“It’s about Community”: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 3March 31st, 2011
In the introduction to this series (March 28th post entitled “Catechesis is the first step in ‘making culture’”) I noted that we encounter a wide array of models for how the church passed the faith on to the next generation. I briefly highlighted the catechumen-mystagogy model of the Patristics, the monastic/service model of the Celtics, the Longer and Shorter catechisms which emerged at the Reformation, and so forth. My overall argument (which is taking quite a few entries to unfold!) is that the Wesleyan model draws strengths from each of these earlier models. I am hoping that some of my thoughts might stimulate a renewed appreciation of the Wesleyan model.
I think that the best current book in print on catechesis is Teaching the Faith – Forming the Faithful by Dr. Gary Parrett and Steve Kang. The good news is that it is a GREAT BOOK. I had the privilege of teaching alongside of both Parrett and Kang for many years and can testify that they are insightful, generative, theologically sound and have a deep heart for catechesis in the church. My one criticism of the book, however, is that this landmark book makes no reference to Wesley and the genius of Wesleyan catechesis at all. Thus, I think it is fair to say that there are huge swaths of Christian humanity out there who have no idea that Wesley is actually one of the great genius’ of catechesis. If there was ever a leader who knew how to teach people to “echo” the faith, it was John Wesley. This is why I thought it was worth a few blog entries.
So far, we have explored the role of prevenient grace (part 1) and waiting “in the means of grace” (part 2) which were both important building blocks to a fully Wesleyan understanding of catechesis. The third genius of Wesley was his profound appreciation for the importance of small groups in spiritual formation. In other words, catechesis happens in community. The default idea in the mind of many people suggests that the best spiritual formation occurs when we are “in retreat” or in some solitary place. As we will see today and in another blog entry in the future, Wesley challenges this notion on several fronts.
18th century Oxford was a place filled with spiritual apathy, deism, practical atheism, and low-Christology Arianism. In short, it was quite a bit like North America and Europe today. John and Charles Wesley decided to gather a few students together to “observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university.” The statutes (long ignored) required that students engage in the “frequent and careful reading of the Scripture.” The Wesley brothers decided to promote this by forming a small group for studying the Greek New Testament. It became known as the Holy Club. They were so methodical in their practice that the people in the Holy Club were given the nickname, “Methodist.” So the very origin of the word “Methodist” is rooted in a small group formation approach to catechesis.
Catechesis is not merely learning the correct answers to doctrinal questions or saying “yes” to a particular Christian formula for salvation. For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life. To put it bluntly, it wasn’t just about becoming a Christian, it was about being a Christian. Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model (this was the instruction after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost which brought you into the mystery of the church), but he united the idea with the community model of the early Celtic Christians. Later Wesley developed the entire “class system” which put all believers into small discipleship bands. The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care (Yes, there were all female groups with female leaders, there were all male groups and there were mixed groups as well). They would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins. Members in sin would be disciplined. They would also be instructed in some aspect of the Apostolic faith. They would worship together by singing a song. Everyone would participate. The meeting would be over in about an hour. It is still an excellent model. Wesley was an expert organizer. But, there are other features of Wesleyan catechesis which are even more remarkable which I will explore in the days ahead.
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