Faith Sharing for Amateurs (In other words, for all of us)


Originally featured in e-Word Volume 4.1

“I would talk to people about my faith more if I knew more.”

Have you ever heard this comment? Have you ever said it yourself? In our experience, members of United Church of Christ congregations often say that not knowing enough about the basics of Christianity is their primary reason for not talking about their faith. For a while, we actually believed them.

Is “Alpha” the answer?

A few years back, the “Alpha” series caught our attention, and the attention of a number of other clergy we know. Alpha, an 8 – 12 week adult faith formation program, teaches adults about how Christians respond to some of the most basic questions of our faith. Each night begins with a video presentation in which a charming Church of England rector, Nicky Gumbel, presents a short talk on topics such as “Why Did Jesus Die?” and “How Can I Resist Evil?” Then, guided by questions in a workbook, participants talk with one another about what they’ve learned.

We were very interested by Alpha’s approach, but when it came to its theology, we were not sold. While parts of it fit our congregations nicely, much didn’t translate well to our theologically liberal UCC setting. Encouraged by the interest of a number of our colleagues, we started to develop our own version of Alpha—an adult series on Christian basics, offered with the intention of equipping members of our congregation with the training needed to talk about their faith with others.

The classes were extremely well received. In our congregations, if we had advertised a class in “evangelism training”, no one would have signed up. But “Christian basics” drew a good crowd. Our class was highly participatory—like Alpha, we did not simply present information, but engaged the group in responding to what we presented in small group discussions.

At the end of our first six-week series, we asked everyone involved to evaluate the class with us. To our amazement, the main comment we received was that the class hadn’t been long enough. People felt like we had just begun to scratch the surface. Some suggested there should have been a reading list for every class. Others wanted a follow-up series just on the Bible. One person mused about maybe enrolling in a class in seminary.

This is not what we had expected.

We had attempted to prepare participants to share their faith with others. Instead, we had only prepared them to take more classes. Our approach had reinforced their sense that knowing more was somehow a prerequisite to talking to anyone else about their faith. This discovery was particularly astonishing because of the excellent conversations we had during the series. We knew the participants had a living and vital faith that they could share with others. They didn’t know that about themselves.

With that discovery, we went back to the drawing board and wrote a new kind of Christian Basics curriculum called Talking Faith: An Eight-Part Study on Growing and Sharing Your Faith, published last year by Chalice Press.

The purpose of the curriculum is to help adults realize that they can share their faith as it grows.

You don’t have to be an expert. We live in a day and age of experts. When we want advice about our health, our taxes, our children, we seek the advice of experts, those who have the degrees to show how much more they know than we do. When it comes to faith, most of the members of our congregations are keenly aware of their status as amateurs. They haven’t read the whole Bible. They haven’t studied much theology or church history. They aren’t even too sure about how their church or their denomination works.

But the fact of the matter is, were we to try to offer an adult education series to give each member of our congregations a sense of “expertise” in Biblical studies, theology, church history and polity, most of them would die before they graduated. What we need is to share our faith—as amateurs.

Fundamentally, faith development and faith sharing are not sequential activities; they are two sides of the samecoin. We learn as we share. When we have a conversation about faith, we discover what we really believe. We find out that some of what we thought we believed rings hollow when we say it out loud. We find out that some things we thought didn’t matter are of great interest to others. We find out that people often are yearning for conversation about things that really do matter. We find out that we actually do have a faith to share.

We have seen how the opportunity to explore our questions of faith out loud in a safe setting leads to a more engaged, more experiential, and more integrated life in Christ. Faith becomes who we are, not simply what we do on Sunday. In a variety of exercises in our curriculum, Talking Faith, we have attempted to offer people just such a setting and an opportunity. Here are some things we’ve learned:

Lead as a learner, not an expert.

The leader must let go of his or her desire to give out information and to have the answer to every question. Instead, the leader asks questions, wonders out loud and shares stories of how his or her faith has evolved, changed, grown and been challenged. Most of all, the leader affirms every single effort someone makes at saying out loud what he values, whom she trusts, and what they hold to be true.

So what were all those years of seminary for? As people begin to question and engage in the church in new and dynamic ways, leaders become all the more important. We in leadership can mentor people as they discover their voice and call. We can notice where there are holes in people’s learning and invite them to consider new ideas. We can suggest Christian practices that we believe will help individuals in their growing faith. We can insist that people be accountable to one another in small groups so that they receive the support and discernment they need as they grow.

Above all, as leaders, we can continually witness to our own faith in our congregations, sharing both what we are certain of and where we still have questions.

Give people tools for talking about their own faith, not just someone else’s. In our first attempt at teaching “Christian Basics”, we focused one session on the questions, “How do we know anything about God?” We began with a short talk about the four ways of knowing God emphasized throughout Christian history: scripture, reason,  experience and tradition. We gave examples from Christian traditions throughout history that emphasized one way of knowing over the others. We hauled out the specialized vocabulary from seminary, talking about “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral” and “Biblical literalism.” People took notes, and then had animated discussion about the differences between Catholics and Baptists, Quakers and Unitarians. The only thing they didn’t discuss was the way they had come to know God for themselves.

Now in our curriculum we still spend a session talking about “How do we know anything about God?” and discussing scripture, reason, experience and tradition. But we start by talking about sources of authority in our lives in general. We invite everyone to tell about how they have learned something—how to make bread, use new software, play golf —and then to consider what their story says about who, or what has authority in their lives.

After spending some time in Bible study, we pass out blank white paper and colored pencils to the participants and invite them to create a pie divided into four slices, each slice representing one of the four sources of authority. The size of each slice is up to each person – he or she can divide the pie any way that is most representative of what is most authoritative in his or her faith life. The charts then become the basis of sharing something about our faith with one another, and considering how we might share it with others, including those who have a different “pie chart” than our own.

Celebrate what we have to share—already.

One of our favorite parts of Talking Faith comes at the end of the first session. After a talking about the question, “What do I need to know,” in a variety of ways, we put up two piece of newsprint one with the heading “I wonder…” and the other with the heading “I know for sure…” We pass out post-its and pens to everyone, and invite each person to fill out as many post-its as they can, completing each of the two sentences on the newsprint.

Then when we’ve collected all the post-its, we read them out loud, beginning with the “I wonder…” page. There are often a lot of laughs and nods as people recognize that they share each other’s questions. Then, we read the “I know for sure…” page. The mood in the room changes as these statements are made. People become very attentive; some are quite moved. That’s when we, as leaders, say to the group, “Wow, you all are amazing. You have so much faith to share. Who in the world needs to hear these affirmations? How might you share them with others?”

Remember, you have what you need.

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and each of her companions are presented with the gift each had been searching for. But as the Wizard points out, the Cowardly Lion had the courage he needed all along, he just didn’t have a medal to prove it. The Scarecrow had all the brains he needed; he just didn’t have a diploma to show. At the end of the journey, they found out that they had what they needed all along.

If you hold a course that offers adults an opportunity to grow and share their faith — the one we have designed or another — you will attract people who feel like their faith needs help. People will sign up who feel like everyone else is more of a Christian than they are, as will people who worry that someone will ask them a question and find out how little they know about Jesus, how tentative their own faith practice is, or how much they wonder about.

Don’t give these people an opportunity to learn from an expert, as much as they may want it. Instead, give them an experience that will enable them to learn from amateurs — from you and each other. Then, at the end of the course, give them a certificate. You won’t be recognizing how much they have accomplished and learned with the help of your course. You will be celebrating the faith that they have had all along and the growth in their confidence that they have something to share that the whole world is hungry for.

What a gift. You may well find that you receive it too.

Heather Kirk-Davidoff and Nancy Wood-Lyczak have been developing curriculum and worship resources together for the past six years. Heather serves as the Spiritual Director and Community Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, D.C. Nancy is the pastor of The United Church of Winchester in Winchester, New Hampshire. They are the authors of “Talking Faith: An Eight-Part Study on Growing and Sharing Your Faith” (Chalice Press, 2004) and the forthcoming “Testing the Waters, Taking the Plunge: Strategies and Resources to Get Your Whole Congregation Engaged in Worship” (Abingdon Press, April 2005).

For more resources on Witness and Faith Sharing see other E-Word Articles.

Order God is Still Speaking Through You and Me: A Practical Guide for Witnessing to the Still Speaking God in Your Life and Congregation from UCC Resources at (800) 537-3394.

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