For You And For Your Children

Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York has partnered with The Gospel Coalition to produce a new catechism for a new generation.  The New City Catechism is a blend of the best of the Reformation catechisms, most notably the Westminster Larger and Shorter catechisms and the Heidelberg Catechism.  The language of the questions and answers remains mostly unaltered from the originals, but this new catechism is shinier and, most notably, sleeker.

It is “shinier” because it is designed for the iPad (though there is also a version for normal web browsers), with each Q&A including not only a written commentary from a famous theologian of the past (Chrysostom, Augustin, Calvin, Spurgeon, Lewis, etc), but also a short video commentary from respected pastors and council members of TGC.  One of the great beauties of a catechism is that it’s question-answer format allows almost anyone to pick it up and begin learning the faith as if they had a teacher right along side them.  Expanding the simple questions and answers to include these supplemental expositions of key themes and doctrines greatly enhances this already practical feature of the catechism.

The video commentary from Q&A 1:

This new catechism is “sleeker” for two reasons.  First, it is a “joint” catechism for both children and adults.  Each question has a shorter child’s answer that is contained within the longer adult’s answer.  For example, question 1 is “What is our only hope in life and death?”  The two answers are:

Child: “That we are not our own but belong to God.”
Adult: “That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”

In this way there is a unity between the child’s catechism and the adult’s catechism.  Really, they are not even two catechisms.  As the child grows, their own answers simply grow into a more complete answer, rather than using different words to respond to different questions.

Second, there are only 52 questions, one for each Lord’s Day (that would be Sunday) of the year.  This is where I see a potential for criticism.  Some in the Reformed community are already mocking this new catechism.  While such mocking is mostly unwarranted, 52 questions is less than half the number of questions in the Westminster Shorter, which does beg us to question whether this catechism is ultimately a sorry, watered-down replacement for its predecessors.

My initial response is no, with one caveat.  Running quickly through all 52 questions, I didn’t notice any troubling gaps in doctrine, save that infant baptism is nowhere to be found.  This isn’t surprising, since TGC is a partnership between paedobaptists and credobaptists, but for those in Reformed and Presbyterian denominations this absence may serve to highlight the superiority of the old catechisms already in use.

And yet that may be the point.  Since those denominations still use the Westminster and Heidelberg, this new catechism is not really designed for them, rather it is designed for those broadly “Reformed” churches who identify with organizations like TGC, but who do not already have a built-in structure of catechesis.  I certainly wouldn’t use the new catechism to replace the Heidelberg or Westminster in my own classroom, but I would gladly make use of it as a supplement.

In the end, the New City Catechism is a wonderful way to help the modern evangelical church back to the ancient and indispensible practice of catechesis.  I will leave you with Pastor Keller’s excellent summary:

 At present, the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs concentrate on practices such as Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism and can at times be superficial when it comes to doctrine. In contrast, the classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience. Also, the catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do typical discipleship courses. Finally, the practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.

In short, catechetical instruction is less individualistic and more communal. Parents can catechize their children. Church leaders can catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones. Because of the richness of the material, catechetical questions and answers may be integrated into corporate worship itself, where the church as a body can confess their faith and respond to God with praise.

One last thing, to The Gospel Coalition:  I do not have an iPad, so please release an android version soon.  Thanks!

Empty Churches Full Of People

The American Church has swallowed a deadly pill.  It is dying inside, but cheerfully going along, unaware.

So says Matt Marino, an Episcopal Priest in Arizona.  He points to the now well-documented fact that young people are leaving churches in droves after they graduate high school.  On the outside, things still look good.  Many youth ministries are large and “vibrant.”  But they are, on the whole, whitewashed sepulchers.

In short, we have churches full of empty people, on the road to becoming empty churches.

Marino lists eight major problems with youth ministry.  The first is segregation.  We effectively cut off young people from the rest of the body of Christ (as Marino puts it, we “ghettoized” them).  In our consumer culture, obsessed with specialized marketing techniques that divide by demographic, this point is not addressed nearly enough. 

Marion’s other reasons are all good ones, and you should read his entire post here (the story he tells at the beginning is heart-wrenching).

As is typical of doom-prophesying articles like this, it’s heavy on the problem and light on the solution.  In fact, the solution is a single  paragraph, and it’s not very specific.  But it is very good, and very true.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

I want to unpack this, and offer a few quick suggestions of my own.  First, church is for believers, not the lost.  This is hard for our evangelical culture to swallow, but the whole point of Marion’s post has been to highlight this fact, that the last few generations of “Finneyism” are creating big churches full of empty people.  During the Reformation, the Lord’s Supper meant so much to the believing community that the table was “fenced off.”  Preaching was expositional and intensely Gospel-focused.  It’s impossible to unlock the deepest treasures of Scripture and feed people meat when the weekly worship service itself is designed to dispense milk to the visitors.

Second, the youth service has to go.  Period.  If that sounds ludicrous to you, I would merely point out that I have grown up in churches without one, and they actually retain a much higher percentage of their kids after college than the national average (this is anecdotal, but the churches are small so it’s easier to count heads).  Ages 3-5 are excused (because kindergarteners are unruly little heathens at the best of times), but once you’re in the first grade you will sit with your parents and have the Gospel preached to you every week for (Lord willing) the rest of your life, as a full member of the one, united body of Christ.

Third, parents need to step up and the church needs to help them.  I’ve taught 9th grade catechism for the past three years, and the difference between a student with actively involved parents and a student without parental aid was enormous.  And I only had them for 45 minutes per week, for 30 weeks.  That is simply not enough time to engage in real, life-changing discipleship.  These kids need a mature, Godly influence 24-7, and only parents can do that.

Fourth, we need to get over our assumption that a small church means a lack of Spiritual vitality.  Believe it or not, I know of more than one denomination that actively keeps their churches from reaching “mega” status, and they are still growing throughout the US.  When a church reaches a size that no longer allows the Pastor and Elders to be active disciple-makers, they plant a new church and shuffle members around a bit.  The result is several hundred-member congregations rather than one, thousand-member monster.  Let me hasten to add that there is nothing inherently wrong with a large church and nothing inherently good about a small one.  Many big churches are implementing small groups that are designed to keep all members active and accountable, and to encourage real discipleship (but then, there’s effectly many small churches in one building).  We simply need to rid ourselves of the notion that big = good such that it encourages us to actively try to make our churches as large as possible. Instead, we need to be theologically serious, radically God-centered, counter-cultural, and not afraid to lose some people along the way.

Finally, we need to be salt and light to a dark world.  This is by far the hardest part.  We must be the people on the streets every night looking to help the homeless.  We need to open so many soup kitchens that there are no more hungry people.  We need to be the people who give so generously of our time and money that the average person is amazed that we care so much for others and so little for ourselves.  When the church becomes the one place that unbelievers know will care for the widows and orphans, we can stop trying to be relevant to the “me generation.”  They will come to us.  When they see that we do all this not as an attempt to impress the World, but rather because we are not the World, we will have churches overflowing with souls longing to be liberated from themselves.

Above all, pray.  Pray ceaselessly.  Pray for the Holy Spirit, for without Him all our efforts will be for nothing.

Internal Excommunication

Confronting discipline is uncomfortable. Walk by a person in the process of getting a traffic ticket. It’s awkward. Some pretend to be invisible. Others look with curiosity until the unfortunate driver sees them, then hurry away. In that situation, I often find myself feeling indignant towards the police officer and a vague sense of comradeship with the chastised driver. I could be them. Even police officers speed frequently. Let those with no traffic sins cast penal fines.

Some of my recent theological discussions have paralleled those encounters. In dialogues focused on Paul’s epistles and the various creeds of the Church, the doctrine of excommunication, (otherwise known as ‘the ban’), has raised its hoary head. Usually, it met general balking and confusion. The main questions circulating were, “What is it, why is it, and how does it affect me as a twenty-first century American Christian?”

While excommunication varies slightly by denomination, it was traditionally practiced by both Catholic and Protestants churches. The general idea even remains within the congregationalist (evangelical) tradition: if a church member continues in sin despite prior admonishments, they are to be avoided by the general congregation until they repent, at which point they can re-enter the community. Excommunication does not mean the individual in question has been stripped of her Christianity, though often misunderstood to be just that. Nor is it ‘the silent treatment.’ If someone from a different city visits your town, you still talk to them, but don’t consider them intrinsic to the community. Likewise, an excommunicate is still part of society, but is temporarily exiled from their church body.

Various churches have had these things to say about ‘the ban':

Anabaptists, Schleitheim Confession: “The ban shall be employed with all those who…are called brethren or sisters, and yet who slip sometimes and fall into error and sin… The same shall be admonished twice in secret and the third time openly disciplined or banned… But this shall be done…before the breaking of bread, so that we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink of one cup.”

Anglicans, Thirty-Nine Articles: “That person…ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful, as an Heathen and Publican, until he be openly reconciled by penance…”

Reformed, Westminster Confession: “Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brothers… For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime…”

St. Paul, in his second letter to Thessalonica, says something similar. “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good,” Paul says. “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” Paul seems to be speaking from a strong sense of unified community. If standards of the community are violated, then for the sake of the community’s preservation, the offender should be extracted until they are willing to act within the community’s standards.

This seems reasonable. So why do many instinctively recoil from the practice? I suggest it is because of the same reason that I immediately side with the ‘ticketed’ and not the ‘ticketer’. Rather than seeing a traffic fine as what everyone deserves when they speed, it can seem like the fate of one unlucky fellow who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The violator becomes the victim.

The same applies to excommunication. Yet the ban is not the actual removal of someone from the community, but the physical recognition (via separation) that they have already, in an important sense, removed themselves.

For example, imagine showing up to the office wearing a bathing suit. The likely response would be, “Go home, come back when you’ve got the proper clothes on.” But, other than in a strictly physical sense, the discipline did not actually cause removal from the office community—that happened when the standards were violated. The separation was simply the response.

Most churches in America do not practice excommunication. Frankly, for many it is not practically possible—our church communities are not intimate enough. My church wouldn’t know if I was a habitual thief or if I was a perpetual drunk six days a week. But that does not undermine the relevant truth of the albeit disconcerting practice.

Seeing someone being ticketed is uncomfortable because I know it could just as easily be me. Similarly, the reason excommunication is uncomfortable is my knowledge that I fall horribly short of how a Christian is called to live. A ticket, thankfully, does not strip one’s license away, and excommunication does not remove one’s justification through Christ.

Still, I excommunicate myself every day from the community of believers, with or without it’s being noticed by anyone else or myself. And yet the gospel remains, and remains as this: in the cross, we find a bridge that perpetually reconciles us in our self-extrication to the unified body of Christ. In the cross, we have a constant means of regaining communion with God and community. In the cross, we can come back to the home we never truly left, like a runaway child who, returning home, knows the house key will still be underneath the flowerpot on the porch, unmoved, constant.