Having introduced the general topic of the “lost art of catechesis,” I want now to explore some aspects of what is missing in the catechesis of our congregations.
Recently, Christian Smith at Notre Dame and Kenda Creasy Dean at Princeton, along with many other scholars, have been analyzing the spiritual lives of teenagers and “emerging adults” in our society. Making use of the largest study of American teenagers ever conducted, known as the National Study of Youth and Religion, which interviewed in depth over 3000 teenagers, these authors use sociological research and theological insight to plead that the recovery of the art of catechesis is becoming ever more urgent.
Dean describes the study in her fascinating book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). In a comment about two crucial elements of all religious traditions — identity and practice, she writes:
Time and time again in our interviews, we met young people who called themselves Christians, who grew up with Christian parents, who were regular participants in Christian congregations, yet who had no readily accessible faith vocabulary, few recognizable faith practices, and little ability to reflect on their lives religiously. There were exceptions, but not many…. Exposing adolescents to faith, as it turns out, is no substitute for teaching it to them. (p. 16)
Here is our situation: congregations who cannot form strong Christian identities, teenagers and emerging adults spending ever longer periods as singles without roots in and formation by specifically Christian communities, and future leaders of congregations heading off to seminary and graduate school who are themselves considerably under-catechized.
What is missing in our formation of Christians? After all, are we not the recipients of a tremendous development in the last century with the Christian education movement and the proliferation of institutions for theological education? Do not our churches have more “masters of divinity” among their clergy than ever before? Are we not inundated with countless new curriculum resources for instructing children and adults?
One thing that is not missing in congregations, surprisingly, is Bible study. Robert Wuthnow’s research into the life of small groups in America found that, although Bible study was the focus of more than two-thirds of the small groups in America, the results in terms of biblical literacy, content, and interpretive skill were negligible (Sharing the Journey [New York: Free, 1996]).
Dean reformulates the questions. To the question of whether the church is missing something in its teaching of teenagers and young adults, she gives this passionate response:
The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people.
What if the blasé religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all? What if the church models a way of life that asks, not passionate surrender but ho-hum assent? (pp. 11-12; cf. pp. 29, 36-37, 39)
The basic educational model of many congregations focuses more on receiving biblical “information” rather than on their initiation into a holy life and the transformation of their intellect, affections, and desires so that they travel together through time and their specific context as a holy people. I am convinced that this initiation into a way of life and a holy people is the key missing element in our catechesis.
In my future essays, then, I will lay out the following proposal:
The renewal of the art of catechesis in our time requires a rediscovery and retrieval of the resources of the baptismal catechesis of the ancient catechumenate.
There are numerous arguments for and against such a proposal, and I invite your critical responses. Perhaps the strongest influence shaping my proposal is that our current practices of inviting people into membership in a congregation rarely take baptismal preparation seriously. When taking people into membership we ask, often as an afterthought, “Oh, and have you been baptized?” Any deep scrutiny, either communal or personal, is left to private speculation. We may receive people into membership and require them to “renew their baptismal vows,” but whether we have really gone on a deep journey with them to discern their readiness, and ours, to make those great renunciations and commitments of the baptismal vows — well, that is the question that the ancient catechumenate raises for us.