Happy New Year! Today marks the beginning of the third year of ifaqtheology! And my new theme is announced in the title of today’s post.
I suppose it’s always been a problem, but it seems to me that the average churchgoer in the United States (elsewhere too I am sure) is becoming less and less familiar with the full range of Christian teaching. I don’t intend to quote surveys and studies of this phenomenon. It’s just an impression, and I will work with that. Few observers would question the assertion that denominational loyalties and confessional identities have declined dramatically in recent years. And we see evidence every Sunday that contemporary churches place less emphasis on teaching, learning and remembering than on the “worship experience” in which one expects to feel joy in the presence of the transcendent. Experience has moved from being considered a by-product of the encounter with word and sacrament to the central goal of Christian gatherings. Has thirst for experience replaced desire for understanding or has loss of understanding leading to greater thirst for moving experiences? Is the loss of confessional and denominational loyalties the cause or the effect of the loss of teaching and learning? I suspect they are interrelated in ways too complicated to describe.
At least since the early 19th century, American Christianity has been expressed, lived, taught and learned in a denominational form. Denominational bodies competed for the minds and hearts of people by touting the strengths of their particular package of teaching and church life. (Undoubtedly, social location also has a huge impact on which denomination one chooses.) Denominations for the most part are confessional bodies and have an interest in teaching the full range of their doctrine to prospective converts, new converts and children. As long as denominational or confessional consciousness is strong the task of teaching doctrine will be high on the agenda of a church’s priorities. The disadvantages of denominationalism—as opposed to an established, territorial church—are the presence of multiple contradictory voices all claiming to represent Christianity and the animosity created by such division and competition. But one positive thing that derives from the denominational and confessional form of Christianity is that most members of such Christian bodies receive the full range of doctrinal instruction; doctrinal teaching is important to these bodies, if for no other reason than to reinforce denominational loyalty.
In the present environment, with denominational loyalties at historic lows and confessions of faith gathering dust on the pastors’ shelves, churches have lost a major incentive to teach the full range of doctrine. To the contrary, church leaders deemphasize doctrine to broaden their appeal to prospective members. Taking the most generous interpretation of this practice, the goal is more effective evangelism. A less generous interpreter might conclude that growing a big church has become an end in itself. The consequence of this development is disturbing: the people don’t get taught at all! Hence the appalling ignorance of churchgoers, lay church leaders and even clergy in contemporary churches. Surely ignorance cannot be a means to any good end! But many evils befall the untaught.
We need a catechism of mere Christianity for a post-denominational church living in a post-Christian culture. And my goal for this year is to work on developing this catechism. So, what is a catechism? It is a summary of a church’s teaching prepared for the instruction of children and new converts. The printed version of the Roman Catholic Catechism is 800 pages long and covers a huge range of topics. Perhaps the most famous Protestant catechisms are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647). The word “catechism” derives from the Greek word katecheo, which is used in Acts 21:21; Gal 6:6; and 1 Cor 14:19. It means to teach, inform or instruct. In time, it came to mean specifically the process of instruction in the basics of the faith in preparation for baptism in the case of adult converts or instruction of children in case of those born to Christian parents and baptized as infants. Its goal is not preaching the gospel to prospective converts. It is not an exercise in theology seeking deeper meaning and connections within the Christian faith. Nor does it aim to provide evidence for the truth of the faith or to defend it from attack. It aims to teach the full range of the faith at a basic level.
What is mere Christianity? And what kind of catechism can serve the needs of a post-denominational church? And why do we need to take into account the post-Christian environment within which the church lives today? Next week we will address these questions.