A young woman came to my church, Messiah Lutheran in Wauconda, Ill., seeking to be confirmed before her wedding to a Roman Catholic man. Ours was not the first parish she had cold-called for help. And, like the others, we had a confirmation program for middle schoolers but nothing to meet her particular need.
So, with the help of a faithful member who served as her sponsor and a devotional book to guide them, we made up an ad-hoc process to prepare her for affirmation of baptism at that year’s Easter Vigil.
Reflecting on that experience, we came to the conclusion that faith formation should not be something reserved for, and imposed upon, only children and youth. We joined the growing number of Lutheran communities adopting some version of the ancient catechumenate.
More a diverse set of local practices than a uniform institution, the catechumenate was the way inquirers were prepared for baptism in the early church. It usually involved public recognition and prayer in the liturgy, instruction in the essentials of the faith, and a central role for lay sponsors, or catechists, who guided the new believers in the practices and virtues of Christian life.
In the catechumenate, faith formation was treated as an essential part of initiation into the body of Christ. It was only later, after Christianity became the dominant religion in the territory of the Roman Empire, that we treated baptism and faith formation as two distinct events.
More a diverse set of local practices than a uniform institution, the catechumenate was the way inquirers were prepared for baptism in the early church.
If that ever really made sense, it doesn’t anymore. People come to Christ as adults without having been baptized in childhood. Or they bring their child to the font after having a limited or scattered education in what the promises of baptism are and what they mean. Bringing faith formation—mutual prayer, shared meals and fellowship, learning and discussion—back into these moments of initiation takes some effort. But church history and current experience gives us resources for doing it, and the impact on congregations and lives is significant.
Deepening relationships with Christ
Amy Zeittlow, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Decatur, Ill., started a catechumen process when a family showed up with a high school senior wishing to be confirmed. “She was asking different questions” than the middle schoolers in their confirmation program, Zeittlow said. “I was looking for a way to replicate a catechism process that could culminate with her affirmation of baptism during the Easter Vigil service.”
This pastoral need turned into regular gatherings of 12 to 15 people.
“I was looking for a way to replicate a catechism process that could culminate with her affirmation of baptism during the Easter Vigil service.”
John Flack, pastor of Our Saviour Atonement Lutheran Church in New York City, was tired of new-member classes. “I wanted something … that helped people deepen their relationship with Christ,” he said.
Our Saviour Atonement has used a catechumen model for baptism and membership for three years. Members sponsor catechumens, praying, eating and standing together for the liturgical rites of welcome and blessing. “It’s the best thing we’ve done,” Flack said.
Over eight to 12 weeks between Christmas and Easter, the catechumen groups at Peace Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, meet for prayer and conversation on the lectionary texts. Carolyn Albert Donovan, pastor of Peace, described feeling uncertain about one longtime member’s engagement with the process, and being moved when, at the end, he shared “how much it had reconnected him to a sense of purpose in his family’s spiritual life.”
Like the other pastors, Tim Brown, who serves Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Raleigh, N.C., found Paul Hoffman’s book Faith Forming Faith (Wipf and Stock, 2012) helpful in inspiring and guiding their catechumen process. Running nine months, Good Shepherd’s catechumenate begins with monthly meetings for inquirers to test the format and becomes more frequent after Christmas and especially during Lent.
“We’re offering a more formal confirmation program for adults this fall because we’ve had this request,” Brown said.
It’s no small thing for people to request a confirmation program. But it’s remarkable what can happen when people are given the chance to really explore the meaning of their baptism. Parents and children get baptized together. Longtime members come alongside newcomers and both are transformed. “It seems to have brought baptism more into our consciousness,” Donovan said.
When the high school senior affirmed her baptism at Holy Cross, she named each participant in the catechumen group and what she had learned from them—“not a dry eye in the sanctuary,” Zeittlow said.
That’s been my experience in the eight groups that have met at Messiah since that first adult confirmand came through our doors. Longtime members came as learners. Newcomers started serving as sponsors. And along the way, we shared grief, joys and questions that aren’t easily aired over coffee and doughnuts after worship.
It may be that Christians today—whether they are beginning the life of baptism, or beginning it again as they bring a child to the waters or seek to become members—need and want not less community, less faith and less commitment, but more. And God, through our communities, is always ready to provide it.
Resources for your catechumenate
Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church by Jessica Krey Duckworth (Fortress, 2013).