Adult Faith Formation: Moving Them Along or Meeting Them Where They Are?

One of the great things about having to drive around a diocese covering 28 counties is the amount of time for reflection and conversation it affords. As my associate director and I have been meeting with every pastor in the diocese, it’s given us a lot of time to talk and discuss the various challenges we face.

A recurring theme in our conversations is adult faith formation — specifically, the lack of participation by adults in any ongoing faith formation. We have implemented programs, of course, but they rarely hold up over time. For instance, for the past three years our diocese has been participating in Renew International’s  Why Catholic? program. After a strong start the number of individuals engaged in a small faith group has dropped off, so that our rough numbers indicate that we’ve lost half of the initial participants.

While discussing this point again last week on the way back from a parish, I wondered aloud whether the programs we promote are actually appropriate to the audience. Let me explain:

Catechetical leaders bemoan — and experts agree — that many adults are stuck in an adolescent mode of faith. This means not only that their religious education ended at around the 8th grade (although that is certainly true for many) but that, from a developmental standpoint, they have never progressed beyond James Fowler‘s “Synthetic-Conventional” stage of faith. Some may have made it to the “Individual-Reflective” stage, but a distinct minority ever progress to the “Conjunctive” or “Universalizing” stages.

My uneducated guess would be that most DREs, diocesan catechetical leaders, and catechetical writers have made it to at least the “Individual-Reflective” stage, if not the “Conjunctive” stage; these positions usually require an advanced degree, the pursuit of which leads people to think about their faith in new and deeper ways.

Yet, as I’ve read through and participated in various adult faith formation programs, many seem to assume that this is where the participants are as well, or least that the program will move them there. But should moving people along the developmental continuum be the goal of individual catechetical and formation programs? Or, acknowledging the reality that most are still at the “Synthetic-Conventional” level, should most programs seek to meet people there?

This was certainly a complaint we heard about Why Catholic? — people assumed that it would be more educational and less formational, more content and less faith sharing. Which is not to say that Why Catholic? is a bad program.  But if most adults aren’t prepared for more advanced levels of formation — if most are still stuck in that “school” mindset — should we meet them there and trust that, over time, they will come to the higher levels of faith?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but it is something I’ll be keeping an eye on as we complete Why Catholic? next year and further explore adult faith formation in our diocese.