Am I Called to be a Catechist?

The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!  We have all seen these roadside signs, for years now to be found near all of our churches.  But I have sometimes thought that if we were doing our jobs right, those friendly, unassuming signs should come with warning labels attached. "CAUTION! These people and their God will shake you up and turn your whole life upside down!"  In the book of Acts, the disciples are called (none too kindly) "those who have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).  If we're doing our jobs right, church can never just be business as usual, a carbon copy of the world around it.  We follow a crucified-and-risen Lord who calls us to a way of life and offers us a gospel of grace that can't help but look topsy-turvy to the world.

The God we worship is a surprising God, revealed not as a mighty Zeus-like Olympian muscleman but as a poor Jewish carpenter, killed by the Roman authorities on a cross as a disturber of the peace.  What?  Who would have thought that?

The God we worship is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who says things like "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," "blessed are the merciful," and "blessed are the poor" (Mark 5).  What?  Billie Holiday seems to make more sense of our world, where the strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must: "God bless the child who's got his own, who's got his own."

The God we worship offers "grace to you and peace through God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ," even and especially to those of us who don't feel like we deserve grace, who are more used to receiving condemnation and being left to our own anxious devices in an unforgiving world (Rom. 1:7).  What?  Who is this God who offers us forgiveness and a peace that "surpasses all understanding"? (Phil. 4:7)  Why would the Almighty do that for me, if he knows who I really am and what I've done?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ turns our world upside-down.  Knowing what it really means should shake us up, mix around everything we thought we knew, and make us strange in our neighbors' eyes.  "Why do they live like this?", our neighbors should think.  "Have they lost their minds?"  People should say about us what King Agrippa said of St. Paul, after he explained the Gospel to him for the first time: "Paul, you've gone insane! Your great learning has driven you mad!" (Acts 26:24)

Precisely because the Good News of our strange and beautiful God is so very strange, so different from the world's usual expectations, the church has always dedicated a great deal of energy to the task of Christian education, or catechesis.  Because we can't take for granted the odd things our God has done for us and for our salvation, we need to spend hours, weeks, months, even years unpacking them, unfolding them, explaining what they mean.  This is no small task!  We need teachers, and the clergy can't do this alone.  Our churches need to be cultures of Christian formation, peoples dedicated to learning about and passing on the strange good news of our odd God.  That is why we need catechists, and that is why we need to train them up and send them out!  

At its most basic level, a catechist is someone who’s committed to teaching the basics of the faith to young people and new Christians at their core, and also at a higher level to more mature Christians.  That’s the narrow definition of what a catechist does, but as Ephraim Radner laid out when he came to speak with us about catechesis, there’s a rich history of lay catechists especially in Africa serving as something like the shock troops of the Christian movement, going out beyond the boundaries of the established church and becoming catalysts for and shapers of new Christian communities.  

Bishop Sumner has challenged us to do this here in our diocese.  First, we're lifting up and enhancing the licensed lay catechist training program that we have at the Stanton Center, as a way for lay leaders in Christian formation to go deeper in their understanding of the Bible, the basics of the Christian faith and life, and the identity of our Church, as well as to receive training from experienced educators in how best to teach the faith, not just how to understand it.  Our three-year program is designed to give catechists the in-depth knowledge they need to pass along the faith to young and old alike, with high-quality teachers and serious coursework.

Many times, especially in my last church in South Carolina, I’ve had conversations with people who we were asking to teach Sunday school or lead Bible studies that just didn’t feel like they were equipped well enough to do what we were asking.  If one of the kids asked them a question like, “Is the Bible really true?”, or “Why did God send an angel to kill all of those Egyptian kids?”, or “Why did Jesus have to die?”—well, they didn’t always feel prepared enough to give the kind of good answer that a teaching moment like that really deserves.  That’s what our diocese will be in the business of—equipping our teachers as catechists to answer that question.

Second, we're going to send out and empower catechists to do the work of Christian formation across our diocese.  It will always be the case, of course, that in most situations the ultimate oversight and direction for Christian education falls to our rectors and priests-in-charge.  But that said, I know of few clergy who wouldn’t jump at the chance to have well-trained and licensed teachers at the ready to help in the enormous task of passing along the faith to the next generation and teaching the faith to newcomers.  I’m especially thinking of our smaller parishes that aren’t able to pay for a full-time priest, or new church plants that need all the help they can get.  What if some of our catechists were sent out on mission to these places, working hand-in-hand with our lay evangelists and clergy to advance the Gospel in communities that sorely need a helping hand and a fresh word of hope?  Just like Ephraim Radner told us about the African experience, lay catechists can be a key part of the missionary movement of the Gospel right here in the diocese of Dallas.  You don’t have to go across the world to be a missionary.  You can be a missionary right here, to communities in need: south Dallas, rural Texas, new communities popping up all over the metro area that don’t yet have an Episcopal church.   As crucial as ordained leaders are, the church needs more tentmakers, like St. Paul, laypeople who are supporting themselves during the week and are then sent out to the cutting edge of mission, able to support the growth of communities and ministries that can’t yet support themselves.  

Christian formation is an enormous undertaking.  When I think of the people who taught me the faith as a child growing up in rural North Dakota, I think of people like Miss Vogsland, Mrs. Knutson, Pastor Rasmussen, Mr. Quanbeck out at the summer camp, and most importantly my own parents.  What I didn’t know then but know now is how much effort all of that took—hours upon hours of teaching and training and forming, the lion’s share of it completely unpaid, done as a labor of love.  It was the work of Pastor Rasmussen, who expected us middle school confirmands to sit down each Wednesday night for a whole school year and take a quiz on our memory verses and Luther’s Small Catechism.  It was the work of Miss Vogsland and Mrs. Knutson, who came up with catchy jingles for us Sunday School kids to learn a new memory verse each week, and moved around little people and animals on felt boards to act out Bible stories, as we listened and drank it all in year after year. It was the work of people like Mr. Quanbeck and the army of college kids he recruited to serve as counselors at the summer camp where I spent a week with troupes of little Lutherans each year. And most of all, it was the work of my parents, who took my brothers and I to church each week (sometimes more than once!) and read devotionals with us when we were small every night before bed and said with us our prayers.  

The faith that I have today, the faith that has given me firm foundation, a good hope, the promise of grace, a way of life that brings joy and purpose and peace, the faith that I want more than anything to pass along to my precious little new boy—I owe this faith in large part to them.  These people weren’t doing any of this to get rich.  They gave richly of their lives to give it to me, because someone had given it to them, because God of his great grace had given himself in Christ to all of us, out of love, freely and without cost.

A congregation only dedicates itself so intently to such hard work if it understands a central piece of its mission to be passing on the Christian faith to its young people and to its new members. It must, in other words, be a culture of catechesis, not simply a group that has a Sunday School wing and a priest who teaches a weekly Bible study. Catechesis must be what we do as a church community, and not just something that some of us happen to do.

Miss Vogsland, Mr. Quanbeck, and the little churches I grew up in did what they did because they believed they had been given a pearl of great price to pass along to me: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son whom God sent because he so loved the world; his Word that was a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their paths; the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself so that we could confess that the Lord is a God in whom we can trust, who is for us and for our salvation: This is most certainly true, Luther’s Small Catechism told me, and Amen.

Are you called to this mission field?  Do you want to be better trained and equipped to do the work that God is already calling you to do? You may be called to become a catechist.  Pray, look around on this website, and come talk with us here at the diocese.  We can't wait to hear from you.

Fr. Jordan Hylden is Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.