Catechesis 2: Recovering the Old Ways


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

As I study the ways of the ancient Church, I have discovered two things. First, they had a very high standard for catechetical discipleship and subsequent Church membership and that second, that high standard only aided in their progress in evangelism. As we enter the age of Post-Christendom, it seems to me that if we seek to engage pagans on the front porch of the Church, we have much to learn from them.


But what is the normal experience  today for people joining a church in North America?

The usual responses among pastors are far from satisfactory. You write a check. You fill out a card. You join a small group. Worst of all, you just “attend.” Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, in their wonderful book Simple Church, recall a friend who was prescribed contact lenses, thinking that he could pick them up that same day. He was told by the optician that he would have to come to a Saturday morning class which would cover all the basics before he could take possession of them. They realized in hearing this story that the requirement for getting contact lenses is higher than the requirement for joining most churches!

In order to faithful address this inadequacy, we must go back to the past in order to go forward. In this article, I will outline the basic stages of this catechetical formation as it was practiced in the ancient church, with particular emphasis on how adult pagans were welcomed, instructed, trained, formed, and deployed.

As I have put these practices in place in my own ministry, I have seen tremendous fruit.

Stage One: Evangelization and Inquiry

We know intuitively that the Ancient Church was skilled in evangelism. How else could a fledgling group in Jerusalem come to be the dominant religious force in the empire in three centuries? But, how did they do it? Especially under the constraints of persecution?

The Church in those years lived on reputation, just as the Lord had told his disciples: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) That reputation was of those who adopted babies from the Roman exposure walls, who rescued those dying of disease from the streets, and who had lively and flourishing family life. The Church Father Tertullian noted what Romans of his day would say: “Look,” they say, “how they love one another” (for they themselves hate one another); “and how they are ready to die for each other” (for they themselves are readier to kill each other). The Christian life, as Roman life began to wither, became more and more compelling. By the dawn of the 4th Century and the Edict of Milan, the churches and basilicas of the bishops became full of inquirers, who came to hear what the Church taught. Much of this we take for granted. The teaching of creation ex nihilo, for example, was a radical departure from the pagan understanding of preexistent matter. Christian monotheism itself was a strange doctrine. But, the Churches were full of those seeking to understand.

In the days of persecution, inquirers were typically allowed to receive teaching in the form of mentorship at the hands of Christian families and the hearing of sermons. They were not allowed to witness the celebration of the Eucharist or, in many cases, even to pray. During this period, inquiry was made into their lives. It was essential to know if they showed charity to the poor, cared for their parents, or whether or not they were drunkards or adulterers. If the inquiry was unsatisfactory, in many cases, they were told to delay baptism, being commanded to repent.

Augustine, a great catechist, notably turned this inquiry into a method of learning the character and passions of his hearers, that he might better teach them. He himself had been won over by the rhetoric of the great Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose, and he was determined that all of his catechetical instructions upon the Scriptures should be tailored to the hearer. These teachings in basic evangelization consisted essentially of teaching the whole narrative of Scripture quickly and in good order, drawing out examples which could reach the hearer with the message of fallen humanity and redemption in Christ. These were essentially “stump speeches” given to those who were hearing the Church’s message for the first time.

Stage Two: Catechesis and the Catechumenate

The Catechumen, as inquiring pagans were called, would enter into and remain in the next stage, catechesis, for at least one year, and perhaps as many as several decades. Augustine himself was enrolled in the Catechumenate when he was an infant. By way of contrast, today, nominal Christians are baptized church members. In the Ancient Church, nominal Christians were Catechumens, those who had not made a commitment to Christ, who were being instructed, prayed for, and exorcised as they prepared to enter new life in Christ through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

During this time also, the Catechumen was instructed in Scripture, the Commandments, the doctrine of God, the person of Christ, and the person of the Holy Spirit. Catechumens were regularly marked with the sign of the Cross, receiving prayers of exorcism, and given the charge to live lives of holiness.

Typically prior to the beginning of Lent, the Bishops would issue the call to enroll for baptism. This was a radical call, as it meant leaving behind one’s former life and embracing a new one. Once enrolled for baptism, the next stage commenced.

Stage Three: Election and Enlightenment

Those preparing for baptism underwent intense pre-baptism training and catechesis. It was not unusual to see catechumens (now called competentes) spending as many as five nights a week in the church, receiving instruction from the Bishop or other catechists, separated from the hearing of all the rest. In most cases they were “handed” some version of a Baptismal Creed, later distilled into the Apostle’s Creed. This was to be memorized, so that it could be “handed back” on the occasion of their baptism. They would also be taught the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Aside from the intense teaching, however, this was a time of intense fasting. The competente would be required in many cases to fast from all meat and rich foods, to refrain from bathing, and give alms generously. By the way, this is the origin of the liturgical season of Lent.

At this point also, inquiry would again be made into the candidates life and moral standing. The idea was to understand what, if any, effect was being made in their lives by the teaching. As you can imagine, the effect was immense. But to be sure that no one, in being baptized, would cause scandal to the Church, these inquiries were made. At this point, let me say that the whole process, up to this point, was aimed at forming and training mature Christians, who from the moment of their baptism would be able to live the fulness of the Christian life wherever they went. Case in point, Augustine understood his baptism to be the end of his academic and rhetorical life, and the beginning of a life of semi-monasticism, as he and his fellow neophytes established a Christian community, first in Italy, and later in North Africa. When he would baptize as a Bishop, he understood that many of those he was baptizing would go back to their remote country homes and lives, but he trusted that they had been sufficiently formed as to live in maturity to their lives’ end.

The end of this stage was initiation: Baptism, Chrismation (a precursor to Confirmation), and the Eucharist. In many cases, the candidates had no idea what they were about to experience. But, they trusted the Church to lead them into the divine life, and the next stage encompassed all that came after.

Stage Four: Mystagogy

After baptism, the neophyte would literally live in the church, being brought meals and being continually instructed, not as an outsider, but as a member of the household of God, attending to the sacred mysteries and enveloped in the Church’s liturgy. The purpose of the mystagogical lectures was particularly eucharistic. The neophyte was encouraged to live a life of thanksgiving to God for the gift of redemption and adoption, living out a life full of the presence of God, and partaking in His mysteries in the Eucharist. This was a time of beauty and wonder converging the life of the new Christian, the new life of grace prevailing upon them as they were radically converted. The reception of the Eucharist, ongoing throughout the Christian’s life, grounded them in the eschatological and nuptial reality of the Christian life, as they awaited final redemption.

Several months ago, a pastor I know told of how members of a church had gone to the pastor asking that he preach for a whole hour. They were complaining that his preaching had become oriented toward the seeker and had become shorter, to the extent that they were not being “fed.” “The mature members of your congregation need longer, meatier sermons,” they said. It’s a Catch-22. Mature Christians would never say anything like that. Mature Christians are, by definition, self-feeders. Only children rely on their parents to provide their meals. And yet, pastors are seen primarily as “feeder.” (Which, by the way, is absolutely right!) I would suggest to you that it is our definition of maturity that needs changing, and that maturity should include, as a necessity, a selfless determination to evangelize, teach, disciple, and grow others.

Some Basic Thoughts on a Way Forward

You might have noticed how the Ancient Catechumenate is process driven. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end in mind. No step is skipped over for the sake of expedience. The whole process is focused on growing pagans into mature Christians. That may seem like a no-brainer, but as pastors, how much of our work is devoted to maintaining and growing programs – growing the organization – rather than growing people? Look at any major organization from McDonald’s to the Boy Scouts – all of them have a simple process aimed at growing people within their organizations. Our answers are best found in becoming architects and master builders of a process that leads to maturity. As Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger note: “Churches with a simple process for reaching and maturing people are expanding the kingdom. Church leaders who have designed a simple biblical process to make disciples are effectively advancing the movement of the gospel.” In short, the same processes that made disciples in antiquity are still doing it today.

Next, the ancient catechumenate is also driven by content. The mere word catechism became such a suspicious one that in so many places, the practice has been dropped altogether. The teaching of doctrine is often seen as divisive. Yet, in the ancient Church, we see the unifying solidarity it brought to the Body. Many will also deride catechesis for being a practice of the mind. I hope you’ll see how catechesis properly practiced engages both the heart and the mind. This, of course, is a practice which will, by necessity, including instruction in content. This content is at once biblical and creedal, informing not only a way of prayer, but a way of living as well. As JI Packer notes: “ignorance of God—ignorance both of his ways and of the practice of communion with him—lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.”

If I were to tell you that I had been hired by a local school to teach geometry to eighth graders, but that I wanted to eschew teaching boring doctrines like the Pythagorean theorem or that π = the circumference of a circle divided by the diameter, you would give me an odd look. I would tell you that I wanted geometry to be fun and practical, you’d tell me I’m an idiot. Content matters, and in the battle we face, much of it is a matter of equipping the people of God with foundational and creedal doctrine. So we must teach the Hypostatic Union, the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Doctrines of Sin and Grace and Justification, boldly and without tiring, for these are the things of God, and without them, His people flounder.

Lastly, we can see in the Ancient Catechumenate the expectation that God’s prevenient grace moves sinners to growth in holiness and ultimately maturity, and that the Church is responsible for feeding and equipping. There is also not the presumption that we can baptize the uninstructed and let God take care of the rest. No! The Ancient Church believed that they had been given a sacred task, and that even though the instruction was basic and elementary, they had a duty to convey it with passion and joy. Saint Augustine remarked that the most important thing for a catechist is that he “enjoy catechizing.” May we find that joy in this remarkable vocation yet again!

Featured Image: “Meister des Mausoleums der Galla Placidia in Ravenna 002” by Meister des Mausoleums der Galla Placidia in Ravenna – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Published on

February 3, 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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