Formation – Optional or Not?

Many years ago I taught “Introduction to Sociology” at a junior college in South Georgia.

When we got to the chapter on “socialization,” we went over the textbook definition, which went something like what is found at Wikipedia,

… socialization … is the process of internalizing the norms and ideologies of society. Socialization encompasses both learning and teaching and is thus the means by which social and cultural continuity are attained.

Or, to put it another way,

the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society

Then I would add, “So we are talking about the 644 rules you have learned about how to be a good resident of South Georgia.”

Then after another moment, in which some made notes, and some just stared at me, I said, “OK, there are not really 644 rules …” (they were probably pleased I was not going to list 644 rules, some of which might be on the final exam), “but it really is the case that your society, your family, your friends, your schools, etc., do tell you who you are, who you will marry, what kind of work you will do, and where you will or will not go to school. The rules may or may not get that specific but you are presented with an outline of how things are supposed to work.”

Sociologists call it “socialization,” anthropologists speak of “enculturation” and in recent years in congregations and seminaries and books and many in our religious communities have spoken of formation.”

I am not making the case that the three terms refer to exactly the same processes, but it does lead me to think formation is not optional. Society, culture and religious institutions are about us buying into their view of who we are and how we are to behave.

Many in our churches have lamented the lack of intentionality devoted to how they make disciples. But, regardless of their intentions, they are nevertheless forming folk who are called Christian. The formation goes on in the sermons preached, the classes taught, music sung and performed and perhaps even more so in conversations before and after church meetings. There is no doubt in my mind that churches are about the business of “making Christians.”

I recently listened to a podcast series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” I knew the name Mark Driscoll and that he was associated with Mars Hill Church in Seattle, but that was the extent of my knowledge. After listening to the podcasts that were produced by Christianity Today, I know some more about how it started, grew and eventually collapsed.

In one of the final episodes (episode 15 at 2:29:07), Mike Cosper (who hosted the podcasts and interviewed many connected to Mars Hill) remarked,

“… some former Mars Hill members will gather in homes doing church very simply as they continue to reconstruct their faith, some can’t walk through the doors of a church yet without physical symptoms of fear and anxiety, some haven’t found spiritual homes at all since leaving Mars Hill and some have embraced a life without faith, others tragically have been captured by despair, grown sick with addiction even taken their lives.”

Formation is what all churches do. Is it not an issue of whether formation happens or doesn’t happen. The issue has always been what are the churches committed to forming in the lives of their congregants.

{ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est}

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