How do we cultivate Christians in a culture where Christianity is once again (and for the better) a choice? How do we begin to change church structure to be highly invitational, highly relational, and to have higher expectations than previous generations had experienced the church? How do we integrate new members into a fast growing church in such a way that our back door shrinks even as our front door expands?
These questions were the start of some great conversation at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago, and it led to what we call The Great Conversation, our new membership program.
In doing some research, the pastor and two key lay leaders became greatly influenced by a little book entitled Faith Forming Faith by Pastor Paul Hoffman of Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington. Pr. Hoffman had integrated a catechumenate model into his church as it welcomed new members, and his exposition on the work was not only inspiring, it was also practical.
The Great Conversation (“TGC”) was born out of the discussions and prayerful reflection that happened after reading this story of faith formation that is both ancient and modern.
In developing TGC, we sought guidance not only from this book, but also from history. What has the church historically done to integrate new people into talking about matters of faith and spirituality? The answer, we found, was the Catechumenate. Catechism (literally means “to sound down to the ears”) functioned in the ancient church as a way to introduce people to what it meant to be Christian, a Christ-follower, in a culture where Christianity was a choice. Newcomers were paired with long-time church goers to engage in a process of conversation, spiritual discipline, and education that fostered faith.
If you’re reading this with an eye toward the practical, here’s how we organize it. TGC is presently held twice a year, once in the Fall leading up to All Saints Sunday and during Lent culminating at the Easter Vigil. Prior to the start of each session, we seek current church members to volunteer as sponsors who are then paired with new members or Catechumenates through the Catechumenates’ journey of faith, spirituality, inquiry and exploration. TGC provides an open environment of welcome discussion where the Catechumenates and their sponsors can engage in conversation over topics such as “Church,” “God,” “Jesus,” and “Religion.” It’s a time of formation and information, where we learn by experiencing together. A safe place to discuss and at times even question faith—where there are no wrong answers.
So, how does it work? Two members serve as Discipleship Directors to lead the Catechumenates and the sponsors during each session. Prior to the commencement of each session of TGC, the discipleship directors and our Pastor put together a list of potential Catechumenates and sponsors from people within the congregation who show interest in membership or in renewing their faith (Catechumenates), and who have the gifts and abilities to help foster faith in others (sponsors). Our Pastor and the discipleship directors then contact the potential participants to confirm their participation, allowing room for the Holy Spirit to do some work, too. It is made clear that participation in every session is expected, and that if a participant is going to miss more than two sessions, that they wait for another time where they’ll be free to participate more fully.
We want this to be an intentional process. The requirements are high, and so are the stakes. We’re talking about the future of Christ’s work at this church, in this neighborhood, in this city, and in this world.
Once a list of participants is confirmed, the Discipleship Directors and the Pastor prayerfully and mindfully pair Catechumenates with sponsors so that the relationship will be mutually beneficial. At the beginning of each session we schedule a kick-off dinner for all participants at which time we introduce the Catechumenates to their sponsors. In addition, we watch a video (in the Animate: Faith series by Sparkhouse) to introduce a discussion topic (God, Jesus, Spirituality, etc.) after which the Catechumenates and their sponsors discuss the topic coming from their own perspective, and hopefully great conversation ensues.
For the next six weeks, all of the Catechumenates and their sponsors meet, discuss, learn and reflect on video topics or additional subjects such as Martin Luther, our local congregation and stewardship. At Luther Memorial, TGC takes place during the hour between our morning services to allow for those attending the early service to stay for an hour, or for those coming to the later service to come an hour early and then stay for services. We do this with an eye toward our young families who want to participate, but for whom weeknights are already over-scheduled.
At the end of the six weeks, the Catechumenates are welcomed into the congregation after a blessing during the Great Easter Vigil in the Spring and All Saints Sunday in the Fall with huge festival celebrations.
We also ask each “pairing” to find a time to share a meal together outside of church. We believe it is important to the spiritual growth of each Catechumenate to develop a relationship with their sponsor in order to feel they can freely inquire and explore their faith and membership with their sponsor—in addition to the resultant benefit of spotting someone at this new church they know and can sit with during worship. Further, we ask that each pairing meet to participate in a service activity in the community or through our church such as buying groceries for our refugee family, serving at the local food pantry or assisting the night ministry.
If you’re reading with an eye toward the theological, here is why we do it: to create new Christians and strengthen long-time Christians. We do it to integrate a community that is constantly in flux. We do it to allow people to have meaningful conversation about faith and life and where they intersect in a world where such forums are becoming more and more scarce and homogenized.
We do it because God has called us to.
Over the last three years, we have successfully welcomed approximately 100 new members through TGC at Luther Memorial. TGC has served not only to be a journey of faith and service for the Catechumenates, but I believe for the sponsors as well. In this way, we have welcomed new members to our church and at the same time renewed the faith and involvement of long-time members.
It has done the Godly work of moving us forward while also bringing us back to our early church roots.