Our catechumenate process at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wheaton, called BASIC, has been in existence for nearly four years now. I described our approach in detail in an earlier piece for Let’s Talk called “The Adult Catechumenate and the Missional Church.” But in a nutshell, BASIC is distinctive in the following ways:
- It’s a two-year process, composed of six discrete units of varying lengths: The Story of God (an introduction to the overarching narrative of the Bible); The Lutheran Way; Prayer and the Christian Life; Exploring Christian Beliefs; a New Testament Gospel study; and an Old Testament book study.
- Units are arranged in a rotating cycle, thus providing six different points of entry over two years.
- Participants are considered Inquirers in their first unit (sometimes longer), and partake in a Rite of Welcome/Enrollment when they commit to the full process.
- Catechumens who have not been baptized receive Baptism and First Communion about mid-way through the process, at one of our periodic Baptism festivals.
- A Rite of Affirmation of the Vocation of the Baptized marks and celebrates the culmination of the two-year journey.
Whether designing BASIC this way back in 2011 was innovative or foolhardy is difficult to say. No doubt some of both. While we certainly have reasons behind the model we’ve adopted (and I’ll share some of those reasons below), an approach like ours may not make sense in your own setting. How you give shape to the catechumenate in a particular congregation is all about context. So to help spur your own catechumenal imagination, I offer, instead of a list of best practices, a list of best questions. These are the matters to which you’ll want to give some serious and deliberate thought in your own research and development phase.
1.) What is the relationship between the catechumenate and the church year?
It’s the age-old question: which came first, the Easter Vigil or the catechumenate? Most of the examples and resources out there give the impression that the only way to establish a catechumenate ministry is to commit to introducing an Easter Vigil service—the traditional climax (though not culmination) of the process—and then work your way backward to arrange the various stages of preparation. For some, due to limited resources, low worship numbers, or other factors, this requirement of an Easter Vigil may feel like a non-starter.
At St. Paul, a Vigil tradition that had petered out still lingered in the community’s memory. It wasn’t time to bring it back yet. We also understood that in our context the vast majority of adult seekers had already been baptized; the norm was people looking to recommit to the life of baptism. Newcomers wishing to join the congregation would continue to be received into membership by Affirmation of Baptism after just a few orientation classes—no one wanted to make the catechumenate a membership requirement—so focusing on the same rite again as a goal if these folks pledged themselves to the BASIC process seemed redundant. Instead, we put more emphasis on the catechumenate as training for ministry, and fixed our sights on the rite of Affirmation of Vocation, a kind of disciple commissioning ceremony at the true culmination of the process. Most of our “graduates” have partaken in this rite on Pentecost Sunday.
Nowadays, we do have an Easter Vigil. Catechumens are involved in the planning of the Vigil during Lent and may take on various roles in the service itself. But without having anyone to baptize these two years, the main baptismal rite of the evening is a Remembrance of Baptism that catechumens simply participate in with the rest of the assembly. (Before we reintroduced the Vigil, we had two adult catechumens baptized, both quite happily on the Second or Third Sunday of Easter.)
The real tradeoff you have to consider is the relative value of having frequent points of entry for newcomers versus adhering more closely to the liturgical year, particularly a period of intense preparation during Lent. With our rotating scope and sequence, I don’t have to make seekers wait until September when I meet them in January or April. The downside is that the experience of progressive, intensifying stages mostly goes by the wayside. That and you might wear out your registrar, having to keep track of where everyone is in the cycle!
2.) How will adult catechesis connect with youth catechesis, especially confirmation?
If you have a “confirmation program” in your congregation, you already have a catechumenate. The question is, why are the only people eligible adolescents? It might be too pastor-driven, it might be siloed from rest of the congregation, it might be that some of your learners don’t want to be there, it might be tilted too strongly toward information rather than formation. But at root, you have an intentional process of catechesis for emerging disciples; you just haven’t opened the door to a process like this for grown-ups.
Because of my heavy responsibilities with youth and family ministry over my first few years at St. Paul, my primary point of reference when I first started thinking about the catechumenate was confirmation ministry. The question that nagged at me was: why do we have this glaring double-standard—three-and-a-half years (in our case) of fairly intense discipleship training for youth but nothing even remotely comparable if you happen to be fifteen or older? This was not just a problem of inequity; it was a severely impaired pedagogy for our young, who learn above all from the example of the adults in their lives. The title of a newsletter piece I wrote when we were just starting to publicize the adult catechumenate reflects our motivation here: “Our Strategy for Raising Faithful Children: Faithful Adults.”
Most of the guides to the catechumenate published in recent years, in my judgment, under-explore this relationship between the adult catechumenate and youth confirmation. (My running theory is that Lutheran worship specialists and education specialists don’t talk to each other a lot.) What would it look like in your context to integrate the same principles of free inquiry, apprenticeship, and whole-congregation involvement into the disciple-making process across ages?
3.) How should our catechumenate relate to the new member process?
The catechumenate is first and foremost a process for incorporating newcomers. The challenge is that your newcomers are a diverse lot, ranging from lifelong Lutheran Christians who are simply transferring membership to unbaptized seekers just starting to poke their heads into a new and unfamiliar world. An adult catechumenate is probably not going to be your one-size-fits-all solution. If you do decide to require all newcomers to participate in some version of the catechumenate, you probably want a model on the shorter end, not a two-year marathon like ours. If you want to remain more adaptable to the different backgrounds your newcomers bring, you may want to pursue a more multi-pronged approach, with enrollment in the catechumenate one possible path. In either case, the undergirding value (one we are still learning to apply consistently at St. Paul) is setting a clear expectation for high-commitment for all newcomers from the get-go, and so gradually fostering what some would call a discipleship as opposed to a membership culture.
4.) Who should be invited to participate, and how?
Everyone engaged in these contemporary experiments with the catechumenate appears to agree that what you want is established members and newcomers learning alongside one another. No one is arguing for setting up ghettos for the neophytes. How can you put established members, particularly ones with a demonstrably mature faith, in relationship with inquirers and explorers, so that the former are investing in the latter?
The standard terminology for these two roles is sponsor and catechumen. We have both at St. Paul, though I’d be lying if I said people fall tidily into those two categories. Small-to-midsize churches like ours will usually be wary of putting the energy into developing a catechumenate process without it being able to serve multiple needs. In our case, BASIC includes those with little to no church background at all, those returning to church life after a period away, those raised in Christian traditions other than Lutheran (especially former Roman Catholics), long-time Lutherans who want a do-over on their youth confirmation experience, and others. There are always some folks as well who just want to step in for one particular unit. We cast the invitation widely, and many have accepted (this year we added a second, Sunday morning cohort to run parallel with our Wednesday night cohort).
Strikingly, almost everyone wants to be regarded as a tenderfoot. Finding sponsors for our first cohort of (initially twenty-six) catechumens was just too unwieldy. Eventually, however, this group of pioneers—and later, other alums and second-year catechumens—proved to be the best source from which to draw sponsors. No, the catechumens-turned-sponsors generally don’t attend the classes over again. But all sponsors are expected to have a role in the associated liturgical rites, serve as prayer partners, and connect periodically with their catechumen as the process moves along.
It’s fairly messy, but, by and large, the diversity of experience among the catechumens themselves, combined with the flexible way we apply the sponsor role (some catechumens call for more personal attention than others), produces the desired environment of mutual learning and friendship between newcomers and more seasoned Christians. Another approach would be to narrow your definition of a catechumen, which could potentially expand your pool—and presumably your expectations—of sponsors.
5.) What content will we include?
Another way of putting this question might be: what about your catechumenate makes it catechesis? Quite a few Lutherans who were confirmed in their youth carry a grudge over a style of catechesis in which a teacher (usually the pastor) provided both the right questions and the right answers, requiring only that students be able to parrot back both from memory. On the other end of the spectrum, Paul Hoffman describes in his book Faith Forming Faith (reviewed in this issue) a model for the catechumenate that has no curriculum beyond “lectionary and life” and tends to speak of formation as the happy alternative to education.1
You will likely want to find a place in the middle that makes sense for your own context. Our version of the catechumenate includes the classical elements of reflection on the Creed and the sacraments, and extends into considerable engagement with the Bible, core Christian practices (with special attention to prayer), and the Lutheran confessional witness. Most units involve a short book or two in addition to the Bible; we also incorporate video resources, drama, music, art, and testimony. The key is allowing ample space for catechumens to offer up their own experiences and questions, without neglecting what Jessicah Krey Duckworth calls “the honest need for newcomers to explore the reified stories, symbols, practices, concepts, documents, and forms of the community’s practice.”2
6.) Who is going to lead?
If you are a pastor reading this, the truth is that getting the ball rolling on a catechumenate process is likely going to depend on you. Just make sure you have the support of other leaders before you move ahead, and that introducing a catechumenate is in some way an answer to communal discernment that has already been taking place in the congregation.
Because a sustainable catechumenate ministry can’t revolve around you either, start thinking about how you can prepare and equip lay catechists. Paul Hoffman writes, “In our process in Seattle, pastors identify, recruit, and train the catechists…. Then we do our best to get out of the way.” He also maintains the role of clergy is chiefly to lead the accompanying “ritual life” and “hold the vision of what it means to be a congregation committed to forming faith.”3
The extent to which a pastor actively teaches in the process will have much to do with the gifts and passions of the pastor, and what content needs to be covered. Some conversations will indeed flow more easily without a pastor “in the way.” At other times, like when catechumens are trying to grasp the difference between law and gospel or are curious about the theological controversies behind the Apostles’ Creed, it would be rather poor stewardship of a seminary education for a pastor not to be more directly of service.
A final charge: look before you leap, but don’t forget to leap
Establishing a catechumenate ministry in your congregation, however you decide to customize it, is no small undertaking. Even if you read all the manuals and conduct the most thorough planning, some things are not going to work out like you drew them up. In our case at St. Paul, sharing a meal each Wednesday night before class did not prove sustainable, no matter how many times I called eating together “the original Christian practice.” Participation in our Lenten spiritual retreat is usually thin, and one year had to be cancelled. Our retention of catechumens—those who make it all the way through the two-year process—is around fifty percent.
But even as we continue to figure it out as we go, I can’t imagine a more satisfying endeavor in ministry. If you’ve begun to put your own missional imagination toward making disciples in this ancient-yet-contemporary way, think through the questions, do your homework…and then jump in.
- ^Paul E. Hoffman, Faith Forming Faith: Bringing New Christians to Baptism and Beyond (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), see especially chapter 5. We have actually used this model of small groups reflecting on the Sunday lectionary texts—with no curriculum or pastor in the way—as the inspiration for our “Connecting Sunday to Monday” groups at St. Paul. The first was actually organized by some graduates of BASIC. These groups are perfect for newcomers who are less in need of the foundational catechesis provided in BASIC.
- ^Jessicah Krey Duckworth, Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) p.65. As the title indicates, Duckworth sees newcomers, like those who participate in the catechumenate, as playing a critical role by virtue of their questions and experiences in “disestablishing” the congregation. The church cannot be an ecclesia crucis without their unsettling presence. At the same time, she is critical of a “highly reductionistic” understanding of education that views the sharing of a community’s reified resources of faith as mere indoctrination: “Congregations desperately need a cruciform catechesis through engagement with a confession of faith to facilitate the participation and belonging of newcomers in dynamic relationship with established members and the central works of a broadly conceived ‘deposit of faith.’ This would include the Bible itself, the church’s ancient creeds and liturgical foundation, and the catechisms and disciplines of faith developed by later generations that together form an essential corpus of a Lutheran inheritance within the Christian tradition” (p.105).
- ^ Hoffman, p. 73, 75.