Gospel and Our Culture Network. We had hoped to bring together a number of pastors, lay leaders and scholars to engage questions of Christian formation in North America. Unfortunately, funding problems resulted in us having to abandon our initial vision. The other day I came across our original invitation. I still find the questions it raises and the framework it proposes compelling. It reminds me of our dream of a new form of catechism for the missional church. Here is what the four of us (Mike Budde, Chris Erdman, Mary Fisher and myself) drafted then ...
Almost everyone acknowledges that the church in North America is not as it should be. There are many symptoms of this chronic trouble. They are voiced in comments such as "My children don't go to church - where did I go wrong?", "Why has the church last its passion and energy for social witness?" and "How can so many people claim to be Christians but live no differently than anyone else?"
We intend to initiate a conversation for those who care deeply about the church and who realize that these concerns need to be taken seriously - that it is not business as usual for the church in North America. It is a conversation for those who hear the call to learn ways that form Christians as citizens in the kingdom of God and whose life together bears witness to God's purposes and promises (the "missio dei") in contemporary cultures.
This conversation is grounded in these shared assumptions:
* Formation in the Way of Christ - catechesis - is not simply a matter for each individual but is a crucial communal practice for congregations. Our formation in Christ - individually and collectively - involves us in practices of learning to pattern our lives and life together according to the ways of life in the kingdom of God. This is a rich and complex journey of apprenticeship undertaken by novices who are prepared to learn the unfamiliar rhythms of a different way of life.
* The church's formative work takes place in the midst of a powerful, though largely unconscious, "catechism" that schools us to be entertained consumers who look to technique and technology for our salvation. The question before us is not "Will we be indoctrinated?" but "Which indoctrination - which outlooks and practices, which allegiances and doctrines - will shape us?" Learning to see and hear these competing claims for our loyalty and affection is a critical step in forming communities whose primary allegiance is to Jesus Christ.
* We have come to realize that we do not know how to solve the catechetical weaknesses and failures that plague the North American church. Our current methods of Christian formation are largely unexamined and ineffective. These habitual patterns of passing on the gospel do not seem to be penetrating the veneer of "culture Christianity".
* Because these are problems that are shared across ecclesial traditions and denominational identities we believe that God's call to the church will also be discerned across these old walls, divides and barriers. We notice signs of this call - and an emerging response - in parallel movements, networks and conversations among disparate members of the Body of Christ.
* We are eager to bring the wisdom of scholars from a variety of disciplines - theology, Bible, ethics, sociology, education - into conversation with the wisdom of pastors and lay leaders from a diversity of congregations and cultural contexts. We want to learn from - and with - each other by growing in our awareness of the cultural context we inhabit and in our knowledge of exemplary congregations whose stories may inform our common journey.
* We assume that there is much at stake in the subject of our conversation. Christian formation lies at the heart of Christian witness - both social and personal. In our generation the church we know has largely lived off of the capital of Christian formation undertaken by our grandparents and great-grandparents. The capacity of congregations in the coming generation to generate energy and passion for the gospel depends in large part upon this generation's capacity to form its life in accord with the Way of Christ. We believe that this is a matter of huge importance. We also believe that we need not take ourselves too seriously, that we can learn from our glorious failures and that we can lose the struggle in interesting ways because our redemption lies in the God we meet in Jesus Christ and not in our capacity to save ourselves.
... Well, that is what we wrote. I wish we had been able to continue the conversation we had started. It seems to me the question of forming Christian identity in sustainable, vital Christian congregations is close to the heart of the matter for the church in our time. I notice that congregations that are struggling often seek technical solutions to their problems such as planning major building and property redevelopments or proposing life-saving mergers with neighbouring congregations. These apparent fixes regularly leave the real matter at hand unaddressed - namely, the formation of a thriving Christian community that has the capacity to pass the faith along to the next generation. This is an issue that I will continue to post about here under the label "catechesis".