Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Non-Credal-Church Friendly Discipleship Resource

In some arms of the Christian movement there is a tremendous need for good resources for baptism preparation and/or confirmation.  For example, in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), of which I am a part, there is no formal catechism, no creed, no official doctrinal statement to which individuals are required to subscribe.  Within the sole baseline of belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God there is a certain intentional vagueness.  Our tradition prides itself on both the freedom of believers to arrive at their own theological positions and the responsibility of believers to do so within the context of scripture, prayer, and the Christian community.  Creeds and official doctrinal statements are seen as divisive, but the need for theological training of the community remains.  This delicate balance of freedom and responsibility provides many potential benefits but it also creates some very distinct dilemmas.

One of those dilemmas occurs when the proposition of baptism preparation and/or confirmation comes up in the conversation.  In many traditions there is a catechism, or a process of learning which people must complete in order to join the church, become baptized, or be confirmed in the faith.  In such situations the official denominational catechisms, creeds, or doctrinal statements often serve as an outline for such instruction and preparation.  So what does a pastor do when those outlines do not exist?  Or, to more directly reference my own situation, what does a pastor do when a person who was baptized as an infant is now a part of your congregation that practices believers' baptism and wants to experience confirmation?  If you don't want to reject their prior baptism and want to affirm their commitment to discipleship but don't have a resource for that, where do you get it?

The answer for many of us is that we either borrow from other denominations or write our own.  And there are great benefits to these choices; they can force us to re-examine, each and every time, our own faith and our own commitment to Christ.  They can also help us practice the process of testimony by requiring us to carefully consider our message and our method of instructing new disciples.  But this process is quite labor-intensive.  And, if your church is anything like mine, things come up that distract our focus and take away our time.  If we're not careful, our process of instructing and preparing baptism candidates and confirmands can get less than our best effort.

Christopher W. Wilson has recognized this and composed a resource for congregations in such a situation.  Published in 2009 by Chalice Press, Passage Into Discipleship: Guide to Baptism provides an excellent model for non-credal churches.  While it is written within the context of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and relies on external resources like the Chalice Hymnal, it is flexible enough that other congregations both in and out of the Restoration Movement could easily adapt.  Wilson has structured the curriculum around six central themes: Confession, Contrition, Covenant, Community, Connection, and Church.  Each theme has two components, a classroom session and an experiential element.  The classroom sessions utilize scripture study and discussion while the experiential elements involve immersing (no pun intended) the learners in a situation or environment that will help them learn in a deeper way (and they are quite creative).  The book comes complete with reproducible handouts and leader outlines for each session.  Wilson also incorporates the utilization of adult members within the congregation as guides through the experience, as well as an orientation session with candidates and their parents as well as a closing retreat.  

The reason I am recommending this resource to you is not because Wilson has done all the work for you.  I am recommending it precisely because he has not.  While there are lesson plans, resources, and handouts, what Wilson has provided is a structural outline.  The questions provided in the lesson plans are not aimed at forcing a prescribed doctrinal answer.  Instead the questions provided are aimed at helping candidates and confirmands understand points of scripture and theology while thinking for themselves and simultaneously requiring the instructor to do the same.  While the resource is structured for baptism preparation it could easily be adapted for confirmation in a situation like the one aforementioned.  It is my humble opinion that Passage Into Discipleship: Guide To Baptism is designed well enough to help you guide your baptism candidates and/or confirmands towards deeper understanding of, and a deeper relationship with, Jesus Christ.  And it is flexible enough to be adapted to your particular church, and allow you to experience a deeper understanding of, and relationship with, Jesus Christ as well.