Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Adult Baptisms and Changing Church Culture

At Good Shepherd we do this thing called the catechumenate. My spell check doesn't like the word, and wants to change it to "catechumen ate," which would officially be a past tense construction for an inquirer for Christian baptism eating. "The catechumen ate nachos."

People tell me I shouldn't use the term catechumenate, because it is insider language. But insider to what? I know very few church insiders who have heard of the catechumenate, so part of me thinks it is a great word, mostly empty of content and ready to be filled.

So what is the catechumenate? It is a formation process for those preparing for Christian baptism, especially adults. 

In our church, it also happens to be the "space" and format for forming newcomers to our congregation preparing for affirmation of baptism at the Easter Vigil.

Notice, if you are new to the church, there are some other new terms here also, like "baptism" and "Easter Vigil." But I don't think the language is much of a barrier, any more than learning the language of a role-playing game or square-dancing is a barrier. If something attracts and inspires you, you're down with learning the lingo.

About four years ago, early in my time at our church here in Northwest Arkansas, I noticed a trend. Increasing numbers of our newcomers were (at the very least) new to Lutheranism, and in some instances new to Christianity altogether. A single new member class wasn't that helpful for orientation to Christianity or Lutheranism, and it didn't tend to connect newcomers to the congregation very deeply.

I was aware of an alternative "way" for newcomers, the catechumenate, so decided to invite a group of lay leaders in the congregation to experiment with it through the summer months. We did a mini-catechumenate for ourselves. We read Paul Hoffman's spectacular little book on his catechumenate at Phinney Ridge Lutheran. One thing I did that turned out to be important, I asked Paul to be our "sponsor" for a year of catechumenal living, and called or wrote him with coaching questions throughout the year.

Then that fall, we jumped into. We offered the fall inquiry period, Sunday evening gatherings about six times through the fall for those inquiring into the Christian faith and life at Good Shepherd. Big front and back door so people could check it out without fear of having to commit too much.

After Christmas, we got more serious, meeting weekly and pairing newcomers with sponsors in the congregation. This turned out to be a big task that year, as our catechumenate was about fifty people, all in need of sponsoring families!

The basic structure was simple. The catechumenate has no curriculum per se. It is more of a "way" than a lesson plan. Sunday evenings started with a meal, then a short message from the pastor on a topic of interest to the group, like the portions of the catechism, how Lutherans read the Bible, stewardship, spiritual gifts, etc. (for example, this past Sunday I spent fifteen minutes answering questions about the devil as 'person' vs. the devil as the powers and principalities of this world). Then small group leaders break out with catechumens and sponsors for about a 45 minute study of the gospel lesson from Sunday morning worship.

While they're all doing Bible study, I do the dishes, together with a few other people who help lead the program.

Then, we do the Vigil. I had never led an Easter Vigil before, other than one I did in seminary that had no catechumens. Imagine a full church on the eve of Easter, lighting candles from a bonfire in a fire-pit in the church parking lot, then a walk inside for long readings from Scripture, then one after one adults and youth and children being baptized, then the laying on of hands for dozens affirming their baptism, then simple song and sermon, and Eucharist. We were all amazed at God's Spirit at work.

After the Vigil, I started making my list of potential inquirers for the fall. Do this right away. Start building a list. Create a devoted Facebook group for the catechumenate, and use it as a communication vehicle.

I've also learned to schedule some regular gatherings with those who have just been baptized, to offer continuing guidance and support.

After Easter was when we really started learning how the catechumenate works, and its power. When you pray for people to come, they come. When you anticipate baptisms, baptisms happen. And once you've done the catechumenate once, those who participated the first time make it a priority to help with the next one.

Four years in, we don't have to work to find sponsors, or small group leaders, or cooks for the meals. Everyone loves it so much, they just chip in.

Some things we have been learning along the way:

1. The impact of a year-long program
a) You don't always know what to do with folks who arrive mid-year. But if you explain what they do in some detail, it typically makes sense to them. Often, they wait with anticipation for the fall, then throw themselves into it with gusto.
b) A year is great for building relationships. People become deep, close friends.
c) It changes the whole culture of the congregation. Our church is now a catechumenate church. There's no going back.

2. We don't do as many of the liturgical pieces as we used to
a) We offer a Rite of Welcome before Lent, where we give out Lutheran Study Bibles and bless them, and do a blessing between sponsors and catechumens where the sign of the cross is made on forehead, eyes, ears, mouth, heart, shoulders, hands, and feet. It's very beautiful.
b) We certainly don't focus on specific music much. Some catechumenate conferences are really into the liturgy stuff. Us, not so much. It's not unimportant, but it isn't core.
c) Much greater focus on integration into congregational life. We're really into helping newcomers find their way in our congregational life, and enjoy deep new friendships and partnerships in ministry.

3. The Easter Vigil is big. Very big. It's what we are aiming towards every year. It's a high. We now also have a reception after it, with a chocolate fountain. But the high are the baptisms. It's about the baptisms.

4. People arrive desiring baptism. Each year I wonder, will we have any adults desiring baptism this year? Then they arrive, and we do. Plus some years, many teens and younger youth.

5. We've averaged about fifty newcomers each year. That's just over a 10% addition to the size of our congregation per year. It's a big crew. Every year, it feels like loaves and fishes.

6. It shifts the whole culture of the congregation over time especially relative to people feeling equipped to welcome newcomers. So many of our members have been involved in our catechumenate now, they get the newcomer experience. You can see it in how they greet visitors Sunday mornings. You can see it in how we welcome new ideas and thoughts in our committees and teams.

7. Highlights: Sponsors are a core piece. You can never under-estimate how beautiful it is to see current members sponsor newcomers. Sunday night supper is big. Everybody just chips in. We recommend the following menus: potato bar, taco bar, salad bar, and bbq. Bible study with no pastor, so then you just trust the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the people of God to bring the wisdom you need.

8. People come from so many different backgrounds. This year, at the very least we have a group of formerly Church of Christ, formerly Unitarian Universalist, some from no church background at all, many from non-denominational or evangelical contexts, many having had a long break between church and their return to church. We range in age this year from two to eighty. A big part of the process is hearing people's stories, and walking with them in the diversity of such stories.

9. It is a program that really equips leaders. The pastor really does need to serve as connector and evangelist to make it work, at least in our context, but over time we have gotten better and better at forming faith in newcomers not just by the pastor, but by a large team.

10. The importance of cooks. I'm leaning towards starting a dinner church this year as our third service because there is so much joy around the weekly shared meal.

11. The importance of dishwashers. If you have sixty to eighty people eat together, there are a lot of dishes.

12. The catechumenate has not become just one ministry among many... it is perhaps, after worship, the core practice of our church. It influences everything else we do. It frames our welcome, our study, our liturgical year, our teaching, our self-identity. I also didn't realize that at first, the "oldcomers," those who had been at the church many years, wouldn't at first really get or even notice what was happening, because the catechumenate is so foreign to most traditional Lutheran or standard church contexts. But give it 5-10 years, and it changes almost everything.

I've probably forgotten lots, and you may have questions. If so, ask them in the comments section here, and I'll try to answer them. But let me leave you with two testimonials from participants in our catechumenate this year. Between these testimonials, plus the great joy I see on the faces of some parents, some teens, and a dad, anticipating baptism this year, I know the catechumenate is likely the most beautiful development in congregational ministry I have had the honor to be a part of in my pastoral ministry.
Testimonial #1: I have to tell you something. I have watched yesterday's message at least 5x today. And the last brings more tears than the prior. I know you are the instrument of God (and blah blah), but truly, thank you for showing up. Thank you for speaking directly to my heart what I have wanted and needed to hear for yearsssss. Thank you for inviting me into this church family. But most of all thank you for showing me the true meaning of God's love. I have been in and out of pews [often excluded for his sexual orientation] for a long time searching for a belonging. I may just have nailed it. Don't ever give up, you are, and your community, make a difference.
Testimonial #2 came in an
FB message:
I want to get a tattoo of wheat. The wheat symbolism from your sermon about wheat and chaff and the baptism of Jesus really moved me. That sermon and that first OLTT [our catechumenate is called Our Lives, This Text] meeting was the first time I "got it". I really understood what Luke (and you) was telling us in the passage. It was huge for me to understand that as a human I am both sinner and saint, both wheat and chaff. Also that being the first time God spoke to the people, his beloved. What I learned from your sermon about fire constantly refining us and that we grow because of the people in our lives that love us. God loves us and we are all his beloved and because of that and remembering that we are constantly being refined is a very powerful thing for me.

The idea of fire was always associated with something negative and scary in my past experience with spirituality. Now fire means something different, something good. Being God's beloved means something different. I am his beloved and it isn't something I have to earn...I was already it.


  1. Thanks for this. I have come to believe that having the catechumenate at the center of a congregation's life is the best way forward for the church in these times. At my previous call I did a year-long version of what you did over a summer, letting existing members develop the practice into which we would invite new people. It was well received by those who participated. Then I took a new call, but let the new congregation know that I intend to move in this direction with them too. You've given a very good description of the model to which I'll be referring my folks. My main reservation at this point is "Bible study with no pastor, so then you just trust the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the people of God to bring the wisdom you need." I don't regard the Bible as an actor in the process, but the source and norm of our Gospel proclamation, so I'm not sure what "trusting the Bible" means in this case. If the Bible is, as Luther suggested, like the Christmas manger, the crude cradle for the baby Jesus that contains both the baby and the straw, I'd want to make sure that those coming to the Bible focused on the Christchild rather than the straw. In my experience, unguided Bible study (or Bible study that is tacitly guided by the prevailing religious and political culture) can quickly get lost in the straw. As for trusting the Holy Spirit, that is clearer to me, but my reading of the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions gives the Spirit the specific job of creating faith in those who hear the Gospel. The Gospel, then (understood broadly as the Law/Gospel distinction and proper use), is the one specific task of the church (see AC 5 & 7) through which the Holy Spirit works, which I am called to oversee, i.e. to make sure the Gospel is being proclaimed in preaching and teaching. At the very least I feel I would need first to study the Bible intensively with my catechists before turning them loose on catechumens. Help me understand how you keep Bible study ultimately Gospel focused (if Bible "study" is really the right term - immersion, reflection? assuming you're using some form of lexio divina.)

  2. Chris, all I can tell you is personal testimony. Paul Hoffman first clued me in to the essential practice of pastors not attending the bible study, and I have found it to be an important, essential part of the process. Of course everyone still hears a sermon on the text in the morning, so they hear the lesson with interpretation in the morning.

  3. With 20 years of catechumenate experience, in the parish and training congregations in the process, I can only affirm Clint's description of the process (note the word PROCESS, not PROGRAM)and its transformational power for people and congregations.

    Chris, at the first, I too, worried about "right teaching" in Bible study. Experience has proven, however, that trust in the Holy Spirit,seasoned leaders and sponsors ("seasoned" meaning people in tune with their own faith journey)allows amazing growth for people beginning or renewing a life of faith. In fact, I learned that the more I got out of the way, the more profound the exploration of faith and life. A helpful way to think of the catechumenate is an "apprenticeship in faith" following the model of the early church.
    A great resource is the North American Association for the Catechumenate (NAAC). Visit the website at www.catechumenate.org for resources and coming events.

  4. Thanks, Clint and Beverly. I'm familiar with the NAAC and their resources, and attended their annual meeting and training in Vancouver, BC in 2014. I will look to attend again with some of my folks, I hope even this year. I met Paul Hoffman this summer at the Worship Jubilee in Atlanta. Beverly, you did emphasize "seasoned" catechists and sponsors, and that was what I was getting at in my initial response. I am willing to get out of the way, but would want to identify and develop those seasoned leaders before letting go.

  5. I don't worry so much about the "seasoned" part. People I know who are Christian and connected to church are spicy enough already and we all partner together to offer great space for conversation around the Scripture.