Saturday, February 13, 2010

Theology by Sound Byte

The truth is that we live in an age when books are popular but people are not well read. Because of that we are tempted greatly to dummy down theology to make it succinct, memorable, and practical. I understand this. I feel the same pressure. But we must be careful in this. The end result of much of this is that our people are not well grounded in Scripture or the Catechism. They have a peripheral faith -- both on the surface of what the Church believes and teaches and on the surface of their lives.

We must resist the great temptation to sound byte theology. I do not think that it is either possible or wise to keep a person hanging through 79 weeks of new member instruction but neither do I believe that a brief orientation to the parish and its structures and life reflects the needed catechesis. What we can do and should do is two things. First, we can give a comprehensive introduction to the Christian faith -- covering Scripture (where it came from and what it says), church history (seldom included but it should be), our Confessions and faith (the Concordia), how and why we worship the way we do, and some thing about piety. Second, we must stop the false assumption that catechesis ends when the class ends. Our people need to be in lifelong catechesis -- not simply learning here but the learning the instructs, corrects, encourages, strengthens, reigns in, and forms the faith and the person in that faith.

I don't know where you live, but I live in a mobile community. Some years 1 of every 5 people there on Sunday morning changes due to moves. I also live in a community where even faithful Christians attempt to juggle job, home, family, recreation, etc. There is no way I can count on folks setting aside 25 Wednesdays evenings from 6:30 - 8 pm -- and even if I did, I know what fills the mind between the sessions and prevents us from building on what we went over the week before. So I have come to do all day classes. We go from 8 am to 3 pm with a half hour for lunch. We provide child care and materials. The one thing I like about this is that in the context of 8 hours together we do connect Scripture and church history and confession and liturgy and personal piety in a way that I have not found possible using other methods. I don't know if it works in other places but here people tell me they can block out a day here or a day there better than they can 25 weeks in a row at a specific day and time. The practical has to be worked out as you best can work it out.

But the idea that catechesis ends when the class ends, well, that one is more difficult. I got that idea when I finished catechism class 43 years ago. I would be surprised if most youth don't. And the bad deal is that the parents, the Pastor and the Church often let that idea stand. We work like the dickens to get them to catechism class but the expectation of Bible study and catechesis beyond these youth classes is less rigorously taught and felt.

I think there is a difference between the minimum that is required for someone to become part of the Christian community that is the congregation and what needs to happen from that point on -- It is not reasonable or possible to withhold membership or participation in the sacrament until comprehensive catechesis is completed. But neither is it reasonable or possible for us to continue to allow our people to think that what they had as a youth or had to join is enough to sustain them and their lives as Christian individuals over the long haul. We do a great job of bringing the faith to people but we often leave them immature and childlike, and therefore, vulnerable Christians. We ought to be at least as concerned about maturing them as we are about converting them...


Rev. Josh Sullivan said...

A few thoughts in response, if I may. Years ago a pastor told me his only goal was to get his parishioners to a 'catechism level faith.' At the time I thought that was minimalistic. Now I see what he meant. Since we put the catechism away after Instruction it is difficult to get those catechetical rhythms of life in Christ. How do we do that years later?

Second, I have wondered about adult instruction/catechesis. Over my vicarage my supervisor did the "one weekend" deal. They were then brought into membership but never came to bible studies. They were at worship regularly though. You hit on the main struggle of "how much is enough?" both for membership and the hearer. When is enough enough? I suppose never. Faith doesn't say "no thanks" to receiving the gifts of God. But at what point are they "brought in?" Is there a test? Some sort of Litmus for membership? Do we have different standards for youth instruction than for adult? Is that part of the problem? I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on this subject.

Pastor Peters said...

Clearly the whole problem is that folks believe that there is a place when enough is enough and they can still be in good standing within the community of faith... until these presuppositions are removed it really matters not how much you require... it is not enough.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters,

Your post is very applicable to my personal experience in the LCMS. I was confirmed in the LCMS. (I was taught with Luther's Small Cathecism.) I spent over 35 years in LCMS churches. I was a faithful church member and attender. However, I never attended any additional instruction on Lutheran theology, church history, Lutheran worship, etc. I don't recall these instructional topics ever being offered. To be fair, these topics may have been touched on in adult inquiry class - which focused on potential new members. But I was confirmed in the LCMS. I didn't need this. I was in. Boy, was I wrong.

I have been attending a Baptist church for several years now - but still think like a Lutheran. It was a Baptist lay teacher who gave a course on church history and denominationalism that opened my eyes to many Lutheran beliefs. These were things I did not know or I was wrong in my understanding. I learned, from a Baptist, that Lutherans believe in single predestination; that Luther wrote some unkind things about the Jews; that Lutherans promote private confession (at least the Book of Concord does); that LCMS polity is more like the Southern Baptist Convention than Roman Catholicism. I was shocked. My understanding of Lutheranism was dead wrong in many areas. But I was confirmed long ago. I was in. Obviously, it wasn't enough and I needed more instruction. (Clearly, I share much of the blame for my poor understanding of basic Lutheran doctrine and history. I was a weak, lazy Christian. I should have pursued this study on my own.)

I find it ironic that it was a Baptist that recently led me to purchase the Book of Concord, study the LCMS website and learn more about Lutheranism. Pastor, I am clearly an example of a longtime Lutheran who needed more instruction. Having this type of post confirmation / adult inquiry class instruction available would certainly be helpful - at least in my situation.