People come to Immanuel Lutheran in Chicago for a variety of reasons and from diverse backgrounds:
Lindsay was baptized Catholic and grew up Episcopalian—sort of. She’s an entrepreneurial young artist piecing together a living as a choreographer, dance instructor and acting educator. She’s engaged to a Missouri Synod Lutheran man. Finding a shared faith community is important to them. But what kind of faith tradition (or blend of them) can she call her own?
Chrissy is a mother of three. She and her husband grew up in Salvation Army families. A few years ago, they blazed their own religious trail and were baptized in Lake Michigan as part of a small emergent Christian community. Soon after, they came to our church looking for a children’s ministry. Now Chrissy wants to know more about the Lutheran church she and her family regularly attend, but are not members of. What does the church teach? What does she believe? Is it time for her children to be baptized at the Easter Vigil? Or perhaps another of the four baptismal festivals we have sprinkled through the Church year?
Ron has been a member of Immanuel for more than fifty years. On any given Sunday, he’s likely to be an usher, or worship assistant, or leading silent prayer. At various times, he’s been the treasurer of the congregation or the endowment fund. Longer than most can remember, he’s provided support to our current treasurer—as her spouse. Now, he feels called to deepen and renew his faith. How is God calling him to serve in this chapter of his life?
Lindsay, Chrissy and Ron (with six others) will affirm their baptism at the Easter Vigil this year. Each person brings important spiritual and religious questions. Accompanying them on their journey of faith is a great privilege of ministry, not to mention fun. Yet, how is any church, let alone a smaller congregation where the average attendance at worship is 75, supposed to respond? Resources are limited and time is scarce. What can meet the spiritual hunger of life-long Lutherans, the unchurched, the differently churched, and the nominally churched—while at the same time satisfying ELCA constitutional definitions of church membership?
Fortunately, the long history of the church provides an answer. It is called the catechumenate, an ancient process of preparing adults for baptism. For more than a thousand years, Christians lived, worked and thrived in times like our own—when newcomers rarely arrived fully formed in faith, and/or when people could be attracted to the mission of the church, but seldom to the cause of protecting or preserving the institution.
From the Greek akuou (the ear) and katekeo (to sound into the ear), the word catechumenate comes from the same root as catchesis and catechism. Pope John XXIII brought the catechumenate back with Vatican II. Roman Catholics follow the catechumenate for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) by which one joins the church, either by baptism or affirmation of baptism.
While in the Roman Church the catechumenate is for seekers, at Immanuel we’ve opened the catechumenate also to longtime members like Ron who seek to renew their faith. Our group each year typically divides evenly between members and new friends of the congregation. The catechumenate is a way to explore with others how we are called to love and serve God as life circumstances change.
A lay-led Baptismal Living Team coordinates the catechumenate at our church. The team includes a catechist, a lead sponsor, a special liturgical trainer, and small group leaders. Several members of this team received training by attending a workshop of the North American Association of the Catechumenate (NAAC). Training helped form a nucleus of committed leaders who understood the process and could work together to get the project off the ground.
On The Way is divided into four steps: Inquire, Explore, Prepare and Discover. The Inquire series begins in Advent. We finish with Discover sometime during Easter. Participants proceed from one stage to the next at their own pace. Some may take several years to complete all four. We typically gather for 90 minutes after Sunday worship. Sessions include fellowship over a light lunch and childcare is available. Each step has a unique theme.
INQUIRE: (In Advent, typically three sessions)
This is a time structured around the specific questions and doubts of participants, whatever they may be.
• It’s a relaxed time of sharing stories and talking about Christian life: the roles of grace, belief, worship, service and community.
• The culmination of this Inquire period comes with the Rite of Welcome on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord for those who choose to continue their journey with us On the Way.
EXPLORE (in Epiphany, typically three sessions)
Participants in this step have the opportunity to study, pray, and to travel the landscape of the Christian life in the Lutheran tradition.
• Focus is on prayer, the scriptures, the creeds, and the liturgy.
• Participants are joined by “sponsors” from the congregation to walk with them on the way of Christ. These relationships can become life-long supportive friendships.
• This step is marked by a Rite of Enrollment at worship on the First Sunday of Lent. Participants are given the title of “Catechumen” if not baptized, or “Affirmer” if moving toward Affirmation of Baptism.
PREPARE (in Lent, typically four sessions)
This part of the journey coincides with the season of Lent. We become immersed in the meaning of Baptism and Eucharist.
• Looking backward we see ways God has been preparing us. Looking forward we see the waters of new life at the great Vigil of Easter.
• We pass on the prayers and blessings of the congregation in special rites and gifts.
• At The Great Vigil of Easter we experience the Rite of Baptism/Affirmation of Baptism. Afterward we celebrate in honor of all who have been baptized or affirmed their baptism.
DISCOVER (in the Easter season, this year a one-day retreat)
Throughout the Fifty Days of Easter, participants continue to explore what it means to live out their baptism in daily life. Discover focuses on discernment of vocation.
• Participants recognize the gifts God has already given them, and prepare to use those gifts in future service in the Body of Christ and in the world.
• This step of the journey is noted by the Rite of Affirmation of Christian Vocation—this year on the Third Sunday of Easter.
The rites of Christian worship are beautiful and powerful, but they can be emptied of much of their meaning if they aren’t backed up by something real among those involved. You can’t fake it. Relationships take time to develop. Belonging built upon Affirmation of Baptism presupposes personal belief and acceptance in what is being affirmed. We each find our own path through the forest of doubts, experiences and questions to reach the point of shared confession. Some traverse the distance between received and owned faith quickly. For others, it takes years. There can be serious obstacles to overcome. No matter how long the journey, Christian faith forms best when each step can be accompanied by the worshipping community and a Christian friend or sponsor.
Each congregation seems to find their own name for the catechumenate. At Immanuel we noticed that “on the way” is a recurring theme in Mark’s gospel, which identifies disciples as those who walk with Jesus (Mark 8:27; 9:33-34; 10:17; 10:32 and 10:46). Of course, “The Way” was also a name used among early Christians to describe themselves (Acts 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Martin Luther provided the final inspiration for us with these beautiful, very modern sounding words:
This life, therefore, is not godliness
but the process of becoming godly,
not health but getting well,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.
We are not now what we shall be,
but are on the way.
The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.
This is not the goal but it is the right road.
At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle,
but everything is being cleansed.
On The Way is a time to inquire, explore, prepare and discover—a process of spiritual growth and renewal where we gather around the word of God and reflect on our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a place were our questions, doubts and hopes are all welcomed as we look for answers together. It is a way to build Christian community upon the bedrock of Word and Sacrament.
Based on our experiences at Immanuel, I believe introducing a catechumenal process like On the Way could be an answer to prayer for many contemporary congregations and faith leaders.