Understanding Faith Formation: Theological, Congregational, and Global Dimensions
Maddix, Mark A., Jonathan H. Kim, and James Riley Estep, Jr. Understanding Faith Formation: Theological, Congregational, and Global Dimensions. By Mark A. Maddix, Jonathan H. Kim, James Riley Estep, Jr. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. $25.00. Softcover, 161 pp. ISBN 9781540960382.
Understanding Faith Formation expands the process and philosophy of Christian maturity beyond the cognitive domain into important relational dimensions of life. This proven team of authors has created a resource for those who seek a robust, theologically supported, communally oriented, and globally responsive Christian faith.
Dr. Mark A. Maddix (Point Loma Nazarene University) teaches ministry-related courses in university and global contexts. Dr. Jonathan H. Kim (Talbot School of Theology) teaches and researches the rational and relational dimensions of faith and faith in context. Dr. James Riley Estep Jr. (Lincoln Christian University) has been a professor of Christian education for no less than 25 years. Each seeks to bridge higher education with the teaching ministry of the church.
In this book the authors seek to stoke a new resolve for Christian formation. Noting how faith formation is on a decline, practitioners in a variety of contexts, be it church, academy, or ministry, can view formation with some new communal lenses so that one may counter the imperfect individualism that has marked evangelicalism. The book’s main assertion is that faith is expressed and lived out in the contexts and cultures of a Christian’s life. The introduction offers a concise claim that these contexts require readers to “reexamine some . . . presuppositions” surrounding faith — a reexamination that requires a personal investigation of theological, congregational, and global dimensions (x). This work is concisely organized to explore each of these dimensions and to provide an evangelical model of faith formation. As a whole this book seeks “to develop an integrated and holistic approach to faith formation that has a strong biblical and theological core” (viii).
While, overall, the book delivers more in the realm of philosophy than approach, it offers persuasive arguments and insights throughout. The first four chapters explore the theological dimension of faith formation. Chapter 1 provides a theological and expansive review of faith formation as found throughout the Christian Scriptures. This concise chapter accomplishes an overview of definitions of faith in both the Old and New Testaments, dimensions of faith in mind, will, and action, and a clear distinction between faith and spirituality. Chapter 2 builds on the biblical foundation with a historical review of church traditions in relationship to faith formation. Readers are clearly informed regarding the intersections of reason, experience, and works in each tradition. Here, the authors tip toward the congregational domain with the assertion that “faith is not intended to be a solo act, but should be done in community” (27).
Continuing to review the theological domain through a social-science lens, Chapter 3 responds to Dr. James Fowler’s theory of faith development (Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, New York: Harper Collins, 1981) and offers a reframed faith development model based on Dr. Jonathan Kim’s own qualitative study. Kim’s model of Christian faith formation involves spiritual conversion, renewal, and growth, which are viewed as “non-mechanical” stages facilitated by both the rational and relational knowledge of biblical truth (45). While more validation of Kim’s study is anticipated, the brief description takes readers through the stages of converging faith, consolidating faith, conforming faith, and contagious faith. Chapter 4 offers further critique of Fowler’s theory to address the gaps in his frameworks regarding the content and structure of faith, structuralism, and gender and ethnic diversity. This analysis poses that stage theorists (i.e., Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson) insufficiently interact with the social and cultural contexts in their assertions and suggests James Loder’s “convictional knowing” as another alternative (50-1).
The second part of the book reviews the congregational dimensions of faith formation including contextual challenges, a theology of the purpose and function of the church, and the role of Scripture in formation. Chapter 5 reflects on three contemporary cultural challenges to faith formation in an increasingly secular culture. According to the authors, biblical illiteracy marginalizes the impact of Christian truth, the spread of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism views God makes faith into a low-demand concept, and a rising population of “nones,” — those who identify with no religious tradition or identity – has culturally redefined terms such as faith, spirituality, and religion. A community’s role in forming faith is discussed in Chapter 6, noting that “a person’s faith is dynamically developed, shaped, and transformed as they participate in a faith community” (88). This discussion asserts that a life of worship leads to justice, fellowship, proclamation, mission, and service as well as other formative functions of congregational life (84). To close this section, chapter 7 discusses diverse ways of using the Bible in faith formation, focusing particularly on ways of reading that allow the text to “master and form” the reader (95).
The concluding section of the book characterizes global and cultural opportunities for the experience of faith formation. Chapter 8 unpacks the beneficial effect of cognitive dissonance during cross-cultural experiences and explains the ways in which challenging situations, expanded awareness, and a more fluid self-concept experientially affect faith formation. The authors conclude that more opportunities for mission work would benefit the development of God’s people. The perspective in chapter 9 frames ethnic diversity through both rational and relational dimensions as related to faith and culture. Here, the authors explore biblical knowledge, belief, and trust which are “formative qualities” in multi-ethnic Christian faith and conclude that the strength of the rational qualities can stand above culture (125). Chapter 10 overviews the dimensions of faith in diaspora Christians, particularly how these “ministries of education and edification” (also described as “inner and outer”) create space for both formal and informal “nurture of faith” (137). The final conclusion stresses that greater understanding of the transnational experience, founded in both theological and relational reflection, can establish effective holistic ministry in our globally connected world.
Three strengths stand out in this work. First the authors’ ability to write thoroughly and yet concisely prompts the reader to explore ideas further. For example, chapter one’s review of the Bible’s use of the term “faith,” gives evidence, paints different perspectives, and ignites the imagination for a more expansive experience of faith in just ten pages of writing. Secondly, the review of Fowler’s faith development theory is both credible and charitable, critical yet generous. Fowler’s theory has been a bedrock in evangelical education but, as the authors’ reveal, its faulty view of faith as a “system of meaning” is inadequate for evangelical truth (33). Finally, it is both a strength and a weakness that the book so clearly outlines the conclusions of Jonathan Kim’s study of faith formation among evangelicals. The strength lies in the clarity of the conclusions, and the weakness is merely a personal disappointment that this hidden gem does not utilize more space. Kim notes that he supports more studies to validate his conclusions and, while he has saved a full discussion for another venue, it is something leaders in this discipline will look forward to.
Understanding Faith Formation sets out “to embrace new avenues of spiritual growth and development, particularly in the midst of a culturally diverse world” (viii). Does this book accomplish this goal? Most certainly, particularly if a reader is open to innovating stage theory to involve the whole person formed in community with others regardless of age. The authors’ descriptions of life in community give new possibility to the formation found in relational connection. Whether through Scripture reading, liturgy, service together, or social advocacy, the vision for participation in a communal practice of faith is an aged message framed with fresh significance. The concluding section, too, adds fresh avenues for formation by putting multi-cultural and multi-ethnic faith expressions at the focus. Rather than seeing these as peripheral to the Christian’s rational faith, the potential for relational dimensions in mixed communities has the power to change the Christian’s DNA.
The authors have written this content-rich book to appeal to the needs of educators, pastors, and church leaders as they lead their proteges and congregations into deeper and broader faithful expressions in a culturally diverse world. If the reader is looking for a particular approach, then Understanding Faith Formation will support the diversive curiosity needed to develop one’s own. It is, indeed, about understanding faith formation more than it is about applying and measuring faith formation.
Debra R. Anderson, MA
Assistant Professor, Training and Mentoring