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Practicing lifelong discipleship formation during COVID-19

During a Vital Congregations online webinar, some 50 church leaders describe their hopes for life after coronavirus

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Comparing the current COVID-19 church experience with what life was like together in the early church, Stephanie Fritz, associate coordinator of Christian Formation and the featured guest during a Vital Congregations weekly Zoom conversation, wondered if church now “is more like it was meant to be.” (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

LOUISVILLE — As more than 50 pastors and other church leaders explored together “Lifelong Discipleship Formation” —  which is one of the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations — it became apparent that during the coronavirus crisis they are discovering new ways to help people live out their Christian faith.

Reading from Acts 2:42-47 which describes what life together was like in the early church, Stephanie Fritz, the associate coordinator for Christian Formation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, wondered aloud, “if what we are experiencing now with church”  is more like what church was meant to be.

“We’re at home, baking bread, gathering in our households, sacrificing so that all may have their needs met,” she said.  “And we’re paring things down, becoming more vulnerable and much more relational.”

As Fritz introduced five faith practices that Christian Formation believes are essential in forming intergenerational lifelong discipleship, she asked questions about how each one might have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began:

  • How do we pray differently for one another now?
  • What about storytelling — how are we witnessing and sharing the gospel with one another?
  • How might a retreat look different during this time of social distancing?
  • What about service to our neighbors?
  • How do we show hospitality to strangers?

Then Fritz asked two additional questions: “Why does faith formation matter?” and “how are you engaging in it now?”

“It matters because the context for many is fear” said Rev. Jim Renfrew, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Byron, New York. “How else shall we equip ourselves to find a way out of that fear?” As church services were being canceled, Renfrew said Christian educators immediately started sending Sunday school packets to family members with children. When that packet arrives, kids can’t wait to open it up, he reported. One recent assignment was for the younger members to write letters to older members of the church, who have been grateful to receive the letters, Renfrew said.

“The older members are calling, asking for phone numbers so they can say, ‘thank you,’” he said.

The Rev. Susan Graham, co-director of congregational care at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church in Lake Oswego, Oregon, hears from people asking deep questions about life right now. “There’s an opportunity here to ask, ‘Who do we want to be?’” she said.

According to the Rev. Zac Wolfe, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Beatrice, Nebraska, congregants are beginning to realize that church is more than just attending a Sunday morning service. “We’ve done well at connecting members with God outside the church building,” he said, “but now we need to move from an attractional church model to an accompanying one.”

Another participant said he’s taking those he serves deeper into the resurrection story, which he said, “is at the heart of living into the new life of our faith.”

He said that for him growing up, resurrection was a one-Sunday story each year. “But Easter is every Sunday,” he said. “What does that mean for us, in an important time like this?”

Commissioned Ruling Elder M. Courtenay Wilcox is a lifelong member of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania.  She is dreaming about and envisioning what the future church might look like — and how it might be different after the pandemic.

“It’s not a conversation where like, ‘This is the one thing we should do,’” she said. “It’s more like, ‘Can we really go back to the way things exactly were? Do we want to?’”

Wilcox mentioned the Creation as she asked these questions about church. Immediately what came to mind to this writer was that thanks to cleaner air, one can now see blue skies in China and the Himalayas in India — and the bears at Yellowstone National Park coming out to play.

And as the coordinator for Vital Congregations, the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, asked, “What and whom can we be praying for,” one could hear the faith formation of those present playing itself out.

The cries of their hearts were expressed in the digital chat room:

  • “For the building of our faith formation program. It has been a long time coming and difficult to get off the ground.”
  • “For (a pastor) who is healing with COVID-19. She is getting better but still needs prayers for strength and healing.”
  • “For the food workers in the field and store, to be recognized as worthy, to be cared for as they care for all of us.”
  • “For Ruth — 90, frail, COVID-19.”
  • “Prayer for resting in the resurrection for the sake of the church and for Creation.”

With that, all of the microphones were unmuted, and all the voices began to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

The Office of Christian Formation will release a “Faith Practices Toolkit” this summer.  It will provide scriptural and theological grounding for the five practices of prayer, storytelling, retreat, service and hospitality — along with ways to engage people of all ages. Download a free sampler pf the toolkit and other faith formation resources, including a “Holy Humor Worship Guide” for this Sunday, here.

Vital Congregations will continue its “Seven Marks” conversation every Wednesday through May 6. Click here to join next week’s conversation at 3 p.m. Eastern Time on “Ecclesial Health.”

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