Does the Recovery of Catechesis Need a Boot Camp Model?

Leicester R. Longden

The question of my title would not win any awards for cultural sensitivity in many congregations of our church. Visions of shouting boot camp sergeants, suspicions of militaristic sympathies, and fears of oppressive and hierarchical indoctrination rise immediately in the minds of our contemporaries. But let’s explore the boot camp analogy before we too quickly reject it.

Such images of soldierly discipline have been pretty much scrubbed from our hymnals and prayer books. Onward, Christian Soldiers managed to keep its place in the hymnal, but think of that lovely third stanza from Be Thou My Vision that got left on the cutting room floor:

Be Thou my battle shield, sword for the fight;
Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight.
Thou my soul’s shelter, Thou my high tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O power of my power.

The metaphors here are not in praise of warfare, nor of human infatuation with violence and power. They echo the Psalms that proclaim that the Lord is the one who causes wars to cease, that we are not to put our trust in “princes” or the armaments of war. The Lord is our “fortress,” “refuge,” “rock.”

It is God alone who guarantees true human dignity, who is our true delight, who lifts up the downtrodden and oppressed, who is the only truly holy power, because this power is humble and overcomes the powers of this world on a cross.

There are plenty of other images of “warfare” that we could draw from Scripture, but our culturally accommodated Christianity has, for the most part, embargoed them. Admittedly, two world wars, numerous accounts of genocide, and countless regional conflicts, as well as renewed Christian reflections on pacifism have made us wary of warfare images.

Yet the question I want to raise for my readers is whether this embargo has robbed us of rigor and seriousness in the formation of disciples.

I first encountered the boot camp analogy in William J. Abraham’s The Logic of Evangelism, where he argued (25 years ago) “that the church needs to reinstate the institution of the catechumenate” as the way to prevent the separation of evangelism from discipleship ([Eerdmans, 1989], 174). The “logic” of evangelism for him entails the rejection of evangelism as solely proclamation, and its reconnection to the processes of initiating and grounding converts in the life of faith.

“Just as the point of boot camp is to break in the new convert and initiate him or her into the art of soldiering, so the point of evangelism is to break in the new convert and initiate him or her into the art of being an agent of the rule of God” (184).

A more recent use of the boot camp analogy is found in Augustine and the Catechumenate, where William Harmless describes the catechumenal preparations for baptism as “a sort of sacred fitness program or boot camp…a way of rooting out slovenly and self-destructive habits…not unlike the demanding reshaping of habit that an alcoholic or drug addict must go through” ([Pueblo, 1995], 253, 255).

Augustine, like Chrysostom and Ambrose, appealed to images of athletic and military training that went far beyond mere schooling and instruction when describing the ascetical practices of catechumens and, indeed, the whole church during Lent.

Some contemporary students of youth culture and spiritual formation — for example, Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church [Oxford University Press, 2010]), or David P. Setran and Chris A. Kiesling (Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood [Baker Academic, 2013]) — have begun to argue that we need a more “passionate” and “costly formation” for shaping disciples that moves beyond the therapeutic dimension.

Over the course of the next few essays, I want to explore with my readers, and hear from them, arguments for and against the use of the boot camp analogy to describe how we form disciples in our congregations. Without turning this into a forum for arguing about pacifism, I’d like to open a space for considering the implications of a more robust process of training disciples.

Here are the kind of questions I’d like to see discussed in the comments section:

  • What are the pluses and minuses of the boot camp analogy? (Will it just encourage zealots and legalists or reinvigorate congregations?)
  • What kinds of “costly” Christian formation have you seen or experienced that either commend or warn against a boot camp model?
  • What aspects of the Wesleyan heritage provide possible guidelines for this model?
  • What may yet be learned from the catechumenate of the ancient church?

I look forward to a lively discussion.

Posted Aug 11, 2014

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