Alpha is great, but we need more!
You’ve probably heard of the Alpha Course. Alpha is a place for seeking, curious, or burned-out people to ask questions and explore the basics of the Christian faith without judgment or expectation to believe. Some people use it to introduce people to the Christian faith, others as a refresher, some use it as a kind of newcomer’s class. I’ve been facilitating Alpha at the church I serve for a couple of years now, and I like to think of it as pre-catechesis—a space for non-Christians to explore the Christian faith. But I’ve noticed something, at least in my context: Alpha doesn’t make members of Christ’s body, i.e., the Church. It introduces people to Jesus, but it doesn’t always help them submit to him as Lord and Savior.
I’ve started thinking that we need something more than Alpha to help young adults and adult converts become mature in their commitment to Jesus Christ. Scripture calls us to find our identity in Christ and grow into maturity in him. So, how do we grow in this foundational maturity? I suggest that catechesis in a catechumenate context can offer the ground and framework of foundational Christian maturity (for clarity on what I mean by “maturity,” look at this post).
Catechism, the Catechumenate, and the Catechist: The Matrix of Formation
These “catechism” terms might be unfamiliar to some. So, briefly:
- 1. Catechesis means instruction.
- 2. The catechism is traditionally a text or set of teachings on the basics of the Christian faith.
- 3. The catechumenate is the process and space in which the learning, the catechesis, happens. At its best, catechesis occurs in the context of the church’s worship, spiritual disciplines, and formation of new habits.
- 4. The catechist is the instructor.
It is tempting to think of catechesis as just another program, or maybe a newcomer’s class, or, worst of all, a simple information dump. It needs to be something more than that. If we throw the catechism at someone, tell them to read it, talk about it for a few weeks, and think that is formation, then we’re doing it wrong (I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work well). Disney does better catechesis than that! We will not be giving them the proper foundation and framework necessary to attain and grow in maturity.
Instead, we need to see the catechism as a tool that is a part of a process (catechumenate) taught by a certain kind of person (a catechist).
Catechism: A Tool for maturity
According to Scripture, Jesus is the source of and criteria for Christian maturity. The church’s historical practice of teaching, studying and embodying the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments offers a standard foundation and framework focused on Christ. The catechism is the ABC’s and basic grammar of the Christian faith. The Anglican catechism To Be a Christian is an excellent example of this and should be used by Anglicans as the standard for foundational maturity. Why?
To Be a Christian puts us into contact with the core beliefs, practices, and habits of Christ and his Scriptures in a way a seeker can learn and embody. Of course, the text does not replace the study of Scripture or Christ as the standard of maturity. Instead, it exposits Christ and the gospel in three ways: what we believe in him, how we belong to him, and how we become like him. The catechism is not separate from Christ and his gospel but summarizes the good news about Jesus as milk for a newborn to drink and solid food for a pilgrim to chew. These texts provide a foundation and framework for growing into Christ. The catechism is a useful tool, but it will not accomplish what it is intended to do alone; it must be a part of a process of formation and instruction.
The Catechumenate: A Space for Maturing
To achieve the goal of foundational maturity, we must teach the catechism in the context of a learning community, akin to the ancient catechumenate (See Gerald Sitter’s description in Resilient Faith, 155-172). Growing into the Christian faith in both belief and habit takes time, perseverance, and community. I am not suggesting that catechesis is an industrial process that will spit out mature Christians. Rather, the catechumenate is where the basics of the faith are taught and put into habitual practice. Learning the catechism in a community allows participants to struggle with the call to repent, believe, follow, trust, and receive, all the aspects of surrendering to Christ. Conversion is not instant; it takes time.
The catechumenate also involves the Christian faith’s core practices, like prayer, Scripture reading, and corporate worship. These are necessary because we are not just forming people only in what they believe, but also in what they love (See James K.A. Smith and Augustine). We learn what to love and how to love through imitation which brings me to my next point. If the catechism is a tool put to good use in a community of formation, it must also be taught by a person whose loves are formed in Christ. Thus, the catechism and catechumenate need to be embodied and exemplified by the catechist.
The Catechist: A Mature and Maturing Christian
If we are trying to form people into Christ-likeness, the people who are teaching must be mature in their conversion—i.e., have the fundamental beliefs, habits, and frameworks of the Christian life. We can’t give what we don’t have. Additionally, we must attend to how we teach and who we are as teachers. Following the lead of The Alpha Course (if you aren’t familiar, the talks in Alpha carry the authority of the gospel and Scripture, which allows the small group discussions afterward to be a space of questions, conversation, and struggle), the authority of the teaching rests in the catechism and the Scripture. Placing authority outside the instructor allows the discussion about the catechism to involve struggle and disagreement—with the non-anxious trust that participants will slowly submit to Christ in all things.
Some might be concerned about this approach. Shouldn’t we try to convince those who are seeking to believe? There is a tension here. On the one hand, we want participants to hear the truth of God. On the other hand, we want them to believe in the Christian faith themselves. This process of coming to believe is slow and needs space for processing, questioning, and struggle. That said, it is the Holy Spirit at work through the whole process who will bring full conversion to fruition. The catechist witnesses to the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and submits, with the catechumen, to Jesus Christ. We must trust the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. I am not suggesting that we do not exhort, confront, or call to repentance. I am suggesting that we teach as those under authority.
The Christian who leads this discussion should know him or herself to be both mature and on the pilgrim path, still struggling to submit to the whole of God’s way of life, but further along, more submitted—mature and maturing. We need to witness to the truth as sinners who still need God’s Grace, not as masters of the truth. The catechist is practically embodying the basics belief, practices, and orientation of the Christian faith, which the catechism summarizes and teaches.
Catechesis is counter-formation; it deconstructs the sinful, dead way of life and reconstructs us into Christ through the Holy Spirit. In this last section, I want to show how catechesis can re-form a critical aspect of the deformation many suffer from in our cutlure.
Identity and Catechesis
Thomas Bergler argues that our culture tends to keep us in a perpetual search for identity (From Here to Maturity, 25), continually tempting us towards self-perfection and self-definition. Holistic catechesis in the gospel counters these tendencies with a core reality and two core habits: union with Christ; mortification and vivification; and humility.
Union with Christ
First, the doctrine of our union with Christ is necessary for Christians to grasp with their minds as it slowly penetrates their hearts through learning and participating in the sacraments of the church. In the catechism, we learn about and grow in all three areas of catechesis: believing, belonging, and becoming (see questions 17, 72, 86-87, 93, 101, 207, 220, 262, 360 in To Be a Christian, just to point to a few). Christ’s perfection is the source of our salvation and the end goal of it. Christ’s perfect life is given to us through the Holy Spirit as the double gift of justification and sanctification (see questions 360-367). Union with Christ is the foundation of the Christian life and answers the perpetual call for self-definition by reminding us that we are God’s.
Mortification and Vivification
Second, the Christian life’s primary shape is Christ’s death and resurrection, as Paul asserts in Philippians 2-3. Participants learn about this throughout catechesis, practice it in morning and evening prayer, and experience it in their baptism. Baptism becomes the mark not just of the entrance into the Christian life, but is the whole of the Christian life (on baptism and mortification and vivification, see John Webster, God without Measure Vol 2, 103-122). The daily pattern of mortification and vivification—dying to sin and rising to Christ—is the Christian life’s core habit. It is the discernment of good and evil in Hebrews (5:14) and the pattern of life that Paul exemplifies in Philippians 3. It also gives a realistic perspective of our walk in Christ. We don’t define maturity in the Christian faith as sinlessness, but the growing habit of properly dealing with sin by daily dying and rising in Christ. As Luther famously said: remember your baptism. Time in the catechumenate, which prepares us for our baptism and confirmation, habituates us in the basic pattern of the Christian life: “I am not my own, but God’s” (Calvin, Institutes, III.7.1). This core habit combats the constant temptation towards perfection and shame by forming us in the reality that we are beloved sinners who are slowly growing in the holiness of Christ.
Growing out of our union with Christ, tied to mortification and vivification comes Christian humility and its corollary, service. In Philippians 3, Paul tells the mature to have the same mind he has, perhaps an allusion back to Philippians 2, where Christ’s humility is taught as the core way of thinking and living in the Christian community. Paul tells his readers to be humble as Christ is, and expects them to pursue this humility through the pattern of Christ’s own life, death, and resurrection. Of course, there is no perfect metric for humility, but a willingness to serve, a hunger for Christ, and a teachable spirit are promising signs of a growing humility in union with Christ. As children of God, God frees us to love and serve in humility without having to signal our self-worth or define ourselves by our actions because God is the one who defines us.
Yes, Alpha is a great start, but we need something more than Alpha to integrate people into the Church. I suggest we need something robust and demanding that involves the catechism taught in a catechumenate by a catechist. It is in this context that participants can abandon the core habits, beliefs, and practices of the secular world and replace them with the true way of life: the life of Christ—all through the power of the Holy Spirit. So, let’s walk the pilgrim road in Christ, with the two-step of Christ’s dying and rising in our stride, so that we can invite others to walk with us, serving them as Christ has served us.