The Catechumenate Reimagined: Our Next Steadfast Parish Feature from the Quarterly, By Elaine Gavin

(Editor’s Note: Each quarter The Brothers of John the Steadfast identifies a steadfast parish and highlights it for the readers of our Steadfast Quarterly. The latest Steadfast Quarterly has been mailed out to all our members and  as in previous issues is getting high  marks.  This issue is a special double issue that highlights the evangelistic work of confessional churches, pastors and laity. Over the course of the next week or so we will highlight some of the articles. To get this insightful, timely, edifying and full color publication mailed to your home click the “Join Now” button on the top of this page and for $25 a year you can become a member of the Brothers of John the Steadfast. To see the past three issues of the Quarterly click here or look for it and other features on “The Organization” page of the site.)

The Catechumenate, as Reimagined by One Steadfast Parish

“It has transformed our congregation.” What is “it”? Well, it is the story of our Steadfast Parish, St. John’s Lutheran Church in Wheaton, Illinois. St. John’s, founded in 1865, has about 2000 members, and worships about 890 each week. “We are wholly given to the Liturgy,” says senior pastor Scott Bruzek. When he arrived at St. John’s 12 years ago, “it seemed folks thought we were a bit odd, as we don’t fit the evangelical or contemporary mode of things. But we put a premium on teaching– on saying why we do what we do–and that has paid great dividends. For the first two years in Bible Study, I taught on the Liturgy, how it is pure pastoral care, applying big doses of Jesus to the lives of those present, joining Him to them by His words and deeds, by His holy things:Baptism, Absolution, Word, and Supper.

St. John’s members were being shown the connection between what is being done in the liturgy, what is written in the catechism and what the Lord says in Scripture; that it is, as Pr. Bruzek said, “the Lord from start to finish. Pr. Genig, Pr. Nelson, and I all understand the Liturgy as an ultimate act of pastoral care, where Jesus gives his healing touch to those present.” The new member’s class was also taught from the Liturgy, so that the Divine Service made sense.

St. John’s was very good at the teaching aspect of bringing new people in to the congregation. New members thoroughly enjoyed the classes, but disconnect happened once they were “dropped” into the congregation. This troubling reality moved St. John’s to rethink new member classes and the process of evangelism.

One piece of the restructuring process was sponsoring a continuing education class. Dr. Arthur Just, Professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, came and taught on the Catechumenate—its history and what it looked like in the early church.

The rethinking and restructuring continued, and a number of discoveries were made:

  • People don’t necessarily ask dogmatic or doctrinal questions at first (those come later).
  • Folks are craving relationships, love, a caring community, and a family.
  • In the postmodern world, denominational tags no longer mean as much as they once did.
  • The way in which prospective new members are engaged and incorporated into the normal rhythm of the Christian life will not be the same as it had been before.
  • When the Liturgy is taught winsomely and well, it offers what the postmodern world seeks: honesty, authenticity, mystery, certainty, comfort, and meaning. Moreover, the world is coming back to us, and we need to be ready.

And it came to pass that during his vicarage at St. John’s, Josh Genig (now associate pastor at St. John’s) began developing a plan for the St. John’s Adult Catechumenate. Pr. Genig explains, “We know that we are a unique parish, and so we may not be what folks are looking for (or vice versa). The Catechumenate is our time to ‘date.’ We don’t kiss until they’ve become members! The Adult Catechumenate is an ancient process which seeks to make disciples of Jesus Christ, while rejoicing in the cultural setting in which we live. It accomplishes this by passing on the teachings which come to us from Jesus and His Apostles, while making a concerted effort to bring people into the new life in Christ, which is embodied by this community and its members.

As for the program, typically everyone follows the same structure. And that means everyone–the unbaptized, non-Lutherans, transfers–everyone. Catechumens are assigned to sponsor families; they meet for the first time on the Sunday of Enrollment. That day, both catechumens and sponsors are asked a series of questions, ending with the invitation to “enter into a journey of renewal of faith and in so doing, help this community to be renewed.” Throughout the entire process, sponsors care for their catechumens as they would family members.

Beginning right away the following Saturday, catechumens attend a small African Bible study, where the focus is on listening to the Gospel reading for the next day, and helping them hear the Bible stories as stories in which “Jesus does the verbs.” This study meets four to six weeks, after which begins catechesis with the pastors for another 15 weeks. Pr. Genig explains, “We open up for them all the good gifts the Lord intends to give–Baptism, Confession and Absolution, The Ten Commandments, The Holy Supper, The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed–using Luther’s Small Catechism as a map for our journey.” Following reception as new members, usually on a high feast, they continue on with the pastors for a month or so of instruction on the Christological life, covering topics including tithing, prayer, liturgy, mercy, witness, care, and compassion.
In this way, the Christian is instructed and formed.

Pastor Bruzek notes, “We don’t know what we are getting in those who wish to join and they don’t know what they are getting in us. But if we spend four or five or six months together–and remember, this kind of initial teaching went on for three years in the early Church–by then we all know if we should move on from dating to marriage. Drawing the successes of the new member classes into the shape of the ancient Catechumenate moved it from strength to strength. It created more community by carefully assigning sponsors to each visitor or prospect, orienting them to the Liturgy and making a big church feel like a small church.” How is it going? Eighty people are on the waiting list for the class. A prospective member recently asked, “Can you show me what it means to live the full Eucharistic life?” It seems to be going very well.

Is there a connection between this congregation-transforming class and evangelism? Pr. Bruzek, who calls himself “an accidental pastor” and went to the seminary just to read a lot and have his theological questions answered, puts it this way: “If you do a good job with catechesis, you’ve already done your evangelism. We don’t have a witness, we are a witness! When somebody looks at you and says, ‘I want what you’ve got’, then we’ve done our job, and that only happens when we follow Jesus’ baptismal mandate: one Baptism, but a lifetime of teaching folks to treasure up everything He’s left behind for us. As Jesus says in Matthew 28, it’s giving everything to everybody everywhere, all the time.

Pr. Genig became a pastor because he “can’t imagine anything better than being at the altar and delivering our Lord’s good gifts.” About evangelism, he says, “Good catechesis is good evangelism. As James K.A. Smith has remarked, ‘The church doesn’t have an apologetic; it is an apologetic.’ We are all about creating an irresistible community where new folks quickly flourish with the help of those already in the household of faith.

St John’s newest pastor is Marcus Nelson. Pr. Nelson grew up in a fine Baptist home, went to Wheaton College and became a Lutheran through St. John, Wheaton. This is his first parish. “Lutherans want to know how I became a Lutheran, to which I respond like a good Baptist: the Bible. When Baptists ask me how I became a Lutheran, I respond: :the Incarnation. I respond this way because I would like Lutherans to understand the biblical foundation for the faith and then challenge Baptists to see that Lutherans have a more fleshy faith than they do. However, I eventually end up answering that Christ gathered me here.

Pr. Nelson’s task is to plan and execute the next step in the Catechumenate at St. John – adapting it to younger folks in the congregation. He says, “There is a view that the youth are the Church of the future, and another that the youth need to be trained and educated before they may be an active part of the Church. But in both views the present tense is missing. The youth are not the Church of the future nor do they need something in order take an active part in the life of the Church. They are the Church since their Baptism, and their active participation is intertwined in their already-ongoing Catechesis.

Youth that are considered appendages to the Church or a group that needs to be fully incorporated into the Church are never deemed as contributors. The mission of the Youth Catechumenate is to explicitly embody the message of Jesus Christ in true faith toward God and fervent love to our neighbors, to authentically worship the living God by continual participation in the Divine Service, to faithfully formulate disciples of Jesus Christ by regular Bible Study, and to boldly build them up by earnestly engaging our culture in acts of service and mercy.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at KNFA.net.

Comments

The Catechumenate Reimagined: Our Next Steadfast Parish Feature from the Quarterly, By Elaine Gavin — 12 Comments

  1. What does this mean:

    “Pr. Genig explains, “We know that we are a unique parish, and so we may not be what folks are looking for (or vice versa).”

  2. Beginning right away the following Saturday, catechumens attend a small African Bible study, where the focus is on listening to the Gospel reading for the next day, and helping them hear the Bible stories as stories in which “Jesus does the verbs.”

    What is an “African Bible study”?

  3. While I find it encouraging that all new arrivals undergo the same process, I wonder about Communion for those who wish to transfer their membership. Were I looking to transfer to St. John’s I would be happy to take the classes, meet with the pastors, etc. It sounds like a wonderful way to get to know a new congregation. I would not, however, be thrilled to forego Communion for 4 to 6 months. In fact I would be so not thrilled that I would very likely look for another church to join if an appropriate one could be found nearby.

  4. Boy is that a Lutheran congregation. They leave the first ten pews empty.

    I’d be interested to seeing some of the materials from the classes. There are so many great materials out there that never leave the congregation that uses them that could be made available for wider audiences. I think we’d have a lot more Lutherans if we could all better show “the connection between what is being done in the liturgy, what is written in the catechism and what the Lord says in Scripture.”

  5. Weslie,

    I think that it means they are not the typical LCMS parish and so people may be turned off by the emphasis on the liturgy for example.

    But that is must my guess.

    TR

  6. Okay I found out what an African Bible Study is, its an Anglican/African Anglican thingee:

    “This Bible study method was introduced by the African Delegation to the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church. It is known by both names: “Lambeth” and “African.”

    Opening Prayer:O Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning. Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

    One person reads passage slowly.

    Each person identifies the word or phrase that catches their attention ( 1 minute ).

    Each shares the word or phrase around the group ( 3-5 minutes, NO DISCUSSION ).

    Another person reads the passage slowly ( from a different translation if possible ).

    Each person identifies where this passage touches their life today ( 1 minute ).

    Each shares ( 3-5 minutes, NO DISCUSSION ).

    Passage is read a third time (another reader and translation if possible).

    Each person names or writes “From what I’ve heard and shared, what do I believe God wants me to do or be? Is God inviting me to change in any way?” ( 5 minutes )

    Each person shares their answer ( 5-10 minutes, NO DISCUSSION )

    Each prayers for the person on their right, naming what was shared in the other steps ( 5 minutes ).

    Close with the Lord’s Prayer and SILENCE.”

  7. Please note the above description is not the practice at St. John’s, but my attempt, with the net, to answer my own question in post #2. The information in the post #7 comes from this site and is repeated on many Anglican sites.

    I would love to be enlightened on what specifically St. John’s does in a fuller way than the article’s description. In fact I would love to see a copy of the whole program. I’ve always toyed around with an adult catechumen program but was not 100% sure how to get is structured.

  8. Great stuff happening here. Congratualtions and God’s blessings. It is a good thing for all your sister congregations as well.

    One request. You write: “St. John’s, founded in 1865, has about 2000 members, and ***worships about 890*** each week.” Please understand, this is one of those phrases directly out of PLI and the Church Growth movement. It goes along with, “grow your church.” I am elated that a catechetically & liturgically faithful congregation such as yours has a weekly attendance of 890 to worship the One true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But please do be a little more careful with the language of who is the object of worship. It is very important.

    As to the first ten pews being empty, I wonder if they were to be filled by those participating in the processional–catechumens and family perhaps? But even if that is not the case, as a dear friend of mine once pointed out to me when I made a similar comment, Lutheran reluctance to sitting toward the front may be a matter of reverence for the real presence and an observance of the Lord’s Word to not take the seats of honor around the banquet table. Better to be called forward than to be displaced in deference to another. :^)

    God grant the increase according to His abundant grace.

  9. For what it’s worth, I have *never* personally attended a Lutheran church where the front rows were empty. As a relative newcomer to Lutheranism (4 years now), I can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of old stereotype that is simply not true anymore, if it ever was.

  10. All –

    Thanks for this!

    Let me see if I can briefly field a few of these.

    #1 – It is as Pr Rossow noted – we realize that not everyone will like the liturgy.

    #2 – We use a modified version of the African Bible study where folks listen to a text, then briefly comment on what they heard. They usually do this three times – listening and then commenting. The rhythm is intended to highlight listening, and to nudge them toward the richness and depth of the viva vox – the living voice of Jesus.

    #3 – While we ask everyone to come through the Catechumenate, we invite those already receiving the Eucharist to continue to do so during the process.

    #9 – Yes, the empty pews were reserved for those processing in on Enrollment Sunday.

    Hope this helps!

    Pr Genig

  11. I happened to take a field trip to St. JOhn’s this past weekend, it was my “day off” and my emeritus associates were in charge. All the pews were taken, I had to sit in the second row (I wanted to be up front). Some say St. John’s is “high Church” (whatever that really is); what I took part in was good liturgy, good preaching, and the Holy Meal (with the other dogs, OK had to be their for the sermon). As for the Catechumenate, I am doing some extra research and study. I have to roll up my sleeves now and go to work after seeing the good work they do.

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