Elegance is notoriously difficult to define. The right dress on the wrong person is inelegant. An odd dress on the right person might in fact be elegant. Similarly, each year companies march out new products (think of cars) all with essentially the same features, and yet each year some of those products shine with an elegance and beauty lacking in the others.
Life in the church parallels this pattern. Almost every church conducts life together in a way similar to other churches. Most churches eat together sometimes. Most organize bible studies. All gather for worship. Many provide sponsor or mentor relationships for those new to the faith. Almost all baptize, and provide some orientation on the life of faith that accompanies baptism.
However, the manner in which these various components of Christian life are assembled really does matter. It is an art rather than a science, bringing the ancient practices of the church into play with the culture and sensibilities of a particular place. Bible study can be done poorly. New member orientation can be ill-timed.
This past year, our congregation has experimented with the ancient (though new for us) rites of Christian initiation for adults, sometimes called the catechumenate. Our journey with this pattern for Christian initiation began with a lot of study and reading on my part. I have spent time the past few years reading descriptions of the catechumenate in other contexts, and interviewed congregations and pastoral leaders who use the model for adult faith formation.
Then, this past summer, I piloted the model with a leadership team. We gathered each week for a meal, then broke open the gospel lesson from the preceding Sunday worship as our common Scripture lesson. While modeling this weekly devotional time, we also read a little book by a colleague and mentor, Paul Hoffman’s Faith Forming Faith: Bringing New Christians to Baptism and Beyond. We have undergirded all of this study and practice with prayer, hearts open to the new people in our midst.
By the end of the summer, as nervous as we were to try such an intense and beautiful pattern in our church life, we were ready. We began inviting our new visitors, and many inquirers to the Christian faith, to periodic inquiry sessions on Sunday evenings. Throughout the fall, we hosted a Sunday evening supper and bible study. The fall inquiry sessions had a very big front door and big back door. “All are welcome, come check this out, no commitment necessary, if this isn’t for you, we understand.”
The catechumenate goes in stages, and matches our church calendar. After Christmas, at the beginning of Epiphany, all the inquirers are welcomed during Sunday worship at a Rite of Welcome. This is where the current congregation really gets to start meeting the inquirers formally and up close. Worship leaders give the inquirers a bible for their journey. Each inquirer is matched with a sponsor from the congregation, and that sponsor blesses the inquirer in their journey, making the sign of the cross over their eyes, ears, forehead, mouth, shoulders, heart, hands, and feet.
At this point, the elegance of the catechumenate is on full display. It is well timed (the beginning of the year), and the richness of the formation process means many are attracted to it. We have over forty adults in our catechumenate this year. This is a large number of new people for a congregation our size. Add the sponsors to the group, and this means a lot of people engaged in intentional faith formation from Christmas to Easter.
Now the pattern deepens. The group meets every single week for a supper and bible study, interspersed with brief lessons on the catechism and Christian faith and life. Sponsors attend small group bible study with the catechumens. The model for bible study is very open. It is a space for questions, for exploration. As a Christian community, we do not believe Christianity is about an authority handing down the “right way to believe” to us in sound bites. Instead, we believe the Spirit is at work in the conversation among the group gathered around Scripture. I as pastor do not even attend the small groups. I do the dishes after the meal, so each group really has to rely on themselves for the interpretation of the text. There are no so-called authorities. The authority is in the space itself, their lives, and this text, coming together in fruitful ways.
At the beginning of Lent (a deeply faithful liturgical pattern observed by our and many Christian denominations as a way of journeying in our worship life towards the cross and Jerusalem) all adults who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil (Saturday night before Easter Day) write their names in the baptismal register and are enrolled. They kneel for a blessing, and commit themselves to their preparations for baptism.
During Lent, the group attends Sunday worship faithfully, hearing gospel lessons especially selected for deep faith formation. Each Sunday evening, they continue the simple pattern: meal, lesson, small group study and conversation. The Sunday immediately prior to Easter, the whole group rehearses the Easter Vigil liturgy, which includes the lighting of the new fire, many readings from the Old and New Testament, affirmation of baptism for those returning to the church or re-committing themselves to life in Christian community, and baptism for the adults and many children who will be baptized that day. It is the way the church keeps vigil as it anticipates celebrating once again the resurrection of its Lord.
There is nothing radically new about this pattern. Each component, as I have mentioned, is present in almost every Christian community I’ve visited or been a part of. But there are more or less elegant ways to put all the pieces together, and I have been learning, over time, that this ancient pattern, these rites of Christian initiation for adults, have that kind of beauty. They’re beautiful because they are ancient, yes, and there is much truth in them. But they are even more beautiful because I see on the faces of those who participate in them life, and grace, and joy. This way of being initiated into the Christian story means something to them, to us, to me.
We have been so surprised, though perhaps we should not have been, at the overwhelming response we’ve gotten in our congregation to this pattern of faith formation for adults. I Clearly this process and its timing were right. Our members, old and new, were craving this. It may very well be that this, or something like it, is a desire of people in your places of worship as well.