Catechesis 3: On Building a Culture


A series by Fr. Lee Nelson, special for Anglican Pastor. 

On Building a Culture of Catechesis


Wendell Berry, in his 1977 Book the Unsettling of America, argued that agribusiness was taking the practice of farming out of its cultural context and away from families. It was a prophetic work, and in the years since, we have seen continued decline in family farming in favor of a system that devalues community and human labor in favor of profit and product. In many ways, we can trace a parallel trend in the Church. We have removed the work of catechesis, worship, and prayer from its proper cultural context, that of the family and deep Christian community, in favor of a Church model driven by programs. Today’s pastor is continually set to the task of developing and introducing new programs as a means to sustained growth. The net effect, and this is not the only cause by any stretch, is that in altering an already unstable culture of making and maturing disciples, we have suffered in both quantity and quality of the fruit borne by our congregations.

In short, as American farming became about ever larger machinery and ever larger farms, the American church became about ever better programmatic offerings and ever larger churches. Somewhere along the way, we lost the biblical vision of families growing and instructing their children in the way of faith and churches making and growing disciples who could, in turn, make more disciples. We’ve learned this intuitively through church planting, where the smaller, leaner, family-oriented congregation makes disciples three times more effectively than established churches. But, what would it look like if all our churches took a holistic, culturally oriented look at building a culture of catechesis, just as many farmers are returning to the old ways and discovering a rich and sustainable life?

A Culture of Solidarity and Subsidiarity

The twin principles of solidarity and subsidiarity form the core of Catholic social teaching. They mainly deal with what should be centralized and what should be decentralized. For instance, a government should rightly decide where to put a highway (centralized), but not what a child should eat for breakfast (decentralized). In essence, most things in a society should be undertaken by the smallest possible unit (subsidiarity), but that when needed, smaller groups can band together in solidarity to address needs. This applies just as well, if not more so, to the Church. Families can, and should, take responsibility for the teaching of their children, while maintaining solidarity with the Church. Parish churches should be responsible for most, if not, all of their internal affairs, including budgets, service times, which Sunday School curriculum they should use, etc. But, they should keep in mind their solidarity with the whole Church in teaching and worship.

A simple way to put it is this: bigger is not necessarily better, but each smaller unit is responsible to the whole.

In reviving a culture of catechesis for the Church, the family must take center stage once again as the primary unit of catechesis and prayer. Central to the Gospel is the responsibility of parents to instill deep Christian virtue, believing, and prayer in their children. In our own tradition, parents of baptized infants have been exhorted in their “parts and duties” to teach their children the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, as well as to “virtuously bring them up to lead a godly and Christian life” and “die to sin and rise again to righteousness.” This is no small task, and it takes churches and pastors who advocate for family catechesis at every level.

Expanding on this idea even more, subsidiarity requires that our efforts at making disciples go from “mass production” to one-on-one discipleship. In recent years, Apple has embraced this way of teaching people to use their products in their “one-to-one” initiative. Customers pay $99 a year to be able to go into an Apple retail store to set up their email, transfer files, and have individual training. They also get small workshops and can hang around with their laptops and get help as needed. What Apple understands is that the classroom environment is not always the best way to impart knowledge, and even more important – a culture. Culture is passed through a context – that of living relationships between people. Skilled catechists understand this, and seek to guide new believers, nominal Christians, and seekers through conversion, not in a classroom, but in one-on-one relationships.

A Culture of Apprenticeship

In the not so distant past, a career began in apprenticeship. Woodworkers, coopers, brewers, tailors, and others all began as apprentices. Essentially this meant working for room and board in exchange for gathering skills and proficiency in the craft at hand. This constituted that intimate passing of culture in the context of living relationships. In the last century, we have rejected this model in favor of a system of higher education in which apprenticeship is rare. This seems to be part of the phenomenon of recent college graduates unable to find work because of a lack of skill or experience. Expansion of the minimum requirements to masters-level education seems, so far, to be unhelpful.

This has been seen in the Church as well. Theological education is seen as something which happens in the seminaries, for which one must enroll and receive classroom instruction. This came into focus from me recently as a friend, who is teaching an introductory course in theology at a seminary, gave me his account of students who were unprepared for such a course, having not even the most basic understandings of the Bible, or the Creeds, or the most simple of doctrines. All they knew is that they had seen well-formed Christians teaching or pastoring or leading, and wanting to become like them, had enrolled in seminary. We can, and should, envision a day in which Christians are instructed in such things from a very early time in their formation, again in the context of living relationships with master Christians, in this case, catechists! A catechist is responsible for passing a whole way of living and believing to a new disciple. We as pastors need to be raising up a generation of catechists who can do this.

And – we shouldn’t assume that theological education is the sole calling of seminaries. Theological education and spiritual formation need to be seen as the responsibilities of our parishes yet again, if we are to meet the challenges of proclaiming the Gospel in the post-Christian world.

A Culture of Practice

To be a Christian is to live not merely in the theoretical, but to apply the Faith in practical ways. Much has been made in recent years of practical preaching, but much of this has been detached from deep theological underpinnings, resulting in chaos. I remember some years ago going with my church to serve lunch to the homeless on Good Friday. Families would take their children out of school for the day to be a part of this work. It was inspiring to watch children of five and six years old serving tables and supplying the needs of the homeless. For the Church Fathers, this instruction in Christian charity formed part of the corpus of catechetical instruction. John Chrysostom believed it necessary to show catechumens how to visit prisoners and expected that adults coming to Baptism would be fully formed in the work of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

The challenge for us today is to recover a culture of not only believing and worshipping together, but practicing charity and mission together, passing along the habits and virtues of the Church to others. This includes the transmission of spiritual disciplines as well. New disciples are crying out for people who will teach them practical ways of praying, fasting, giving to the poor, and living out Christian vocation in daily life. The Church has the opportunity to rise to the challenge.

A Culture of Multiplication

Strong cultures necessarily multiply. Whether this is in terms of birth rates, or art, or agricultural product, multiplication is of the essence. This was made clear to me several years ago in a conversation with my Grandfather. I’m the oldest of eighteen first cousins on that side of the family, and I had just introduced him to my daughter, the first of many great-grandchildren. We stood on the patio, overlooking the scene – aunts, uncles, wives, husbands, my cousins’ boyfriends and girlfriends enjoying a wonderful lakefront backyard, and he said: “Fifty-five years ago, it was just your grandmother and I.”

He was making a point about multiplication.

Abraham became the father of many nations. The 120 disciples gathered in Jerusalem became the dominant religious and cultural force in the Roman Empire in a matter of less than 300 years. God means for his people to multiply. Jesus himself, teaching in the parable of the seeds, says that “other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and ca hundredfold.” (Mark 4:8) He uses many parables and images to give this teaching on multiplication including leaven and mustard seeds. As Rodney Stark of Baylor University has been pointing out, this is not a mere matter of evangelism, but of procreation and adoption as well. We Christians are meant to grow in number, to become pervasive, and to fill the earth. Catechesis is thus, not only the means of imparting a new way of believing and living, but a new way multiplying oneself “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11)

Featured Image: Painting by Emile Adan (1839-1937), Public Domain.

Published on

February 11, 2015


Lee Nelson

The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C., is a priest, church planter, and catechist. He has planted churches in Waco and College Station, Texas.

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