Faith Formation: Head, Hands and Heart

By: Theodore Cockle

What do you think of when I say, “faith formation”?

If you’re like most, you think about moving from a place of less faith to a place of more faith. You may even picture a line trending upwards that connects these two points. The question then becomes, how do we help people—in our case students—move from point A (less faith) to point B (more faith)? Using education words, what interventions lead to growth here? If we could just find the right method, we could activate the faith of our students. Finding that method requires us to assess our efforts and select interventions that lead to greater faith in our students.

But how does one actually measure “faith”? On what basis is the strength of our assessments being evaluated? When scholars study “faith development” today they tend to look to a variety of “proxies” that they assume to be indicators as to whether or not a true faith exists in a particular individual. If someone’s faith has been formed or developed, our measures generally assume that he or she will reveal that faith in one of two ways—by believing the right things (head) or by doing the right things (hands). Given this assumption, we ask questions about belief or behavior and then track the progression of knowledge accumulation or improved actions to display the linear development of faith.

But wait a second, is that how faith works? I think if we’re honest, our faith does not resemble a straight line gently sloping upwards. If we’re honest, our faith “trajectory” looks more like it was drawn by a toddler with a crayon than a straight line. There are some days when I feel like I have great faith. And then—often within a matter of days—my faith has come apart and I’m clinging to the Psalms to help fuel my prayers—help my unbelief! My actions and beliefs sometimes match these peaks and valleys of so-called “faith” and sometimes they don’t. This leads me to ask, what if faith cannot merely be “developed” forward? What if faith is more than just right belief and better actions? After all, how often do we think rightly, but then act wrongly? What about when the right behavior is motivated by the wrong reasons (e.g. praise/affirmation of others)?

Although the Bible suggests good trees will bear good fruit (Mt 7:15-20), the order from tree to fruit is always clear. The health of the tree is what leads to the good fruit­—the fruit is not the basis for the health of the tree. As one author suggested, stapling a plump juicy apple to a dead tree does not somehow bring the tree to life (Tripp, 2002). Right now, social scientists measure fruit, but we have no way of knowing if it was grown or “stapled.” If we are going to measure faith more accurately, we need to measure closer to the root.

We believe that measuring faith requires a better understanding of the human heart. Faith formation is not merely cultivating head knowledge. Knowing what is good is not the same as doing what is good. It is also not enough to merely demand good behavior. If students’ “good behaviors” are only the result of extrinsic motivators, what will happen when those motivators are removed at graduation? Internal motivation comes from the heart because humans are not primarily “thinking things,” but “lovers” (Smith, 2009). That is, we are drawn to pursue the things that capture our hearts.

Therefore, if we are talking about how to form the faith of students, why would we neglect the heart? Why would our interventions and measures emphasize head knowledge and the actions of our hands, but neglect the organ that might motivate faithfulness in the first place? In short, we believe that “it is not enough to convince our intellects; our imaginations need to be caught by—and caught up into—the story of God’s restorative, reconciling grace for all of creation” (Smith, 2009, p. 157).

You may at this point be thinking, this all sounds well and good, Ted, but how does one “capture the imagination” or heart of a student? How do we guide their hearts? 

This is the topic we will be discussing October 21st, this coming Friday in our Institute for Faith Formation. We will draw on both the riches of the Christian intellectual tradition and cutting-edge social science research to explore the intricacies of the human heart, learn about the formation of desire, and understand the role of the Spirit in human faith formation. We hope you will join us!


Smith, J. K. A. (2009). Desiring the kingdom: Worship, worldview, and cultural formation. Baker Academic.

Tripp, P. D. (2002). Instruments in the Redeemer’s hands: People in need of change helping people in need of change. P&R Pub.

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