When our current Episcopal bishop Jeff Lee arrived in Chicago in the winter of 2007, he brought with him a deep passion for the adult catechumenate. He, like Paul Hoffman, had served a large congregation in the greater Seattle area and been deeply moved by the Christian formation of the unchurched and unbaptized. He would often tell a story about a man who came to St. Thomas in Medina, his parish there, whose life was changed by his experience in the catechumenate. The Bishop would often share this quote from that man, who after his baptism by immersion and his anointing said: “I’ve just never been touched like that before.” Of course, what “like that” means, exactly, is one of the mysteries of the Christian faith.
Early in his episcopacy, Bishop Lee strove to inspire priests and congregations to focus more on the adult catechumenate. He preached about it. He instituted a special worship service in Holy Week for adult catechumens, including also teenage confirmands. He pointed us toward the catechumenate process laid out in our Book of Occasional Services, which involves the whole congregation in a series of blessings over the candidates through the season of Lent, much like what Hoffman describes in his book. Much like Hoffman, Lee got pushback. Priests insisted their new members were mostly disenchanted Roman Catholics and evangelicals – and already baptized. Few people showed up for the special Holy Week service, which eventually disappeared. Now, Bishop Lee has turned his focus to other things.
As a bishop, it may be impossible to move the culture of churches across a diocese or synod toward something like the adult catechumenate. It is a change better left, it seems to me, to individual pastors or priests. The catechumenate is a process of building community and relationships, of teaching and formation, which are by nature congregationally based.
For pastors looking to enrich their formation programs – whether or not they seek to implement a process as broad-based as that of Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle – Faith Forming Faith is a wonderful resource. Hoffman explains the congregation’s process and culture of developing community and spiritual formation around the unbaptized in clear terms with specific details and examples. The program is called “The WAY” (there is never an explanation given for the all-caps), and is both for adults seeking baptism and for parents seeking the baptism of their young children (and perhaps themselves as well).
I thought that the most interesting thing about The WAY is its involvement of the whole congregation. Each catechumen is assigned a baptized sponsor who is already a member of Phinney Ridge. The formation team invites new sponsors to participate every year, striving to include as much of the congregation as possible in the process. Sponsors attend the formation program alongside the catechumens and seem to receive just as expansive a formation in their faith as a result. As one 80-year member put it, despite her lifelong involvement in church, “I have never done anything as spiritually enriching as this” (42). Over time, that formation process has touched the entire congregation and brought a unity that would’ve been missed if it had only been offered to newcomers.
The WAY has two stages. The first is a Sunday evening series in the fall and winter. Participants commit to attend six to eight of these sessions over the course of several months. The sessions include a meal, childcare, and small group, open-format, lectionary Bible study. New participants can join at any time. The second half, occurring every Sunday night during the season of Lent, is a closed series for committed catechumens and sponsors. There is deeper, more personal reflection in this more committed group. During Lenten Sunday worship services catechumens receive blessings and tokens as a welcome into the Body of Christ as lived in the Lutheran tradition: a catechism, a worship book, a copy of the Apostles’ Creed, and a hymnal.
If a program as elaborate as this sounds like an impossible dream for your congregation, take heart. As the solo pastor of a church with about 70 people in worship on Sundays, I felt overwhelmed by the scale and success of Phinney Ridge’s work. However, I found many small ways I could adapt or be inspired by its methods and style, and by Hoffman’s passion. He includes an appendix with reflections and questions for “getting started” in a variety of congregational contexts. He offers ideas for enacting a cultural transition like this over time, and also for Easter Vigil, confirmation classes, spiritual enrichment of existing leadership teams, and one I particularly appreciated called “Even With Just One Inquirer.”
Some of his ideas will seem radical or too demanding to some readers. For instance, Phinney Ridge asks all parents wanting to baptize children to complete The WAY, even if it means waiting a year to baptize their child. This is hard to imagine in a small parish like mine; however, his point about the responsibility as well as the “free gift” of baptism is well-taken. Baptismal preparation would be much improved if pastors used it to help parents transform and enrich their faith lives and not just to prepare for a single liturgical act. Thinking for my own context, asking parents to invest more time and personal reflection in their child’s baptism would not only reduce the number of our “drive-thru” baptisms, but would probably lessen my own feelings of resentment when baptizing children I have a hunch we will never see again. Even if we don’t implement a seven-month catechumenate program, I will think differently about my baptismal and confirmation preparation, as well as my new member classes.
This book has helped me understand more fully the passion of my own bishop for the adult catechumenate, which seemed a bit incomprehensible back in 2007. As churches, after all, we exist in order to help people know God, and to introduce more people to God and the love God has shown us in Jesus Christ. Hoffman reminds us of this, with inspiring ideas and sound theology. He is certain that more unbaptized people are sitting in our pews and in the general environs of our churches than we think, even in the well-churched Midwest and South. (He may be right, although I’m certain there are many more in metro Seattle!) Regardless, his ideas and theology of the catechumenate, and the ongoing formation of all children and adults, make for worthy reading material.