The challenge that faced us was hardly out of the ordinary: parents bringing their children to baptism, or adults coming on their own, wishing to know more intimately the faith they are about to profess, or perhaps have intermittently professed since childhood. Our particular congregation, like many others, was not really prepared to answer this need. Our holy communion class is designed for 5th graders and our confirmation program for middle-schoolers. Our adult forum is very good but not very basic. And so an adult who arrives among us without having been instructed in the sacrament or having affirmed their baptism after a course of learning and relationship-building is, in effect, treated as an anomaly. We’re a sincerely welcoming place, but we are built around an implicit understanding that every adult who comes to church has gone to Sunday School, received their first communion, and been confirmed.
If that has ever been true in the American church, it is not true now. And as I heard more and more people tell me they wanted to do something like confirmation (or baptism) as adults, I started planning for a catechemunate-style group. The last straw was actually a call from a woman who was going to be married in the Catholic Church and needed to be confirmed in order to do so. Her religious education had ended shortly before confirmation would have happened. But every Lutheran church she contacted—including the one in which she was baptized—told her, in effect, that they couldn’t do anything for her. I even encouraged her to consider becoming Catholic, but she wanted to be Lutheran. She just needed some group of Lutherans to take her up on it.
And so first with a single learner and sponsor, guided only by a book I rummaged up somewhere, and now with a whole group meeting weekly during Lent, my parish joined the growing segment of Lutheran churches that look to the ancient catechumenate as a model for introducing new or renewed believers to the Body of Christ.
Since as of this writing we are three sessions into our first “Christian Basics” small group, I will refrain from offering any deep insight into what such a thing can and can’t do. Suffice it to say that I felt vindicated in the idea before we began when I heard the responses, including from some long-time church folk, to it, and even more so when I delved into a few big, broad topics with the group (which, in proper catechumenal fashion, includes eating together, mutual prayer, and each learner matched with a sponsor).
But I have already been struck by how this new program in my church, and how the renewed practice of catechesis in Lutheranism more generally, sits alongside the rest of what we do. My community poses, on the one hand, an explicit and broad welcome to everyone to be part of virtually every aspect of worship and community life. And on the other hand we have created a highly structured and rather exacting process for the production of a confirmed, mature believer. We are hardly unique in doing both of these things.
The catechumenate model falls somewhere in between them. It suggests, by its very existence, that faith is not something that can be taken for granted, not something that can be rightly inferred on the basis of one’s ability to enter a church building at roughly the right time while maintaining a pulse. And yet it also suggests that faith formation need not be tied to the developmental markers our curricular and programmatic structures insist they be.
It’s a practice that gives me hope for the possibilities still latent in our corner of the church. It counters the growing (and unintended) impression that we hold Christian faith and life to be so trifling that one must have literally no prior acquaintance with it before leaping into the middle of its highest expressions. And it also counters the reaction that grows in the other direction, that only the people formed in the deepest and most arcane fashion really know the faith well enough to escape the cultural orbit of dabbling and self-help. It imagines, in our world if not in the world that originated it, a lively and dynamic relationship between the church as it is and the church as it becomes through the engrafting of new believers. It’s a process that leads those new believers to a new start through baptism, in some fashion. But that process offers us the chance to start again in our faith, too, and with some consequences we could never have guessed.