Facilitating the Experience of Faith

“Inwardly he deals with us through the Holy Spirit, faith, and other gifts…. But whatever their measure or order the outward factors should and must precede…. The inward experience follows and is effected by the outward…. God has determined to give the inward to no one except through the outward.” Martin Luther, vol. 40, Luther’s Works.

For as many years as I can remember, I have been under the impression that Lutherans and experience could not go hand in hand. Christians are saved by Grace, not by faith experience. Luther himself went up against the Anabaptists who claimed to need experience to have faith. For me, my understanding of Lutheranism added up to one big STOP SIGN when it came teaching experientially. Could I dare consider finding a theological means for facilitating groups in experiential adventures dealing with issues of faith and belief?

After many years of excusing experience from faith discussions, I began my doctoral work. My cohort, consisting of mostly evangelicals, was questioning how the church formed during the modern era. They were looking at ways to lead their congregations in the transitory postmodern culture. Discussions about the postmodern church included themes that I had heard in my undergraduate studies. One, for instance, was the concept of paradox.

Instead of thinking of truths as either/or, postmodernism is comfortable with both/and–holding two truths simultaneously. You have heard the phrase, “truth is relative” attached to this concept in secular discussion: You believe your truth and I will believe mine; we are both right because you see truth from your point of view and I see it from mine. Christian both/and thinking actually goes a step further. Lutherans can confess BOTH truths even though they are diametrically opposed to each other–in other words, a paradox.

Luther understood the value of paradox. He wrote that we can be fully sinner and fully saint at the same time. He preached that Christians are totally corrupt and totally perfect simultaneously. Postmodern thinkers like to read Martin Luther, and this realization caused me to read his writings more deeply.

Luther Condemned Faith Based on Experience

“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17

When I was in college, I worked part-time in a grocery store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with four other people. These four people were students in local seminaries. The students represented several denominations: Baptist, Christian Reformed, Dutch Reformed and just plain Reformed. I remember the Dutch Reformed student told me about coming to faith through an experience he had, feeling as if the pastor were speaking right to him in worship. At the time, I did not think much of his story; I have since realized that it was founded on a specific theology that requires experience prior to faith. This–the confession that we must have certain types of experiences to come to faith–is the type of experience Luther condemned, calling it a purely an emotional reaction, possibly what we might label an adrenalin rush.

After college, I worked in an Italian restaurant. During this time the bartender talked with me about the number of times he had “walked the aisle” to receive Christ only to fall into his old habits later and finally back into disbelief. He had been moved by emotions, not convicted by the Spirit. Experience is a weak foundation. We as Lutherans do not teach that experience creates and sustains faith. The Word of God creates faith and His Sacramental gifts (Baptism, Holy Communion, Absolution) sustain it. Our experiences in this fallen world cast us back upon our faith in Christ, causing it to grow.

Luther Welcomed Faith Formation THROUGH Experience

“But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” Matthew 7:26

Luther opposed experience when, theologically, church leaders taught that it was necessary to create faith, but Luther did not fear experience when it was placed in an appropriate theological context. For instance, suffering produces stronger faith, but it does not bring one to faith. The Holy Spirit may use experience to build faith in a person, but it is not the experience that creates faith. God uses means through His Church with His people, but ultimately, it is the Word of God in the Holy Spirit that works faith in Christ–quite beyond any rationalized external experience.

Good theologians quickly recognize the words Martin Luther wrote regarding experience as related to Sacrament and Word ministry. But Luther also understood the benefits of experience and active learning in forming the faith lives of children.

If you were to recall your own life story, and travel back in time in your mind to the experiences that caused you great reflection on life and faith, you would find the starting point for facilitating others in their faith formation. It is faith, first built by Christ and on Christ, that benefits from experience.

Facilitating Faith Formation THROUGH Experience

“He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.” Luke 6:48

Only after we recognize the place of experience within faith can we begin to facilitate and process experience. Which is to say, once you understand that activities and experiences aren’t responsible for building faith–as only God’s Word can do that–you are ready to implement activities and experience into your youth programming.

Practically speaking, it is important to be prepared, yet be open to outcomes. Are you a leader in your church? Are you a planner? You may be a plan by the seat of the pants person or plan well in advance person. Regardless of how you work, your plans prescribe expected outcomes.

But it is impossible to know exactly how, if, and when God will use experiences in your youth group to build the faith of each youth. It is equally impossible to know how, if, and when God will act outside of your planning for His own purposes.

Mari Ruddy, a speaker and author on experiential learning, talks about being “open to outcome.” This means giving up control over what kind of experience the group is having, and occasionally letting go of the lesson you’ve planned. It is being surprised by the outcome. We have been taught that we need to correct youths’ thinking so that they do not believe wrong things. But in reality we are called to guide, to speak the truth in love, and to patiently teach again and again the concepts of faith.

Jesus taught experientially. He allowed His disciples to have discussions that contained bad theology. He used their experience later on as He questioned them and gave them opportunity to reflect on how to live for God. Through careful listening and questioning Christ guided His disciples formationally (not informationally). He was prepared to allow each life experience to have a lesson.

As leaders who guide, we much prepare instead of plan. Preparation is much more extensive than planning but much less manipulative. If we work at preparation we reduce our anxiety and the group’s anxiety. If we work at preparation we will be surprised to find out that groups can form to be more Christ-like than we think. There are two principles you must keep in mind in order to facilitate a group well:

1. Give them skills.
2. Get out of the way, safely.

Give Them Skills

Christ builds faith on a foundation, so start there. When creating experiences for your group, start with a foundation of skills. Think of the skills that you need youth to have in order to take charge of the experience. For instance, do we show them our abilities with Bible concordances and commentaries or do we give them the abilities? Do we talk about feeding the poor (or our feeding the poor) or give them the skills and opportunities? When they have been given skill sets, let them use them. And let them fail! As a culture, we work hard to protect youth from failure, which teaches them to fear failure or act with immaturity. As leaders, we fail when we do not offer many opportunities for experience, not when we fail to lecture.

When facilitating a group:

1. Set experiences up safely. Think of any possible danger. Skinned knees are OK but not cracked skulls.
2. Be sure what you do has a purpose. Safety comes in all shapes and sizes. There should be spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional, and social safety. Having a clear purpose is not a guarantee of safety but it is one of the stepping stones to clear thinking.
3. Make sure you have a plan so that if all else fails you can keep the entire group safe. This may mean forgoing a certain experience or bringing in more adults. Many youth leaders try to facilitate large groups of male and female youth–this is never safe. There is no back-up plan.

Get Out of the Way in a Safe Way

Jesus listened to the disciples discussions without commenting. Jesus let them go out in the boat and experience the storm. Start there; get out of the way.

I once asked my pastor how Lutherans were different from people of any other denomination. He said Lutherans are best at getting out of the way of God. I believe we can create experiences that allow for a great deal of honest faith reflection supported by the Word, as long as we don’t try to supersede the Word with our own human wisdom.

When facilitating a group discussion:

1. Be quiet.
2. Allow silence.
3. Ask open ended questions; allow everyone to think, and give them time.
4. Ask questions to which you may not know the answer.
5. Listen to comments during an experience (write them down if you are like me and tend to forget the details).
6. Don’t ask the youth to reveal too much too soon if they are not prepared.
7. Don’t give them excuses not to answer–that is their decision, not yours.
8. Don’t save them (“Oh, you don’t have to answer that if you are uncomfortable”).
9. Be in the Word with them; don’t exercise it over them.
10. Let the experience teach; they are smart enough to gain a lesson.

A Simple Conclusion for Facilitating the Experience of Faith

Let youth learn through experience in a safe environment (so that they are prepared to handle the reality of faith) and be there with them in their everyday walk in faith.

Published April 1, 2006

About the author

Craig has served in elementary education, youth ministry, outdoor ministry, and challenge course facilitation and development. He is the former DCE program director at Concordia University, Portland. He currently serves as the director of Camp Concordia, located on the Woodbeck chain of lakes north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Craig and his wife Mary have one daughter, Whitney.
View more from Craig

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