Thursday, May 30, 2013

How the unsettling presence of newcomers can save the church

Jessicah Krey Duckworth has written the "practice of Christian ministry" book of the summer! I can't praise it enough. If you've been pondering what it means for the church to truly welcome newcomers and be transformed by the encounter while simultaneously offering space for discipleship for newcomers and current members.... then learn from her. I hope to have our entire catechumenate leadership team read the book this summer. It's that important.

A provocative thesis: "The church is rightly church when newcomers are present." "The church does not seek permanence with established membership as the solid foundation, but fluidity and movement of newcomers and established members together. Thus, the life of the church depends upon a newcomer's presence within the body of Christ. Newcomers may be an unsettling presence, but they are saving the church."

This book functions well on a number of levels.

1)For congregational leaders re-thinking how they welcome, educate, equip, and disciple newcomers, this book offers extensive food for thought.

2) For those looking for a brief and accessible introduction to the catechumenate, this is the book. Middle chapters describe the way the catechumenate is practiced in a variety of congregations around the country, focusing especially on ELCA congregations reinvigorating the practice.

3) For those seeking a theological rationale for ministry not simply to assimilate newcomers, but to actually walk in the way of discipleship with them, this book is without peer. She fleshes out what an "ecclesia crucis" can look like in actual practice.
"For those tired of approaches to church that function with a bounded set understanding, where there are outsiders and insiders, this book offers a centered set approach, where the focus is on mutual engagement with the questions newcomers have, and a shared journey together. She writes, "Lest we imagine there is no distinguishing factor between Christian and non-Christian practices, it is important to clarify what a boundary looks like in a postmodern understanding of culture. The 'distinctiveness of a Christian way of life is not so much formed by the boundary as 'at it.'" When established members recognize their Christian way of life is distinct from other cultural, religious, and congregational ways of life, newcomers' questions are inevitably expected and anticipated... newcomers and established members construct a distinctive Christian identity with one another through the task of looking for one." (29)

Whatever you do, go out and buy this book right away... buy the print version, because you're going to want to underline a lot of great sentences, and make notes for yourself on "cruciform catechesis."

Particularly of interest to readers of a more academic bent will be middle chapters on the phenomenology of liminality, disestablishmentarianism, and social learning theory. I found these sections nuanced and helpful in evaluating the subtle aspects of the catechumenate that make it a rich way to weave together traditional congregational patterns in fruitful and faithful ways.

"Newcomers and old comers recognize their discipleship on the way as shaped by their mutual commitment to the task of figuring it out. At the same time, the ecclesia cruces becomes the locus--the space--in which communities of practice arise by designing opportunities for learning through a cruciform catechesis. A catechesis that is shared mutually among all participants, in which everyone's (catechists, sponsors, catechumens, pastors) knowledge is partial and incomplete, and that values the competence of the other as equal to and sometimes even more important than the competence of those who are already is present is cruciform catechesis" (75).

Perhaps the most intriguing chapter is fourth, on designing disestablishment. Churches that welcome newcomers often run into tensions between new incoming members and the existing membership. Duckworth offers an incredibly rich description of how congregations can address this challenge, which she sees as an opportunity for actually forming communities around the cross. Her exploration of the phenomenon of ongoing peripheral participation is particularly fascinating.

If I have one quibble with the book, it is that the ethnographic research she conducted as part of writing the book could itself have been a bit more scientifically rigorous, and represented more transparently in the book itself... not just stories, but data. But perhaps that is for another book. The strength of this one is its brevity, and the power of its interwoven narratives and analysis.

I'm especially taken by her concluding summary of how ELCA congregations practicing the catechumenate respond to newcomers and inquirers of the faith.

- We have a way to welcome you.
- We have a way to encourage and explore your questions about Jesus and the Christian faith.
- We have a way to facilitate your participation and belonging in this church and your baptismal vocation in the world.

Duckworth's book is an invitation to learn this way and deepen comprehension of and commitment to it. Then, the first step in designing a newcomer-welcoming process is to welcome the questions of the very next newcomer who crosses the threshold of your congregation. Bring Duckworth's book along as your companion and field guide in that great adventure.

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