Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Going to School?

“Catechesis” [kat-i-kee-sis] — now there’s a word you can use to impress your friends. It’s a seventy-five cent word defined as “oral religious instruction, most often used referring to the education of people preparing for full participation in the faith community.

The term persists in the more common words, “catechism” (the Q and A method of teaching religious doctrine) and “catechumens” (those who are being taught).

All of this has to do with the “religious education” program of the church, designed for children, and occasional adults. We Presbyterians have been diligent in such catechesis not only in the “communicants’ classes”, but in stalwart Christian Ed. programs as well.

Yet this is much too narrow an understanding of “catechesis”. Take a peek outside the box.

I was talking with a Jewish friend of mine a few weeks ago, and he admonished me for not visiting his synagogue for worship recently. “I’d love to have you come,” he said, “to shul.” It sounded almost like he said “school”—and he did, but it was the Yiddish word. For Jews, worship is also considered an educational opportunity to learn history, culture and faith.

Every once in a while I come across a comment from an Episcopalian (or Anglican) about the Book of Common Prayer being a wonderful educational resource for faith and doctrine. More than a liturgical reference and support, the volume has status as a theological piece.

My Orthodox friends tell me that their worship is chock full of learning. Prayers tell stories, parables are visualized in icons and mosaics, theology is acted out in gestures and movement.

So, what would life be like in our churches if we took a cue from these folks and came to see what happens on a Sunday morning as going to worship which is also “going to school”? What if we thought of church not only as going to talk to God, but to hear what God has to say to us?

Here are a few possibilities.

For one thing, the participation of the worshipping congregation would have to be more active than passive. No longer would the “comfortable pew” be the dominating image of attending church.

Corporate worship is a school to train us in how to pray, what to pray, and how to live out those prayers in the rough realities of life outside the church doors. It will be filled with history lessons that connect with our personal histories. Worship will put us in the presence of God so we can recognize where God is present in our lives every day.

We will also find that we have our own set of written resources. The Bible is the main volume, to be sure, and a copy should be handy in the pew racks for those who want to read along with the reader, or to see for themselves the context of the text. Yet there is also The Book of Common Worship (BCW) and The Presbyterian Hymnal and The Psalter, and the anthems sung by the choir, and probably much more. These, and their counterparts in other traditions, are “text books” in the school of Christian worship, useful in teaching the essentials of the faith.

To this end, copies of the BCW ought to be in the hands of all musicians and church teachers, and it would be wonderful if each member’s home had a copy. The same with the Hymnal and Psalter—they have valuable versions of prayers and praise useful at the family table at home.

What is more, the Sunday morning education for all worshippers might just encourage adults to pursue catechesis, instead of dropping off their children and going for coffee. Maybe attendance in adult classes would increase when grownups discover they don’t know as much as their children about our faith. “Faith formation”, as the term is these days, is on-going for all ages.

Finally, the converse is also true. We might just find out that children find worship more interesting if they are learning from it, and not just occupying space until they can scamper out. After all, early on the only Christian education anyone got was being among the worshipping community. In this day and age, people, especially the younger ones, are more likely to be shaped by education that is more experiential than literate, more oral than written.

Worship is always a time for us to express ourselves candidly before God—our needs and wants, hopes and fears. It is also when we put ourselves in position to be impressed by God. What is always impressive is that we are in the presence of God, we are with our risen Lord, and we are moved by the spirit within each of us and among us all.

What impresses you (makes a change in your life) when you go to worship? What did you learn about your faith the last time?

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