Baptism and the Recovery of the Catechumenate

Leicester R. Longden

How can Methodism, which has lost its class-meeting structure and much besides in its race to become the biggest “tent” in Protestantism, recover a discipline of pre- and post-baptismal formation? What are we to do when “believing, behaving, and belonging” have been subverted to “believing just about anything,” “behaving as our inner desires and identities demand,” and “belonging as inclusivism”?

In my essays for Catalyst, I’m exploring the possibility of recovering some form of the ancient catechumenate in our contemporary situation. I see the catechumenate as a journey of pre- and post-baptismal formation whereby individuals are shaped by the local church in all the crucial aspects of “believing, behaving, and belonging” to the Body of Christ. More than one person has told me that this is a “pipe-dream,” or Protestant envy of the Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or just another form of nostalgia for the early church.

Each of these accusations rightly acknowledges that there are superficial perspectives on the catechumenate, but I am convinced that closer study of the history (or more accurately, histories) of the church’s pre- and post-baptismal catechesis will reveal riches yet to be developed.

A recent post on the First Things website by Timothy George is a stunning example of our current situation. In his essay, “Troubled Waters,” George documents a “downward spiral of baptisms” in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US since it pushed the Methodists out of the top spot back in 1960.

With a membership loss of nearly one million since 2005, the Baptists have also seen their baptisms plummet to the lowest number since 1948. Surely something is lacking in the catechesis of American Protestant congregations when even the Southern Baptists are reporting fewer baptisms. As George puts it:

Why should anyone think that America’s largest Protestant denomination would escape the difficulties facing every other religious body with a serious intent to attract a new generation of Jesus-followers? The generation of the nones and the nexts wants spirituality without religion, Jesus without the Church, and discipleship without the denomination.

But George makes it clear this is not just about evangelism, about attracting spiritual seekers; it has to do with baptismal practices. He suggests that “the decline in baptismal statistics is masking another more basic problem: the downgrading of baptism itself.”

The logic of the argument goes like this: What is the “entrance” to the Christian way if not through baptism? And if baptism has not prepared Christians to live discipled lives in contemporary culture, there will be no evangelism, i.e., the call to discipleship. In other words, as goes baptism so goes evangelism.

George offers a profound critique of baptism in his church:

Baptism has lost its place as a central act of Christian worship in many Baptist churches. No longer promoted as the decisive, life-transforming confession, witness, and event it is supposed to be, baptism is now often tagged on as a prequel to worship or added later in the service as an appendix to the “main event.” Although Baptists still perform baptism by total immersion, they do so in a prim, proper and quite decorous manner.

This is a problem for Methodists as well as Baptists. If baptism is no longer a journey into death and resurrection, if baptism is merely a symbolic ritual tacked on to worship at the end of a perfunctory “membership class” — and membership in a declining institution at that — then we no longer have a functioning catechumenate. Instead, we simply have a series of failed educational programs. And the fact that most baptisms now are not of adults but of children only makes the matter worse.

The point is that baptism has not only been detached from worship, it no longer has anything to do with discipleship. What a striking and instructive historical irony — that the Baptists, who came into being as a protest against the church’s universal practice of infant baptism and the abuses of separating baptism from repentance, renewal, and reform of life, should find themselves facing the same need for pre- and post-baptismal formation in the ways of discipleship as the rest of the American church, Catholic and Protestant.

Although George does not use the term catechumenate, he makes the same appeal I am making for resourcement: “While seeking to stem the decline in the number of baptisms, Baptists today would do well to recover the rich theological meaning of baptism itself as set forth by those who were first called Baptists.”

The renewal of Methodism will involve, I believe, making common cause with Baptists and Catholics to recover the sign of baptism by visiting again the catechumenate of the early church and the renewal of catechesis in the Reformation.

Posted Jun 23, 2014

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