In the mid-2000s, I served two small-membership United Methodist churches in small towns in West Virginia. One of those churches served as a pilot congregation for the CFI process. About 15 people in a church of 45 active members committed to a two-year engagement with the CFI material. Of the five pilot congregations, ours was probably the least educated, and we were able to navigate the material very well.
As the introduction to CFI states, the curriculum is intended to be a scaffolding on which conversations can hang. CFI studies provide a congregation with language to have discussions about the purpose of being a called-out people. I was amazed to watch how discussions about formation and Christian practice aided this congregation in their faithfulness, both as individual Christians and as a church engaged with their local community.
We undertook study and conversation by semester, meeting for seven to nine weeks each “term.” The first fall, we studied “The Shape of Our Lives,” which helped folks understand the many forces that form us throughout our lives. That study prepared us with a new grammar and growing trust in one another, both necessary to undertake The Shape of God’s Realm” in our second semester. Things began to click as we walked together through a study of Christian practices such as truth-telling, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
After a summer break, we went on a retreat, facilitated by our pastor-scholar team. Throughout the first two studies, I had been in conversation with the pastor and scholar who partnered with us, so that they knew how our conversations were going. The retreat was then planned by the three of us to address places that our group was “stuck” in our conversations. Six years later, I remember two things about the retreat. One is hearing a young adult in our church talking about the need for married Christians to “place our marriages in the hands of others.” That was new language for this congregation and reflected the depth at which they were replacing notions of individuality and privacy with an understanding of how their lives are dependent on the brothers and sisters in their church community.
The other thing I remember is that upon our return, many of the group members said of the retreat, “We got to know each other so well.” This was a group of people who had lived in the same small town all their lives. They had watched and were watching each other go through various life transitions. They went to school together. Some babysat others in the group. Their lives were already linked so intimately and regularly, and yet the process of two semesters’ worth of conversation and one retreat drew them closer together than they’d ever been before.
In the second year, the CFI process affords some flexibility in choosing material to study. Because worship is one of the most formative influences in the life of a church, we engaged Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in the autumn of our second year. Reading that book together helped one 65-year old Appalachian woman read even more Bonhoeffer and another long-time church member fall in love with the Psalms.
In our fourth semester, we jumped ahead of the proscribed process a bit. Rather than reading a second book, we used the Assessing our Strokes material. This congregation already placed great value on leading Spirit-led lives. They already engaged in discernment in congregational decision-making processes. I felt they were ready to skip to this component, but other congregations may not be ready for this set of conversations after only three other studies. As directed by the curriculum, we spent eight weeks walking slowly through Acts 10, examining the many ways the Spirit can work and what that means for the history, present, and future of our congregation. As a result of that study, the whole congregation (not just those in CFI) entered into discernment about the direction of our church. This congregational discernment, which grew out of CFI, led us to change direction in an existing ministry with youth and children in our local community. That decision bore much fruit. Because our congregation developed a newfound understanding of hospitality through CFI, those unchurched young people were welcomed into worship, and some eventually into membership of the church. “Getting new church members” wasn’t the motivation for or the point of the community youth ministry. Because of the way the Holy Spirit worked through our engagement with CFI, we had become church in a deeper and more fulsome way. We welcomed all of those kids into the reign of God, even the ones who never set foot in worship.
So many faithful things that I haven’t named happened along the way in the two years of our conversations together. While many congregations continue to use CFI materials after the initial two-year commitment, this congregation decided to leap fully into new and reinvigorated ministries to each other and beyond the congregation. It was such a joy to be a part of.
I was moved to my current appointment one year after that small-membership church completed their engagement with the CFI materials. About a year into my new pastorate, I pitched CFI to my new church. There was not enough interest to launch it at that time, and I was disheartened. Now, in my fourth year here, I have proposed it again. I found myself describing CFI to this Church Council as “studies”, yes, but also as a patient process in which we develop friendships with each other and which will sustain the work of the church over time. The time now is, and I am thrilled to embark on this process with yet another congregation.