Prayer of the Day: God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” Philippians 2:5.
One could say that this is the whole point of the church, namely, to be a community animated by the Spirit of Jesus. I didn’t come that understanding in my seminary studies. I learned it in the church of my childhood from a teenager named Gary. Gary helped with our Sunday School and he was the only teenage boy I knew who showed any interest in kids my age. My church friends and I lived for that fifteen minutes between the end of Sunday School and the start of the service during which Gary played kick ball with us. He listened to our stories and laughed at our silly jokes. I don’t remember exactly when I learned Gary was what in those days we called “mentally retarded.” What I do know is that my thinking about Gary was shaped by a community that received him, not as a social problem to be solved, but as a child of God with special gifts to offer. I didn’t need to be “taught” that “disabled” persons were not to be mocked, ridiculed or patronized. The “thou shalt not” was unnecessary because the “shalt” had been so thoroughly modeled for me in a community shaped by the mind of Christ.
Yes, I know that the church doesn’t always get it right. You don’t have to look any further than Saint Paul’s letters to find out that the church was from the beginning and still is rent by false teachings, divided along racial and cultural lines, plagued with ambitious leaders obsessed with being “first” and consumed with disputes over money. Yet it is within the furnace of such communities that saints are forged. The mind of Christ is formed among people who would never have chosen each other as friends. It takes shape when people who don’t much like each other learn to love one another. Formation of Christ’s mind in our midst depends on a confident belief that Jesus has called everyone in our congregation, even-or rather especially-the one you can hardly stand. The church’s job is to incorporate each person’s gifts into Jesus’ ministry and mission. The ancient church had a name for this process: catechesis.
Sometimes catechesis happens informally and spontaneously as was the case with Gary. But discipleship, as the name suggests, is built on discipline. It is something that must be taught and learned through communal practices. On the whole, I think it is fair to say that mainline protestant churches like my own have, at best, a mixed record when it comes to developing effective catechetical practices. I have been reflecting a lot recently on those practices within my own Lutheran tradition. While I have nothing in the way of new revolutionary approachs to catechesis, I have a few concerns about our old ones and some observations about how catechesis actually happens, often in spite of rather than because of what we do. I leave to greater minds the development of new directions formal catechesis might take in the future.
First, I think it is time to retire Sunday School. Don’t get me wrong. Sunday School once served a noble purpose. Sunday schools were set up in the 18th century to provide education to working children. The American system was begun by Samuel Slater in the 1790s. Classes were held in his textile mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. There was no universal compulsory education at that time and no prohibition against child labor. Thus, Sunday was the only day on which school could be held for working children. The church took a leadership role in this movement with the laudable goal of providing basic education to children that would otherwise have grown up illiterate.
With the passage of laws prohibiting child labor and requiring universal compulsory education, the Sunday School movement’s objective was met. But, like so many institutions that have outlived their usefulness, Sunday School refused to die. Instead, it evolved into a ministry of the church designed to provide “Christian education” to its members’ children. Over the years few, if any, church leaders questioned this method of catechesis. We all assumed that employing the methods of the classroom to catechetical instruction was the best way to pass on our faith to the next generation.
That is still the assumption. In every church I have served, Sunday School was in decline and there was much distress over that fact. I have spent numerous anxious hours with good church people wracking their brains over how to “fix” Sunday School. In all these discussions, there was always an unshakable conviction that Sunday School was the future of our church and that our survival depended on building it back up. But if a healthy Sunday School really does equate with effective catechesis, then I have to wonder, where are all the thousands of kids that went through Sunday School in the church’s heyday? Why are they and their children not in church today? Perhaps Sunday School was not all it cracked up to be.
More important, when did you ever read about Jesus or Saint Paul teaching religion classes? Jesus’ disciples learned to follow Jesus by, well, following him. They got their training on the job. So, too, Saint Paul urges his churches to “imitate” him. That might sound a little arrogant, but if your chief catechetical tool is example, it makes good sense. Perhaps our children should be accompanying our lay leaders on home communion visits, working with them at food distribution centers or learning to write letters to congress as part of the church’s advocacy ministry. Maybe time formerly devoted to Sunday School should be spent training children to assume responsibilities for service on the altar at worship. Education is best received when it is requested via the inevitable questions, i.e., “So why do we do this? Why are we changing the color of the vestments? Why do we stand for the gospel? How come we don’t say alleluia in Lent?” It should be noted that our Small Catechism, the Lutheran Church’s chief teaching document, was designed for heads of families to instruct their children. Where did we get the idea that it was supposed to be used by pastors for teaching confirmation classes?
Which brings me to my second observation. Perhaps it is time to retire confirmation. For the life of me, I could never see the logic in demanding that budding adolescents, who are only beginning to think for themselves, question what they have been taught and form their own opinions, publicly commit to a set of doctrinal propositions they learned in classes they were most likely required to take. Confirmation, as we currently practice it, is inherently coercive. If there is one thing young teens hate, it is being coerced. Small wonder, then, we see so few of them after they are confirmed. I am aware, of course, that theologians, Christian educators and pastors (myself included) have worked from hell to breakfast trying to make confirmation more “relevant” for young people. But it has always seemed to me that we were only taking the edge off what is a fundamentally flawed program-a little like trying to make chicken salad out of chicken poop.
Now I am not suggesting for one moment that the church should give up on discipling teens. The church must work actively to shape in adolescents the mind of Christ no less than it does for all its members. What I do believe is that, once again, catechesis is accomplished more through example and participation in ministry than in formal classroom teaching. Moreover, not every individual travels in the same direction or at the same pace when it comes to spiritual formation. Rather than establishing one hard and fast time and place for all teens to make their formal confession of faith, why not create several opportunities for Affirmation of Baptism throughout the church year? There are also plenty of occasional opportunities where the Affirmation can be employed meaningfully, such as upon taking on a ministry or office in the congregation or during a rite of blessing before leaving for college. There is no reason to require arbitrarily that all persons aged fourteen who have completed a specified religious curriculum submit to this rite under penalty of extreme disapproval.
Catechesis is and always has been critical. If we had done it right from the beginning, we would not have to be explaining to our members why it is important to declare that black lives matter, why we welcome refugees a lot of Americans want to keep out of our country, why we care as much for the poor on the other side of the world as for those in our own neighborhoods or why being pro life does not mean submitting the bodies of women to government regulation. Of course, we have never gotten catechesis completely right. Perhaps we never will. But that is no excuse for striving to do it better.
Here is a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman with a lyric description of what catechesis looks like in her faith community.
New Marriage, A Barnraising
What it all comes down to: unpaid
community labor gathered ’round the first
post and best beam. O impossible ark,
built to be grounded, raised by well-
beloved hands. Attendance mandatory
by risk of shunning. Even children have
tools to fetch and sharpen. Some rough hands
welcome only because they must be
offered bread and chicken after a day
of sweat and sun. Young men in rib-rafters
who once watched from hillsides, now
call out to women for water or a smile. What
grins up, squinting, is certainty they long for:
childhood, companionship, the sturdier step
on ground they know, even a body
not one’s own. Each person acts out the expected.
They assemble despite their previous plans. Walls
go up slow but sturdy, shooing debt. Shading
out loneliness. Secured for storage and ready
for life. A frame-work, in the end, they will not
own, these worn-out masses. And still they show up,
willing. Still they gather when the new couple moves
Or after a fire. Or after a flood. O urgent love,
come back and see this time next year what stands.
Source: Center for Mennonite Writing Journal (Vol. 1, November 15, 2009 c. Becca J.R. Lachman). Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors at Ohio University. She was raised in Kidron, Ohio and now lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband. Lachman is recent grad of the Bennington Writing Seminars and published her first collection of poems in 2012. Her work has appeared in several publications and in On Being’s blog for American Public Media. You can sample more of her poetry at the CMW website.