyday life, they might check us out.”
Miller Jacobs focused on Anabaptist values of reconciliation and peacemaking with a look at “ordinary-time forgiveness” (as opposed to extreme incidents) — noting that the Greek word aphiemi has a wider range of meaning (including “sending away” and “letting go”) than “forgiveness,” which is how it is usually translated.
She defined “human becoming” as the construction of “matrices of meaning” and noted how one’s actions and words can offend someone — even unintentionally — by being at odds with those frameworks. She cautioned against the religious tendency of “perfecting” concepts and definitions to have such a narrow meaning that others with differing viewpoints can’t possibly be right.
“We often fall into a pattern of everyday harmful behavior while aspiring to virtue,” Miller Jacobs said. “How do we embody (forgiveness) in our family life and our congregational life so that we’re not just aspiring to but actually practicing it? We have to become better practitioners.”
Since “God is the God of the first and third and 50th try,” and grace allows room for re-adjustment, she continued, we can “choose over and over again the trajectory of becoming increasingly reconciling people.”
Quan centered on intergenerational faith formation at the congregational level, bringing perspectives from his multicultural church. Sharing stories with each other, he said, is an important part of faith formation, especially those stories that are deeply embedded in our hearts.
He reviewed results from a 2008 Search Institute survey that identified sharing meaningful conversations and discussing personal values as some of the most important elements in connecting with children, but then observed that those same adults who responded to the survey generally “were not doing what they thought should be done.”
“Having intergenerational experiences helps us to connect,” Quan said. “I’m convinced it’s the way God wants us to grow.”
Nearly 30 workshops addressed a host of topics including the physical and emotional dimensions of faith and learning, specific faith formation resources, age-group dynamics from children to grandparents, and various other aspects of worship and Christian education. Evening activities included a nature walk, conversation groups, a coffeehouse exploring contemporary song choices and a tour of the adjacent Mennonite Church USA offices.
AMBS, Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Manitoba and Mennonite Church Eastern Canada were sponsors of the conference along with The Gathering Place (Mennonite Church USA’s interactive online space for youth leaders across the denomination), Mennonite Camping Association and the Anabaptist Faith Formation Network.
In addition to Rempel, the planning team included Shannon Dycus, co-pastor at First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis; Rachel S. Gerber, denominational minister of youth and young adults for Mennonite Church USA; Katherine Goerzen, associate pastor at Tabor Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas, and AMBS–Kansas Center coordinator; Andy Brubacher Kaethler, assistant professor of Christian formation and culture at AMBS; Shana Peachey Boshart, Central Plains Mennonite Conference minister for Christian formation; and Carrie Martens, pastor of faith formation at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario.
Following a worship service that included upbeat singing and communion, Goerzen closed the conference with a benediction of encouragement and challenge.
“May your faith continue to deepen,” she said, “and may it inspire deepening in the faith of God’s people.”
“Deep Faith” participants wrote words related to faith formation on fall-colored water lilies as part of the worship center. (Photo by Walt Wiltschek, Mennonite Church USA
John Roberto, left, speaks with Rachel S. Gerber, Mennonite Church USA denominational minister for young and young adults. (Photo by Walt Wiltschek, Mennonite Church USA)
Rachel Miller Jacobs, assistant professor of congregational formation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, uses a toy to illustrate “matrices of meaning.” (Photo by Walt Wiltschek, Mennonite Church USA)
Planning team member Elsie Rempel, center, and Brian Quan serve communion to conference participants at closing worship. (Photo by Walt Wiltschek, Mennonite Church USA)