Many of us church “insiders” know people outside the church who are similar to John, Carol, and Nathan. They range from being unchurched to antichurch or underchurched. Some are looking to delve into the mystery that is life, or they’re searching for “values”; some want guidance for building a just society; others are trying to fill an unnamed void unfilled by stock portfolios, hobbies, and relationships. Such people are seekers—those toward whom many churches are striving mightily to be friendly.
Despite our good intentions, some of the things we do in the name of “friendliness” inside the church would
- baffle Carol (who just wants to help her child).
- turn off Nathan (who sees a “scam” behind every pulpit).
- make commitment-shy John view with horror the “Desire a pastoral visit?” card sticking out of the pews.
In his zany and popular science-fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams chronicles the adventures of a ragtag assortment of interstellar travelers. The two central characters are Arthur Dent and his companion Ford Prefect. Ford provides direction for their galactic wanderings by quoting from the Hitchhiker’s Guide. For those who come to church with little or no Christian background, the world of Christian faith can seem just as strange and foreign as any faraway galaxy.
Indeed, the kingdom of God is a “right side up” galaxy in an upside-down world, a realm where the first are last, the lowly are raised up, the mighty are cast down, and where the only way to have life is to lay it down.
Sometimes, in the sincere desire to be friendly to seekers, the church forgets that Christianity should come with a warning—that being a Christian calls for a radical shift in loyalties.
If we truly believe that following Jesus calls for a reordering of our life, then we should certainly welcome those who come as seekers into this way of life. But we should also give them time to explore and discern what entering into such a life will mean.
Many who wander into the church begin their journeys as strangers. The fact that Christianity often seems strange within our post-Christian culture needs to be fully acknowledged by the church. Then it can focus on helping those who enter as strangers to become friends of Christ as they learn to observe all that the Lord has commanded.
We can learn how to properly welcome strangers from Scripture and from Jesus’ own way of welcoming those who would be his disciples.
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel said to him “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
—John 1:43-46, NRSV
As he journeyed deeper into his own mission, Jesus welcomed all would-be hitchhikers in the form of an invitation. “If you want to follow me,” he told them, “then follow me.” In other words, “If you want to know who I am and what I’m up to in the world, come with me and find out.”
Those who took up Jesus’ invitation and hitched their futures to his did not do so alone. Instead they kept company with a small band of fellow travelers who had embarked upon the same adventure. Their initial following deepened into faith as they traveled with Jesus and tried their hands at the kinds of things Jesus did (with many failures and botched assignments along the way). Needless to say this is a messy approach to discipling—but you can’t learn to swim from the shore. You have to wade out into the water and get wet.
This “experiential” pattern, which helped seekers become disciples in pre-Christian times, is now proving useful in leading seekers to become disciples in a post-Christian culture. The early church called this pattern for discipling the catechumenate, which comes from a Greek word that means “to sound in the ear,” as does the more familiar word catechism.
The catechumenal approach for making disciples is based on the model of apprenticeship. This fits well with the needs of postmodern seekers who don’t want easy answers. Instead they seek sound guidance and good company as they embark on what could become a life-altering journey into “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”
The goals for this model of discipling differ from the goals of past approaches. Although the following list is too simplistic, it gives an idea of the different emphases in the once-again “new” apprenticeship model.
|Faith as relationship||Faith as knowledge|
|Length varies||“6 week” course, or other set time frame|
|Public and communal||Private and individual|
|Members as lay mentors||Pastor’s class|
Welcoming seekers into such a discipling process involves providing
- a time to explore and ask questions.
- a time to study and pray with others.
- a time to prepare for baptism (or affirmation of baptism).
- ongoing opportunities for learning and growth in faith throughout life.
A Time to Inquire and Ask Questions
During this initial time, seekers come together in an informal setting to ask questions and inquire into the Christian faith. The idea is, “Come and ask anything you’ve always wanted to know about the church, but maybe were afraid to ask.”
At this point the goal is not for the church to give answers, but to honor seekers by listening to their questions and hearing their stories—the stories of their lives and of what has brought them to inquire into the Christian faith and life.
During inquiry, participants are free to come and go as they choose,… to attend meetings for as short or as long a time as they need so that they can decide whether or not they wish to continue their exploration of the Christian faith.
The seekers profiled earlier in this article would probably find such inquiry sessions helpful. Nathan could ask why TV evangelists seem disingenuous without worrying about a hostile reaction. Carol could ask what the church could do for her child (and maybe also come to realize what the church might do for her). John could ask questions about Lady Di’s funeral and other Christian ceremonies without any pressure to make a long-term commitment.
A Time to Study and Pray with Others
Whenever they feel ready, seekers can shift out of inquiry and be formally welcomed by the congregation in a regular worship service as those who want to explore the Christian faith in more depth. The congregation is invited pray for and bless them as they continue their journey (see box on p. 7).
Just prior to the service of welcome, seekers are paired with a sponsor or companion from the congregation. This pairing of seekers with companions is modeled on the relationship between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, which describes how Philip got into the chariot alongside the eunuch, guided him in his encounter with Christ in the Scriptures, and journeyed with him on the road to baptism.
Companions accompany seekers to weekly worship and to weekly small group sessions where they learn to reflect on Scripture and to pray. The primary guidebook for the meetings is the Bible (using the lectionary readings or whatever texts the congregation uses for its weekly worship).
Preparing for Baptism or Affirmation of Baptism
After a period of study and learning with others, those who are ready begin preparation for baptism (or affirmation). Those desiring baptism (or affirmation) are then enrolled for baptism (or affirmation) during a worship service, where once again the congregation takes on the responsibility of praying for and blessing them as their journey intensifies. Often the service of enrollment takes place on the first or second Sunday in Lent.
The season of Lent is an ideal time for baptismal preparation, as those getting ready for baptism (or affirmation) can join the whole community in worship, prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. Those who prepare during Lent can be baptized or affirmed at the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday. (Another time in the church year ideal for baptisms and affirmations is the baptism of Jesus, or Epiphany.)
Ongoing Christian Living
Baptism is not the end but the beginning for new disciples, and indeed for all Christians. As the Christian walk lasts a lifetime, it calls for ongoing formation and nurture. Developing a varied and vital small group ministry in the congregation along with providing opportunities for adult learning and service are essential to helping both new and experienced disciples “come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ”(Eph. 4:13).
John is thirty-six years old and holds a degree in computer science. He is unmarried and lives in the city. His parents were married in a church. He thinks he was baptized as an infant, but he’s not sure. John rarely goes to church except to attend the weddings of old college fraternity brothers. He is into technology, but also admits to being attracted to church “ceremonies” (especially Lady Di’s funeral, which he saw on TV). He wants to experience more of “the mystery thing,” but he doesn’t know quite where to begin. John is not hostile to religion, but he’s afraid to make a commitment to any particular way or practice.
Carol is twenty-nine, a married suburban homemaker with a young child. She has never gone to a church and is not baptized. Carol never thought much about religion until her daughter came home from kindergarten one day and asked “What are we?” and Carol didn’t have an answer. She is happy that her husband is open to her “trying out” a church or enrolling their daughter in a parochial school, as she thinks the “moral teachings” might be a good thing for her.
Nathan is twenty-four and works for an organic grocery store in a small college town. After graduating, he spent two years in the Peace Corps and backpacked his way through South America. Although he’s not a member of a church, Nathan has lots of opinions about religion.
He truly admires martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero but thinks that TV preachers are mostly “upper-middle-class con artists.” Nathan also believes that churches should focus more on the poor and on saving the environment for future generations. He suspects that many churches have “an agenda” and are trying to “nab people,” but he would like to visit a Christian community the next time he is in South America.
Service of Welcome
This abbreviated service of welcome is adapted from Welcome to Christ, a series of resources available from Augsburg Fortress, 1-800-328-4648. The code for this series intended for worship leaders is 3-142; cost is $5.95.
This service of welcome may be used for those who have begun inquiring into the Christian faith and life and have been assigned a sponsor whenever they desire to begin a more public relationship with a Christian congregation. It is intended for use during Sunday morning worship.
[Inquirers and their sponsors may be invited to stand at their places or before the congregation with the minister.]
Minister: Dear friends, we are gathered today to meet these persons who have been called by God’s Spirit to inquire into the Christian faith and life in this congregation. Together, let us welcome them to this community of faith in Jesus Christ.
[A sponsor presents each inquirer.]
Sponsor: I present [name] to be welcomed by this congregation.
[Minister asks each candidate the following (or similar) questions.]
Minister: What do you ask of God’s church?
Candidate: To hear God’s Word with you.
Minister: What do you seek from God’s Word?
Candidate: Faith and fullness of life.
Minister: Let us pray:
Merciful and most high God, creator and life-giver of all that is, you have called all people from darkness into light, from error into truth, from death into life.
We ask you: grant grace to [names] and bless them.
Raise them by your Spirit.
Revive them by your word.
Form them by your hand.
Bring them to the water of life and to the bread and cup of blessing, that with all your people they may bear witness to your grace and praise you forever through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Minister: May God bring you in peace and joy to fullness of life in Christ and call you to the waters of baptism.
For Further Information
For more information on this approach to discipling, check the website www.catechumenate.org as well as the following resources.
Come to the Waters: Baptism and Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers and Making Disciples. Daniel T. Benedict, Jr. Discipleship Resources, 1997; Code: DR179. $18.95. 160 pp.
An invitation to pastors and congregations to make the transforming power of God in Christ accessible to all persons, especially adults who have little or no experience with the life and faith of Christians. Part 1 focuses on welcoming and walking with persons on the journey of conversion. Part 2 provides model services and commentary. For ordering information contact www.discipleshipresources.org.
Video: Welcome to Christ: Preparing Adults for Baptism and Discipleship. Division for Congregational Ministries, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1988.
18 minutes. $20.95. Available from Augsburg Fortress (1-800-328-4648). Also available from TRAVARCA, a lending library of video resources for ministry
(1-800-968-7221; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; fax: 616-698-6606).
How some congregations in the Pacific Northwest (where almost 80 percent of the population is not Christian) are using a contemporary version of the catechumenate to prepare adults for baptism (or reaffirmation of baptism) in a post-Christian age.