The Adult Catechumenate and the Missional Church
By Mark D. Williamson
In the previous issue of Let's Talk, contributors weighed in on the question "Should we evangelize?" The focus of this issue, centering around our synod's vision for "turning around" our congregations from inwardness and complacency to Spirited evangelical mission, proceeds very naturally to the question "How do Lutherans do that?"
Too often we take cover from this challenge under the safety of adverbs or abstractions when the problem demands clarity about evangelical practices. Will turning around this synod involve its members learning to walk their unbelieving friends through reciting the Sinner's Prayer? Or training preachers and producers of "worship experiences" to provoke altar-call style conversions through special seeker-targeted services? Will it involve becoming "relevant" to the culture such that we attract attenders through commercial methods and messages offering neat "biblical principles" that promise to help people attain what they already want (and when worship ticks up, call it a turnaround)?
These are paths available to us — paths which could possibly help us achieve the numerical goals of the Turnaround Synod Initiative — though they do not grow out of our own confessional identity or traditional strengths as Lutheran Christians. Recall one of the chief insights of Kelly Fryer's Reclaiming the "L" Word (by all measures a "bestseller" as Lutheran books go), that growing churches operate out of a strong sense of who they are; and, conversely, visitors can spot very quickly the falseness of a church that is doing some sort of imitation.1
When Lutherans practice evangelism, what you see them actually doing is marked by three things: 1) friendship; 2) apprenticeship (through mentoring relationships); and 3) catechesis
I believe that when Lutherans practice evangelism like Lutherans (it's not as hypothetical as you think) what you see them actually doing is marked by three things: 1) friendship; 2) apprenticeship (through mentoring relationships); and 3) catechesis, defined as training in Christian discipleship. We incorporate all three in a new turn-around ministry at our church.
BASIC--Brothers And Sister In Christ
At the church where I pastor, St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wheaton, we have developed a two-year process of faith formation called BASIC (Brothers And Sisters In Christ) that attempts to bring these three elements together toward the goal of welcoming adult newcomers into a Christ-centered life of repentance and faith.
Probably the best shorthand for understanding this sort of ministry is that it is like a confirmation ministry for grown-ups. I suspect that what prevents many Lutheran ministry leaders from discovering that adults need confirmation ministry is that so many of these Lutheran leaders dislike or are deeply frustrated by the youth version. But this is actually backwards. Our youth confirmation ministries are often ineffectual in large part because there is no similarly demanding adult catechesis ministry in the church to set the example. Without the example, many youth discover faster than they can text WTF? that they are the victims of a double standard, expected to do things their parents and elders in general don't have to do.2
That said, we don't much use the word confirmation for BASIC. The fact is, for many adults (including myself), it simply conjures up too many unpleasant memories. We use the word catechumenate. People struggled to say it at first — and we definitely needed an inviting ministry name like BASIC — but now the old word has happily entered the vocabulary of many St. Paul folk.
Though it might be a departure from classic usage, we have elected not to limit enrollment in our catechumenate to the unbaptized.3 This is to account for the reality that the majority of our mission field is populated (paradoxically) by the already incorporated, baptized men and women with prior involvement of some sort with church life and yet who exist in a peripheral, sometimes ambivalent or damaged relationship to it. Thus, they require an intentional, practical process of unlearning, learning, healing, and dwelling in community that restores them to baptismal living. A smaller, but equally important, number of our catechumens have never been baptized into Christ. So our catechumenate process has been designed to include both, doing essentially the same things. (Baptismal candidates are generally baptized somewhere mid-way through the process, and then, at its culmination, all catechumens together partake in a kind of hybrid rite that fuses Affirmation of Baptism and the lesser-known Affirmation of Vocation.)
Learning from the best youth confirmation curricula of the past twenty years like Faith Incubators and Here We Stand, we follow a large group/small group model for our ninety-minute class time every Wednesday night. The friendships develop most deeply through the small group time, but also in the course of large group exercises and through a shared meal prior to class, which catechumens periodically host.
The apprenticeship concept is taken from another superb confirmation curriculum, the mentoring-based Making Disciples, which serves as the four-month capstone of our youth confirmation ministry. We haven't paired people up one-to-one at this point, but we do try to spread out the more practiced Christians in the bunch among the small groups and give them more leadership responsibility. (Without being too rigid about it, we've been blessed with a healthy mix of "veterans" and newcomers. Our publicity is all geared toward the inquirer, the new believer, the newcomer to Lutheran Christianity, and so forth, but more experienced Christians are also welcomed to participate provided they understand that their place is to accompany and guide, not demonstrate their excellence over, their novice disciple friends. Too many veterans though and the newcomers end up in the classic "I don't know as much" trap; the newer folks, and the questions they bring, must be the norm.)
Catechesis in BASIC takes place through a cycle of rotating units of varying lengths, as represented in the following table:
|Unit||Course Theme||Curriculum/Course Texts4|
|Fall 2011; Fall 2013||Intro to the Biblical Narrative (15wks)||The Greatest Story: Bible Introduction; Manna and Mercy by Daniel Erlander|
|Winter 2012||The Lutheran Way (6wks)||Baptized, We Live by Daniel Erlander; The Lutheran Handbook I & II (selections)|
|Spring 2012||Old Testament (9wks)||Fretheim on Genesis (DVD curriculum)|
|Fall 2012||Prayer and the Christian Life (10wks)||Practicing Our Faith, Bass & Dykstra, eds.; Lord, Teach Us by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon|
|Winter 2012-2013||Intro to Christian Theology (8wks)||Making Sense of the Christian Faith by David Lose|
|Spring 2013||New Testament Gospel (7wks)||Luke by David Tiede (Books of Faith series)|
Some units are more knowledge-heavy than others, by which I mean there are more stories to learn or doctrines to chew on, but the emphasis throughout is that this is training ("BASIC training") more than it is school in the memorizing-reciting-forgetting sense. The rotating cycle of units, none particularly more advanced than the others, is designed to allow new catechumens to join at the start of any unit and still get the whole. Class actually does not meet during Lent (which might seem peculiar to those more strictly attached to the ancient model), but catechumens are encouraged to participate and perhaps try leadership roles in the midweek Lent activities of the larger congregation — soup suppers, worship, and small groups — and to practice the spiritual disciplines of the season. A once-a-year BASIC retreat does, however, take place during Lent (concurrent with the youth confirmation retreat!) to practice Sabbath rest and to maintain and build cohesion in the group during the "break."
Critical to the success of our catechumenate is that it not be cloistered from, but rather consistently involved with, the larger congregation, reminding the community of its responsibility to these persons, just as catechumens are leavening the loaf through their witness. Entrance into BASIC begins with a welcome rite in the assembly in which catechumens declare what they are seeking (God's Word, faith, fullness of life), receive the sign of the cross and the blessing of the people, and are presented with a Lutheran Study Bible (the now ubiquitous at St. Paul "powder blue brick"), which they will immerse themselves in throughout the two years. Once engaged in their training, catechumens hang up their learning projects in the hallways like Sunday School kids and are exhorted to serving opportunities in worship, around the church, and in the wider community. Since we are a small-to-midsize congregation, and like most need to consider flexibility and multiple purposes when devoting resources to a ministry like this, we offer the option for congregants to register for individual units in BASIC without joining the catechumenate. These spots are limited and may have to give way to catechumens as we approach class capacity, but for now they offer a taste of what takes place in BASIC and adds to the number of those who can testify to its value.
Our first catechumenate group will make a public affirmation of baptism and vocation on Pentecost Sunday 2013. (Catechumens who begin the process with winter or spring units will likely celebrate this milestone on the Baptism of Our Lord, alongside our youth confirmands, or on the festival of Easter, possibly Transfiguration.) Having given special attention to discerning their unique gifts and to gaining practical ministry experience in Year Two, they will be well equipped and feel confident enough to step into the roles to which God is calling them in the Body of Christ. Some may continue to concentrate on faith formation ministries, encouraged to serve as catechists, small group leaders, or youth mentors.
BASIC Challenges and Promise
Presently we are just two-thirds of the way through Year One in the inaugural BASIC cycle. We are learning as we go, evaluating constantly, and welcome the input of other congregations who are undertaking similar sorts of high-commitment, evangelically-oriented adult catechesis. The most significant challenge we face — and this is true of most everything our church does in our suburban context — is a problem of time. A faith formation process as involved as BASIC doesn't "fit" into many adults' lives; rather it causes other things to budge as one's faith development takes new or renewed priority. This reorienting of time is a radical change for adults who are new to the life of baptism and it can be a dramatic culture shift for seasoned Lutherans and other church-experienced transplants, who are not necessarily accustomed to so much being expected of them. In any case, for newcomers and veteran catechumens alike, a catechumenate ministry like BASIC truly draws its participants into experiencing firsthand the dying and rising of the baptismal covenant as old patterns of autonomy and self-determination are drowned and the new life of mutual love and responsibility for one's brothers and sisters in Christ emerges.
For newcomers and veteran catechumens alike, a catechumenate ministry like BASIC truly draws its participants into experiencing firsthand the dying and rising of the baptismal covenant
At points in the planning and publicity stages of BASIC, knowing our time-crunched context, people sometimes raised eyebrows at the proposition of a two-year commitment. It was a delight and a relief when twenty-six catechumens enrolled in the process last fall, along with ten others who wanted to dip their toes in for the single fifteen-week course. The response confirmed what Diana Butler Bass had uncovered in her study of vital mainline Protestant congregations across the country, as reported in her popular book Christianity for the Rest of Us.5 Across the board in this diverse sample of thriving faith communities, she observed that deep spiritual formation practices had come to the fore, manifested in many cases through a high-commitment approach to incorporating newcomers. This, it seems, is what people are yearning for: not just membership status but personal transformation. And that's very good news, because, in spite of all the other things our congregations get preoccupied with, it is also what the church is uniquely endowed to do. For Lutherans, a tribe long wrought with self-doubt over our capacity to evangelize, a restoration of the adult catechumenate is one way God may be cracking us open for the mission of the gospel.
Kelly A. Fryer, Reclaiming the "L" Word: Renewing the Church from Its Lutheran Core (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003).
The argument is made, of course, that if an adult "got confirmed" as a youth they "already did it," and their child should "go through it" like they did. But this only retreads our tradition's damaging habit of treating the old "rite of Confirmation" as a kind of pseudo-sacrament or, worse still, a validation of baptism by the individual who has purportedly (!) reached an age of accountability or reason and so is "free to choose." The still-catching-on reform toward the practice of affirmation of baptism — meant to be repeated, everyday and occasionally in public worship — liberates us to welcome the myriad souls who "got confirmed" and then promptly or gradually disappeared to reenter the catechetical process and prepare to affirm anew their place in the baptismal covenant God formed with them years ago.
I worry some that Lutheran congregations may hesitate to reclaim the term catechumenate because the liturgical scholars to whom we are largely indebted for reintroducing the practice have, at the same time, tilted the conversation toward faith formation for the unbaptized. While this may be historically consistent, in my opinion, this is a case where the affection on display for early church tradition in resources like Welcome to Christ: A Lutheran Introduction to the Catechumenate and Evangelical Lutheran Worship and its supplements can be both a blessing and an obstacle. Yes, Christendom is ending and much is to be learned from pre-Constantinian church tradition. But, no, we have not thereby returned to the second or third century Mediterranean world. The vast majority — certainly in midwestern North America — of presently unchurched adults already have been baptized and carry with them some mixed bag of other church-related experiences, typically reflective of the smorgasbord of Christian traditions and expressions that characterize our religious landscape. We must commend the catechumenate to our congregations in a way that is tailored to our particular mission field if we wish for them to notice this treasure in the first place.
This column lists resources that are being used in BASIC 2011-2013, although new curricula may be substituted in future years provided they fit under the unit theme. Please contact me if you need fuller bibliographic information to track any of these down.
Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2006).