As we enter the last couple of weeks of Lent (called Passiontide in the old prayer book), I think back to the times in early Church history when new Christians were about to be baptized. Lent was a period of deep preparation and prayer for these baptisms; the baptisms themselves would occur at Easter. Learning the Faith was paramount, and instruction was both thorough and intensive. One thing to keep in mind: these people were being led out of something and into something else. They underwent a process of “re-learning” called “catechesis”.
The Context of the Early Church
In the early Church, the cultural context out of which Christians were catechized was primarily pagan. There might be a pantheon of many gods, or a main god amongst other subordinate gods, or any number of other ways to practice a non-Christian religion. (Many of the old Celtic people — my ancestors and, maybe, yours, too — were Druids.) In any case, there was an original worldview and a value system that was incompatible with Christianity. In order to be a Christian, values — new values — had to be re-learned and a new worldview had to be formed. Thus began the early Christian catechisms.
As Christianity became integrated with the states and nations that made up what became “Christendom”, catechesis began to slowly fall out of use. But this changed in the early 16th Century during the time of the Reformation. The Reformation saw itself as a “re-forming” around the doctrines of the early Church — specifically around the writings of the Apostles themselves that make up the Bible.
The Context of the Reformation
Even though the churches of the Reformation and The Church of Rome shared many things (such as the doctrines of the Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, and Augustinian understandings of grace), there was enough difference to warrant a renewed use of catechesis. Thus, the Reformers wrote the Lutheran Small and Large Catechisms, the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism, and many others. Converts had to be taken from one worldview to another — not as drastic a shift in worldview as in the early Church, but substantial nonetheless.
The Context of Our Time
We are now living in another of history’s watershed moments. If you are like me, you have woken up to an entirely new reality that we have yet to fully understand. At least in the West, and certainly in our home of Houston, we see a worldview of radical individualism, consumerism, self-actualization, and a postmodern, post-Christian, private morality that holds objective truth claims in suspicion. This worldview is not benign, either. It recruits aggressively. Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller once said that our children are being catechized — just not by the church.
In my view, the context of our times is more like that of the era of the early Church than like that of time of the Reformation. Indeed, the churches of the Reformation and of Rome seem to be moving closer together as they see this zeitgeist unfold before them. This new reality should not, however, cause us to draw deeper into an insular, frightened mindset. It should drive us out into the community — into our neighborhoods. Why? Because we love our neighbors. We want to know about their lives — what they think and feel, what their hopes and greatest anxieties are.
We are Students and Ministers
In other words, we must be deep students of our particular context in order to be faithful ministers of the Gospel in southwest Houston and beyond. We must be deep students so that we can share the Christian story in ways our friends, family, and neighbors can understand, answering the questions and concerns they really have rather than the ones we think they have.
We must also understand our context so that we can form our children in the Faith so they can flourish as God’s children and, God willing, take new converts from our particular, postmodern worldview into a formation in Christ. We are on the cutting edge of history but we still have the old, old charge from Our Lord Himself in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”