5. Offer Discipleship, Not Membership
Years ago, my church, Phinney Ridge Lutheran, and many other congregations rediscovered the possibility of forming the faith of new Christians using the pattern of the ancient church: The WAY is a year-long journey of discovery in which people who are either new to the church or returning to the church can freely discover how God is working in their lives. They do so by being fully involved in the congregation’s life and ministry, through Bible study that is led by a small group leader, and by walking side-by-side through this year of discovery with a person of strong faith who is willing to serve as their mentor.
By providing a process in which people’s questions about God and faith were openly welcomed, the churches best gifts—mystery, service to others, inspiration—offered an attractive substitute for a new generation that was not really seeking membership, but discipleship.
4. Don’t Be Discouraged by Starting from Nothing or Starting Over
Despite its significant decline in membership between the 1960s and the mid-1990s, Phinney Ridge was a healthy and mission-minded congregation; but the catechumenate, The WAY, began to organize our lives in a specific and focused way and led to surprising manifestations of God’s grace among us that were brought changes to individuals and the corporate body.
When the most basic foundations of faith topple to the ground and shatter into a million pieces, there is something left to build upon: the Word and the sacraments, the community that grace built, the assurance that we are all in this together, and (best of all) that God is in it with us. This is a story of breath blown over dry bones, of sons and daughters welcomed home, of lives shattered and put back together by a community that loves one another. Because we have been so intentional about committing our lives to one another as faith begins or is rekindled, we can trust to be told these stories again and again. Little by little, as surely as the sun rises in the east day after day, the love of God is renewed and recreated among us.
3. Before Reaching out to Your Community, Be Sure First to Reach Inside
Before reaching out, a congregation should spend some time in study and prayer; it should be actively pursuing inreaching. It is essential before offering the gifts and the life of a congregation to the surrounding community to be anchored in a clear sense of who they are as a people of God and what the best gifts are that they have to offer to a world longing to hear the gospel and serve those in need.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of those who have little or no foundation underlying their lives of faith: “Everyone then who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall” (
As a practitioner of the catechumenate, I contend these words apply primarily to those within the church who need to witness to the world that God’s people stand on a strong foundation. We often apply Christ’s admonition only to newcomers and seekers among the Sunday assembly, but I see them as words of caution to those of us already within the fellowship of faith. Reading them as an admonition for insider leads to a different conclusion. The admonition compels the action of mission and outreach. Christ clearly calls those already within the household of faith to build a strong and sturdy foundation for those new to faith.
2. Don’t Try to Fix the Church—Be the Church
It is an amazing thing for persons who have been in the church for years—perhaps a lifetime—to see the faith of new Christians sprout and grow. Folks who are walking side by side with new Christians find great inspiration in learning they really do have something worth sharing and that the world is hungry for it. Forming faith in others also helps those of us within the church to focus on the essentials: worship, Scripture, prayer and works of love for a world in need. We find this is what people coming to the church are seeking: the essentials. They are not so much interested in serving on the finance committee or fixing the roof, things that tend to preserve the church as an institution rather than as a living, serving witness to the living God active among us.
1. Lose the Curriculum
Bible study that is thoughtful, well-planned, largely clergy-led, and highly academic is a parish staple. We wish there were more hours in the week for study. People hunger for it. Avoided at all costs are the sorts of Bible studies that give simplistic or pat responses. The WAY, the catechumenate, has taught us that the voice of the Holy Spirit speaks powerfully through all God’s people and that insights brought to us by those who are questioning the faith are often exactly the sorts of questions that propel all of us to a new plateau of understanding.
Among the hardest concepts to grasp for those new to the adventure of catechumenal ministry is that it is oral, relational and without an off-the-shelf curriculum. Just as we believe that all liturgy is local, so we believe the practice of the catechumenate is local. It is parish-based, person-to-person, and highly driven by laypersons rather than pastors. While you can’t buy a book or manual that has a series of Bible studies or self-improvement activities, we love to say The WAY does have a curriculum; and that curriculum is lectionary and life. The lectionary is the series of appointed Bible readings that Christians read in their Sunday morning services each Sunday. To these Bible readings, those being formed in faith bring their real-life questions and longings to be shared and discussed in weekly small-group Bible study groups.