Remembering what it means to be a Christian

We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.

— Rod Dreher, from the Introduction to The Benedict Option

The church in every age is tempted by the surrounding culture as Christ was tempted by the devil. Worship me, the church is told, and you will have power and prestige. It is the deal that kings and aristocrats made with the church. It is the deal that plantation owners made with the church. It is the deal that the Nazi government made with the church. It is the deal that America makes with the church.

The result of the church’s easy acceptance of the 20th century American version of this temptation is the desolation of the 21st century church. It turns out that rather than power and prestige, the church’s easy embrace of American cultural values — consumerism, me-first individualism, militaristic nationalism, and therapeutic spirituality — has led to the church’s marginalization. With little to offer people that they could not get in other places, the church found itself with less and less to say that was not already being said by others. As a result, more and more people see the church as irrelevant to their lives.

At its core, I believe, the problem of the church is that a great many Christians have no idea what it means to be a Christian. We leaders in the church have failed to teach, and the people have failed to learn. Instead of Christianity, a great many Christians practice a kind of hopeful niceness with a veneer of Christian vocabulary layered on top of it. Many of them would be stunned to learn that being a good American and a friendly neighbor are not the sum total of what it means to be a Christian.

This development has not gone unnoticed, of course. I am not breaking any new ground in writing this. Indeed, this problem is not even unique to our day and age. The Bible is a story of the ways in which God’s people have chased after things that are not God rather than worshiping and being formed by obedience to God. Remember the stories about that apple and that golden calf?

This is the same problem we read Paul scolding churches about and John of Patmos dictating letters about in Revelation. It is what inspired Luther to get his hammer out and John Wesley to preach while standing on his father’s tomb. And so it stirs many in the church today.

One response to this need is the The New City Catechism, which has been published as a book and has a handy mobile app. The Catechism is a short work — only 52 questions — packaged as a devotional. It grows out of the Calvinistic Gospel Coalition and is based heavily on the catechisms from Westminster and Heidelberg. The roots of the catechism mean it cannot be easily adopted wholesale for use in Methodist churches. For instance, the Heidelberg catechism was adopted by the very same Reformed Synod that condemned the Ariminian affirmation of free grace.

And yet, there is such pressing need for good formation and teaching in our churches, that I believe the New City Catechism could be a useful resource for pastors and lay leaders who want to help their congregations better understand what we believe and how that belief shapes the way we live.

I’d be interested in resources for teaching you have used in your churches and in hearing about ways you have used or adopted catechism in your ministry.

It can be done

Here’s a comment by Bob Kaylor on a recent post that I wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to read:

Let me push back, John. I do think people would embrace a move to a more defined, clear, and challenging mission. I’ve been seeing that here at my church since we went to a required 10 week Wesleyan catechesis for new members (and existing ones at present) based on the General Rules, the expectation that all of our leaders and teachers will be involved in a discipling relationship with a group, and a culture that defines the Christian life via the Rule of Discipleship (Worship, Devotion, Justice, and Compassion). I put this in place with the blessing of my senior church leaders (we didn’t have a church vote on it) and while there was some initial resistance, we have had 130 people go through the ten week class since last September, we’ve sprouted 8 new covenant groups that came out of the class, and we have had no trouble getting leaders and teachers who are called and motivated because they have expectations. I knew that going this route would either result in what we have now, a church that is building a discipling culture, or it would result in me being re-appointed. I think people want to have the bar raised, to be part of something that matters, to put muscle and sinew on their faith. Most clergy, however, lack the will to put up with the initial pushback of the least committed Christians in the church. I believe a Wesleyan-style revival is possible because I’m seeing it happen here day by day. At a recent church visioning meeting, I asked the group what were the best strengths of the church. Their answer? We are focused on shaping people’s lives for the kingdom. We just have to overcome our fear and do it!

Interesting resource for catechism

Asbury Seedbed has a booklet and flashcard set aimed at supporting those who want to teach the basics of the faith. It looks like an interesting resource that fills a need.