I’ve been thinking for a while now that we need to institute a new catechumenate process within the Church that moves us away from “punch your card” kind of emphasis on “salvation,” and moves us to a more ancient pre-Constantine notion of journey and process leading up to a mature and informed decision to join the Church, to become a Christian, to devote oneâ€™s life to Christ.
I came across this blog entry from Tim Neufeld, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, via Kendall Harmon’s website, Titusonenine.
Here is the blog entry:
This Side of 313
“Something remarkable happened in A.D. 313: Our understanding of conversion was radically shifted. When Constantine granted most-favored status to Christianity, social frameworks and religious paradigms shifted almost overnight. Those who were once persecuted, the Christians, were given status in the new world, and those who once held positions of power, the pagans, became the outsiders. Everything that was once at the center was now at the margins of society, and all that was on the edges was now given status. Christendom was born.
“In a pre-Constantinian world conversion was a long, extended process. It typically took three or four years to gain membership in a church. Early church fathers developed a four-phase catechism that moved the initiate on a journey of discipleship. While there were elements unique to the different geographic areas of the second and third century church, a general pattern did emerge. At the beginning of the journey a young candidate would be mentored by an older believer, often two or three times a week for up to two years. Not until the disciple had proved faithfulness through mentoring would he or she be allowed to join the local house church. Even when admitted to a congregation the new attender was dismissed before the Eucharist (communion); only baptized members could participate in this most sacred of rituals. The next phase of the catechetical experience was a series of classes and exorcisms that led to the culminating act of baptism on the night before Easter. Finally, the believer was allowed to participate in his or her first communion on Easter Sunday, enjoying the full membership of the body of Christ.
“As I presented a much more detailed version of this process to undergrad students in my Methods of Youth Ministry class yesterday, I asked several questions. “What word or concept did I not mention in the pre-313 description of conversion?” They picked up on it right away — evangelism. There was no evangelistic moment, no alter call, no sinner’s prayer and no laws in a tract of any kind (all relatively recent American inventions). This was a rich process that did not reflect our current dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship or our linear understanding of moving from unsaved to converted to saved.
“I also asked my students, “How did the conversion experience change after Constantine issued his edict?” With a little prodding and discussion they soon discovered another important understanding: when Christianity became the favored religion (or state religion) many people “converted” from their old gods to the new one. While some may have done this from sincerity of heart, others responded solely because of the pressure put upon them to do so. For the first time in history the culture had become a place where it was advantageous to be a Christian. Christianity might even have been necessary to hold some offices or positions of status. This meant that there was an influx of converts. As more and more people came to the church for membership, the practice of conversion changed drastically: basilicas took the place of houses as centers of worship, the catechism became shorter with fewer stages, the baptismal font got smaller, baptisms became more frequent and the age of baptism shifted from adulthood to infancy in some cases.
“I posed a final question for my students: “What can we learn from the experience of conversion in a pre-Christendom world?” The answers were astute and relevant.
“‘We live in an age where it is very ‘easy’ to become a Christian.’
“‘We should consider the inseparable nature of evangelism and discipleship, and work toward a more holistic understanding of the journey our students are on.’
“‘Mentoring is essential for healthy believers.’
“‘We underestimate an adolescent’s ability to engage scripture when we minimize the gospel with simplistic curriculum and manipulative tactics.’
“‘In a pre-Constantinian world the greatest indicator of conversion was a transformed life, not a date on a card or a magic prayer.’
“Well done, class. It’s a pleasure to be with you in this community of learners.”