The catechumenate presupposes something about the condition of the people entering our church buildings. It is a presupposition that gets lost between the cracks of our clamoring anxiety in conversations about dwindling church membership.
The catechumenate presupposes that people are hungry.
There are a number of ways of understanding where and how an adult catechumenate group fits into our church contexts. We might access the conversation, for example, via ancient authoritative texts like The Didache or a nod towards Luther’s inspiration for writing the Large and Small Catechisms. Yet, given that the catechumenal movement is a relational and narratively inclined process, it seems most fitting to access it with a story or two.
A Portion Rejected
I was the kid in your youth group who came back from youth gatherings and pestered the pastor to start a contemporary worship service. The lines of my argument were clear: when I sat in church every Sunday morning it seemed like the words didn’t matter. I couldn’t connect to the words of the liturgy. I couldn’t connect to the music. The preaching didn’t make sense.
That is, until I went to a youth gathering.
Rock & Roll made sense. Rhythm and melody made sense. Praise bands seemed to make church more accessible. I first encountered that accessibility in the raucously hormone propelled youth gatherings. They connected my adolescent hunger to the work of the church.
I want this to matter to me, I’d beg my pastor, I want to be here… but can you please just make it more relevant?
My church family gave into the incessant pleadings and graciously allowed a group of us to lead “more relevant” worship service music on Sunday morning, even if some of the older members stayed in the back with their hearing aids switched off.
But when Rock & Roll stopped being the end-all-be-all answer to the empty pit in my stomach, as eventually happened, the church’s attempt to connect to me through “relevant” means ceased to bear fruit. The church did have food on the table for me, but I didn’t know where or how to look for it.
Like many others of my generation I eventually just left church altogether. When the glamor of contemporary worship music wore off I found myself in the same predicament as before, maybe worse: unsatisfied and hungry.
Encountering the Feast Again
My first encounter with the catechumenate happened at Lake Chelan Lutheran Church. My wife Bekki and I had just moved to Chelan, WA to begin her seminary internship year at that congregation.
Although I resolved to be a supportive spouse to Bekki as she began her studies at LSTC, I had continued to harbor resentment and frustrations with the church. At my best I’d just refuse to reenter religious conversation (especially any that smacked of Lutheranism). At worst I’d actually go to church, usually only to devolve further into frustration during the service. It was a nasty cycle, and I lacked a language to deal with the growing unrest.
By the time we arrived in Chelan two years later my cynicism had devolved into despair. Out of support, however, I grudgingly agreed to attend services during the first few Sundays of internship.
I was hungry for good news, starving for it. Having grown up in the church I knew the liturgy inside and out but couldn’t see the way that it had anything to do with that hunger.
Something was different about the people of the small Lutheran community in Chelan, though. They were fluent in the life of the liturgy – not in that old timey way we might expect from people who have been singing Setting One for fifty years – but in a curiously palpable and nourishing sort of way.
They sang the liturgy as if they had been waiting for it all week – as if it mattered! – as if it were a feast. They sang like hungry people who knew where the food was kept.
I couldn’t resist.
A few weeks later, when Bekki politely asked me if I wanted to be a part of the catechumenate process in the forthcoming weeks my answer wasn’t a scoff. I said, “yes.” It shocked us both.
Listening for the Spirit
Over the course of the year my catechumenal journey connected the daily rhythms of my workaday life to the movement of the liturgy.
In my first week of the catechumenate process in Chelan Pastor Paul Palumbo invited the group into a conversation about our history with the church: a wide spectrum of experience emerged. There were those of us from generations of Lutheran families who had been going to church every Sunday of our lives. There were some who grew up in other traditions.
A few in the group had always felt phony in church (any church). Others had been a part of other faith communities but were dissatisfied. One or two in the group had never really been interested in church; a friend had invited them once and they were skeptical but interested.
At the end of each week’s session we were given homework inspired by the liturgy. If the next week’s topic, for instance, was going to be on a specific segment of the Kyrie (i.e. “Help, save, comfort and defend us,”) Paul might assign the homework: notice when you defend yourself this week.
Next week we’d come together and share our stories of wrestling with the homework. These stories were like a goldmine in the catechumenal process, stitching together the communal movements of liturgy to the personal struggles or joys experienced over the prior week.
By the time the Easter Vigil arrived I cupped my hands and brought the water up over my forehead, affirming my baptism.
Building Life Together
It’s hard to overstate the differences between a small rural church in Chelan and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. When Holy Trinity’s Pastor Craig Mueller asked that I work with him to establish a catechumenal model for the church I assumed that we could import my experience. This was a sorely naïve assumption.
But that’s not to say the people in Lakeview aren’t hungry too.
Although city life demands its own pace and schedule, it also lends its particular assumptions, questions, and imagination to the catechumenal discussion. Context matters: the catechumenate resists a one-size-fits-all curriculum model just for this reason.
Craig and I poured over our respective experiences in catechumenal groups, resting on a loose model for our sessions that might more faithfully allow the urban context to speak, question, and dream.
Given this context, where Chelan’s model centralized around the pattern of the liturgy, Holy Trinity’s method would revolve around specific questions and topics that our group members raised during the period of Inquiry.
These questions were broad. A formerly Southern Baptist woman asked, “What is a Lutheran anyway?” A member with a United Church of Christ upbringing asked, “Why do you all talk about sin, the devil, and evil so much”? After gathering questions we compiled and divided these into topics that reverberated nicely against different elements of the liturgical season, the lectionary texts, and the movements of the liturgy.
Each week we gather around a question that has been assigned in the last meeting, importing Chelan’s model of using homework as an entry point into conversation topics.
On the first Sunday of Lent, for instance, we gathered around the question, “What are you captive to? What binds you?” The stories that emerged stretched from individual struggles of workaholism to frustrating family dynamics. These reflections provided our entry point into the words of confession and forgiveness, which we then spent the next hour discussing as a group.
The homework is shared in a space that is intentionally safe and inviting. We’ve adopted Chelan’s so-called rules for sharing homework. These include:
1) No cross talk – that is, when someone is sharing something, we don’t interrupt her. Fight the urge to correct someone else’s story, even if he isn’t getting it theologically “correct.”
2) Keep one another’s stories confidential – The catechumenate group is a safe space.
3) Listen for the work of the Spirit – Trusting that ultimately the work isn’t ours, we wait and watch for God’s.
4) Feel free to pass – Again, this is a safe space. Catechumens may participate as they are comfortable and able.
The Voice of the Spirit
The catechumenate is not the destination; it is a way of bridging the divide between a journey that has given rise to hunger and the work of our life in Christ together. In my own journey I’ve come to hear the aching of hunger as the voice of the Spirit.
Hunger is not a threat to the body but its turn toward starvation is a deadly one.
If we don’t believe that people are hungry for the Gospel – that there exists a yearning and hunger so deep within them that they’re willing to stick their necks out and walk into our churches, so often alone – if we don’t believe that people are this hungry, then we’ve lost our collectively inclined ear for the Spirit.
Take it as an invitation to begin a catechumenate process the next time you hear a parishioner say something about church needing to be “more relevant” or that they’re looking for a “more authentic religious experience.”
Listen for the Spirit guiding their words – listen to that request the way a mother might hear her child crying for food in the middle of the night. Don’t underestimate their hunger.
Because the truth is that the work of our Sunday assembly is both wholly relevant and authentic. When we invite people into the catechumenate we are inviting them to a feast that’s already been set before us.
The trick is helping one another up to the table.