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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 Catechumenateâ€”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.