Sunday, May 9, 2010

Multigenerational Catechesis in the Smaller Church

This is a proposal for coordinated, intergenerational learning in small membership churches. Luther’s Small Catechism will motivate a three-year cycle through the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. This cycle repeats giving children three or four cycles before adulthood, and the adults learn the catechism as well. The generations work together to find lively ways to learn, practice, and celebrate these treasured texts. Small churches with their informal and relational ways may be ideal for such an approach to intergenerational learning.

Small churches with fewer than 100 members are qualitatively distinct from larger churches. The size of a church has direct bearing on the quality of relationships within a congregation. In the smallest churches with fewer than 35 members it is possible for each member to know each other member directly. They are highly relational and may be compared to a family. As the numbers increase it becomes increasingly difficult for each member to know each other. Above 100 members this degree of connectedness breaks down. Churches in the size of 35 to 100 have been described as pastoral. At this size a single pastor can serve the congregation and have direct relationships with each parishioner. The culture of smaller churches can be distinctive. A church may have one or two prominent families with three or more generations present. The church may understand itself primarily in terms of its history. Traditions stemming from that history may be quite robust for good or not so good. Communication in a smaller church can be less formal such as gossip. Everyone seems to know everything about everyone. Likewise decision-making can in actuality be less formal. Though a church may have formal decision-making bodies, the real influence and conversation may take place elsewhere. Resources may be more constrained in a smaller church, but this is often compensated for in part by higher participation of members and higher giving per member. Some congregations may have quite limited physical space, while others may be burdened with a building larger than they need and costing more to maintain than they can afford. Smaller churches can be small enough to personalize and adapt to specific needs. Some smaller churches specialize in just a few ministries. Often food is involved whenever the relational church gathers.

These characteristics pose challenges and special opportunities for Christian education. The relational nature of smaller churches lends itself to intergenerational sharing and caring. A smaller church may have difficulty supporting and filling a Sunday school program with narrow age bands, but this is also an opportunity for more personalized attention to the needs of each child and tighter connections with and between adults. It may be difficult to find and pay for suitable curricula for churches with only a few children in each conventionally narrow age band. Also churches in smaller building may have physical constraints on how narrow to set age bands of Sunday school classes. What is needed is a curriculum that matches the smaller congregation’s flexibility and wide age bands, even a curriculum which could serve the entire multigenerational congregation. Perhaps such a curriculum is the work of a small church itself. It may draw on its own stories and traditions while illuminating the scripture, stories and traditions of the larger denomination to which it belongs. That is, a smaller church can build its own congregational theology together. It may pursue an integrated and comprehensive approach to education which sees all its activities and relationships as opportunities for learning, be that what happens in worship, homes, or special events as well as in classes, small groups, and bible studies. Even a potluck diner becomes an occasion for witnessing the church’s call to fellowship and the sharing of individual gifts. A leader can bring this to educational focus by communicating these deeper purposes and meanings, perhaps by reading passages such as 1 Cor 12:12 or Acts 2:42. With some intentionality, the same message can resonate in worship, classes, small groups and family life.

I would like to explore further how a congregation may pursue this sort of integrated curriculum, taking on the particular challenge of teaching the catechism, and I will do so within the context of the Lutheran tradition. Typically, Lutheran congregations will teach Luther’s Small Catechism to middle grade students in a two year confirmation class. Such a class may meet at a time other than the Sunday school hour and involve extra assignments and activities that go beyond typical Sunday school classes. Smaller churches, even moderate size congregations, may encounter problems with this model: they may not have enough middle graders, they may lack for confident and trained catechists, and such a program does not address the needs of adults and youth beyond the confirmation age. It may be worth noting that, when Luther developed his catechisms, he was concerned about whether adults understood the basics of the Christian faith. Catechism at its best is a family process and not merely a program for older children. So I would like to outline a framework integrated, multigenerational catechism. I believe that such an approach will make good use of the relational, family-like disposition of the smaller church.

Luther’s Small Catechism consists of teaching three central texts, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, plus the Sacraments and daily blessings. We might visualize the catechism as a pyramid. Knowledge of the scripture and church history provides a broad base to the pyramid. The three texts—Commandments, Creed, and Prayer—form the middle layer of the pyramid bringing into focus Christian teaching. And the Sacraments and blessings form the top layer. This pyramid draws us through broad knowledge of scripture and tradition up through the experience of God in the Christian life. In the Ten Commandments year attention can be given to all the ways that God calls us to holiness, justice, and mercy. Personal integrity and social justice can both be explored. In Luther’s theology this is Law. The Creed year provides an opportunity to clarify our beliefs and better understand the God’s gift grace. It is a time to do both personal reflection as well as congregational theology. Again in Luther’s theology this is Gospel. In the Prayer year, the congregation gives attention not only to the Lord’s Prayer, but to the very life of prayer. This is a good time to strengthen spiritual practices and to learn how to pray with others.

The three texts give us particular lenses for scripture and sacramental living. I would propose, then, that a congregation may give special attention to one of the three texts each year in a three year cycle. This can be a broad theme for the year that energizes and directs many activities of the church as they seek ways to better understand the text, celebrate the text, and give it expression in their life together. A three-year cycle such as this means that, as children and adults develop and mature, they have the opportunity to revisit the same text every three years. How a nine-year-old can approach and process, say, the Ten Commandments will be different then how they understood it when they were six. And how they will understand it at ages twelve, eighteen and beyond will be yet different. Multigenerational learning facilitates this sort of revisiting a text at different ages. The six-year-old may learn that her church believes in the Ten Commandments which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The nine-year-old may focus more on the specific words, even committing them to memory. The twelve-year-old may begin to question and analyze the mean of the words. The eighteen-year-old may struggle more with an authentic life application of the commandments. And on into adulthood, the Commandments may take on wider and deeper meanings not just for self, but for the family, church, society and world. A text such as the Ten Commandments, the Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer can grow with us over the years and take a lifetime to exhaust its meaning. For children who grow up in the church, the congregation has about twelve years to convey the meaning of the catechism, and adults who did not have such a formation as a child or youth can gain a basic understanding of the catechism in a three-year cycle.

Scripture and the sacraments also fit into this three-year-cycle. As a foundation, scripture and Christian history are studied throughout the cycle. A church may elect to follow the lectionary both in worship as well as in Sunday school classes and bible studies. This provides coordination of texts across the age groups. There may be other texts which coordinate with the year’s theme such as portions of Exodus, the Sermon on the Mount or Micah 6:8 coordinate well with the Ten Commandments year.
The Sacraments, of course, are observed in worship throughout each year. Baptisms provide a natural event when teaching about baptism is appropriate. It is wonderful especially to include young children in an infant baptism. They can stir the water and welcome the new friend. Baptism and the sacrament of confession and absolution fit naturally with the Ten Commandments year wherein we learn about our sinful condition. The Sacrament of the Altar may be celebrated regularly in worship. The Creed year may be a particularly good time for the church to reflect theologically on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Finally the daily blessings of morning prayer, evening prayer and prayers over meals finds natural affinity with the Prayer year.
In many respects, the church is its own curriculum. In each year, the congregation may be challenged to find new ways to learn, practice and celebrate the theme of the year. Both the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are used regularly in the liturgy. The Ten Commandments could also be put to liturgical use in its year. Alternative texts may include Micah 6:8 or Matt 22:36-40. The liturgical use of these texts can be made more reflective by allowing a time of silence for meditation. The congregation can use its talents to develop creative elements for worship such as banners, songs, poems, dramatic sketches, dances, etc. New groups and ministries can be formed or renewed according to the theme text, for example, a particular social action group in the Commandments year, a bible study or discussion group in Creed year, or a prayer circle or spiritual practices group in the Prayer year. Such ministries may well last beyond the theme year. The church can dream of special events inspired by the theme year such as a VBS program that tells the Exodus story or an experiential prayer event. And of course, Sunday school time can be used to reinforce the theme text. These classes can be intergenerational, have wide age bands, or be organized in some other way. It is up to the older participants to find ways to give expression to the text and share it with the others. For example, in the Creed year, arts and crafts can be used to depict who God is to me. What a five-year-old creates may be just as powerful as what a fifty-five-year-old makes. And finally, there is the hope that, with all this coordination across all age groups, discipleship in the families will be encouraged. For example, in the Prayer year, a family may start a practice of praying over meals at home.

The possibilities for making the catechetical texts come alive are endless. The smaller church is only limited by its imagination. Over the years, the three-year cycle may come to feel repetitive, but this is an opportunity to imagine and ponder more deeply. One would hope that at the end of a particular year, participants would have new ideas that could be used three years later. There can be a systematic approach to gathering these suggestions and other feedback for future cycles.

Where does confirmation fit into this? By the time a child has reached eleven or twelve, they will have gone through two or three cycles of the catechism. This minimizes the amount of catechetical material that confirmands will need to learn in a confirmation program. Rather, confirmation can focus on the commitment that the child is to make and the welcoming of that child into spiritual adulthood. It can be more of a time of discernment and celebration. It should matter less that there may be only one confirmand in a given year as the catechetical foundation has already been laid through multigenerational engagement.

Smaller congregations can be the right size for intergenerational learning. Luther’s Small Catechism provides an outline that can coordinate learning activities over a three-year cycle. The congregation is challenged as a whole to make this material come alive in worship, fellowship, special events, classes and the home. There is no particular need for programs. The catechetic texts only suggest a theme. The approach to that theme can be informal, adaptive, relational and creative. Children will grow up with three or four cycles through the catechism addressing them at different stages of development. Adults, too, will deepen their understanding of and commitment to the basics of our faith. Exploring the catechism can be like a spiritual potluck without missing the essentials.

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