The Trouble with Moralism

Why Faith Formation Is Big Now

Even Google knows about David and Goliath. Enter “five smooth stones” and “sling” in the search box and you’ll get thousands of websites about the well-known Bible story. Many explain the story as a tale of courage, which is how you may have learned it in Sunday school.
Sermons posted online ask listeners to name their personal Goliaths: things like cheating, using drugs, or problems as giant as AIDS and poverty.
Preachers describe David’s five smooth stones as the ammunition we need to face impossible odds. They exhort us to faith, obedience, prayer, and humility.
Yet you’ve probably noticed disconnects between what people say in worship and how they live. That’s why more church leaders are talking about the difference between moralism and genuine faith formation. They’re asking how worship can form people to picture faith and life as so much more than a list of do’s and don’ts.

Biblical Principles, Biblical People?

In an essay on moralism and Christ-centered preaching, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, says he learned in seminary that he “had to preach Christ, and not moralism, from every text.” For years Keller thought that meant ending sermons with “Jesus as add-on.”

So a sermon on David and Goliath, especially the typical children’s sermon, would point to Christ as an example of how to muster faith and courage to fight our giants. Worship leaders embed the same “Be good this week” message into prayers, transition comments, and song intros. But even children know we can’t live up to Christ’s example.

Keller says reducing Bible stories to biblical principles sends the message, “Please try harder or God will be very unhappy.” Some preachers put a positive spin on moralistic sermons, as in “We all fall down, but God loves us anyway.”

Both tactics make the Bible a story about us rather than about God. Neither produces deep repentance or “gospel holiness.” Instead, worshipers need to see each Bible passage within the whole story of God’s loving relationship with creation.

“If I read David and Goliath as showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure). . . . Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others,” Keller writes.

Enough Information

Reading the Bible as a handbook for right living may help us control others’ behavior. It also lets us ignore or limit our place in the unfolding story of God’s actions among us.

Popular culture overflows with examples of Christians who are not known by their love or their depth of faith. And churches are facing the failure of information—teaching, preaching, and knowledge—to form faith that changes people’s inner lives and outward behaviors.

“Faith development is about helping children come to know and trust God as the Lord of their lives. Moral development is about helping children learn how to behave,” Robert J. Keeley explains in his book Helping Our Children Grow in Faith: How the Church Can Nurture the Spiritual Development of Kids (Baker, 2008).

Mysterious God

Keeley says that letting the stories speak gives children a chance to wonder about what people in the Bible did and why. Consider Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector. They both behaved correctly by going to the temple to pray. However, they had very different reasons for praying, so their prayers didn’t get the same results.

Helping kids see beyond action to motivation sinks stories into their hearts. Pondering Bible stories leads them into mature morality. “As they focus on God’s Word, it becomes more a part of their lives and encourages a faith that has depth,” Keeley says.

Sometimes teachers and preachers distill a Bible passage to a single doctrine or moral application because they want to make sure people get the message. But Keeley says introducing a God “so small I can explain everything about him” shortchanges children.

He shows how to “simplify the story without being simplistic.” Draining a Bible story of its “richness, nuances of decision, and multiple points of view” works against letting listeners see how much bigger God is than our understanding or our questions.

In fact, Keeley says, it’s essential to see that God is mysterious and complex. This sense of awe and wonder about God’s greatness leaves room for the Holy Spirit to fill the story with power and grab our imagination.

Old Testament characters didn’t always do what God wanted. But they knew, says Keeley, that God was the King of the universe, someone “who cared about them as a people and as individuals. If we live with these stories in the ebb and flow of our lives, we can see that God is working in our lives in the same way that he worked in the lives of Joseph, David, and Samson.”

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Filling the Hunger for Meaning

Jane Rogers Vann noticed something surprising in her two-year study of a dozen mainline churches. These worship-centered congregations offered deep relationships, excellent education, and active mission. Yet members yearned for a “felt sense of the transcendent.”

“Across the centuries and around the globe, Christians have always learned the Christian life from the experience of congregational life,” she wrote in Hungry Hearts, a Presbyterian quarterly on spiritual formation.

Vann, a former church education director, teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. She advises reorienting congregational life and spiritual formation around baptism, communion, God’s Word, and the Christian year.

Everything We Do Teaches

Spiritual formation is a work of the Holy Spirit. It molds our lives into Christ’s likeness, drawing us into deeper intimacy with God and into compassion for all creation. Our participation in the church, the body of Christ, is meant to reflect the unity that exists in the Trinity.

For early Christians, “to be formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ was to hear stories of Jesus and meet the risen Christ in bread and wine, eaten together. Worship was communal and participatory,” Vann said at a Calvin Symposium on Worship.

The early church led potential members through an initial catechism process for up to three years. “Water baptism took place, usually, at dawn on Easter morning. New members received a lavish welcome, a kiss of peace, and their first communion.

“Then lifelong instruction began. People understood themselves to be living into their baptisms for the rest of their lives,” she said.

Today many families worship separately according to age. Baptism and communion are no longer linked with lifelong learning. Education happens apart from worship and is split into Christian education (volunteers teaching Bible stories) and catechism (clergy teaching doctrine).

Bath and Meal, Story and Time

“Humans are pattern-seeking, storytelling, meaning-making beings. In congregations where the patterns, stories, and meaning of experience are valued, people find the clue to what might be missing,” Vann says.

Even preschoolers can grasp the underlying pattern of faith formation. Fred P. Edie captures this in the title of his Book, Bath, Table, and Time: Christian Worship as Source and Resource for Youth Ministry.

Bath, of course, means baptism. Table or meal refers to communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. Story or book means giving God’s Word a central role in congregational life and worship. Time refers to keying worship to the pattern of the Christian year.

After merging Asian and English congregations, First United Presbyterian Church of San Francisco centered a worship renewal project on finding a common identity in communion.

Though none were artists, everyone from very young to very old spent a day with liturgical artist Alice Helen Masek. They made “prayerful paper cuttings” for Maundy Thursday and Easter worship.

Pastor and project director Kevin Manuel said the art captured their communion in Christ and was a “surprising catalyst of that communion . . . that inspired and renewed corporate worship.” He compared how Christ makes “himself known in the ordinariness and earthiness of bread and wine” to how cutting paper and praying together made the congregation aware of being bound together in love with the Lord.

Joan Huyser-Honig (joan@hhcreatives.com) is a partner in Huyser-Honig Creative Services. She is a member of Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.