Early Christians? Why does it matter to us what they did? After all they lived at least 17 hundred years ago, in a primitive world without mobile phones and the World Wide Web. And since then we’ve had centuries of Christianity, Christendom, and we know what Christians are like: respectable, predictable, rather old-fashioned. Can we really learn anything from the early Christians?
I believe we can. It’s not that things are the same now as then. We have had Western civilisation, Christendom, which brought us Gothic cathedrals and the horrors of the Crusades. A lot of people are hostile to Christianity, often for good reason.
But now, in post-Christendom, we are in a world with fascinating parallels to pre-Christendom, the first three centuries of Christianity. Most people in the West are not, like the early Christians, persecuted for their faith. But in many places it’s not ‘cool’ to be Christian. Many people who call them-selves Christian seldom go to church. There are many other things to do. But we are surrounded by people who are hungry for spirituality. Hostility, apathy, spiritual hunger, in a world which Christians cannot control – it sounds like the world of the early church.
In pre-Christendom the church was growing. Today the church is often on the defensive. I propose that if we post-Christendom Christians learn from our early Christian sisters and brothers about just one thing – initiation – we too can experience new life and growth. I’m not going to talk about the early church’s initiatory practices here; those who want to learn more about this can check out my writings or the growing body of literature by others.1 But here I am going to make nine proposals for the practice of initiation today based on what the early Christians did.
All candidates for baptism will take part in a class that meets twice a week and lasts 18 months. That seems a lot? Not by the standards of the early church, where the initiatory course often met daily for three years. Why so many meetings, and over so long a period? Because the early church knew, and we today are discovering, that preparing people properly for baptism is urgently important. We’re preparing them to live in a world with many religious options, with huge ethical dilemmas, with addictions encouraged by clever advertisers.
A young Christian may, by the time she is 18, have spent 800 hours in Sunday school; she also will have spent 11,000 hours in public school and 15,000 hours watching TV. Are we going to give the Creator and Redeemer of the universe a fraction of the attention that we give to Universal Studios? Further, what if baptismal candidates discover that God wants them to change? How much time do they have to learn to be different, to allow themselves to be re-reflexed? They can’t do this overnight. Eighteen months of catechesis should not be a hard and fast rule. Some might need more. There should be flexibility.
Every candidate will have a baptised sponsor. Relationships are at the heart of the initiatory process. People today who want to become Christian are drawn more by the question-posing freedom, joy and hope of Christians they know than by worship services or the Christian media. People today, as in the early centuries, are drawn to Christ and the church by Christians whose lives, love and words raise questions. The non-Christian feels free to approach such a Christian; and the Christian is open to relationship. Such a Christian, in the language of the early church, was called a ‘sponsor’. We might call her a mentor. And the mentor agrees to go to the teaching sessions with the mentee. Bonding takes place; friendship is built; questions about the faith are dealt with spontaneously and informally; and the mentor, whose life attracted the mentee towards Christ in the first place, can explain why she lives as she does. Because of the authenticity of the relationship, the mentee grows in Christlikeness through the attractive discipleship of her mentor.
Catechesis will deal with big issues and practical problems. Non-Christians are attracted to Christians and their church because they sense that, in a world of addictions and bondages, the Christians are free. So the catechetical teaching of the church will address the major issues of bondage in our society. What are these? The catechists will ask their students, and an interesting list may result. Sex, the occult, workaholism, endless accumulation, substance abuse and violence are likely to be mentioned. The catechist will apply the teaching of Jesus to the addictions of today; and the presence of mentors will give the catechists a resource of wisdom and example. ‘I really struggled with over-work, but this is how I put limits on my compulsion.’ ‘I used to be addicted to drink, but Christ has set me free.’ These teachings and stories will give hope to the candidates. Other issues will arise: How do I respond to beggars? In a world of scarcity, what car would Jesus drive? How much should I plan my life around security? People learn to be Christians when their faith affects their material choices; without this, the early Christians rightly thought, people will be Christian in name only.
Catechesis will be experiential. Every person being prepared for baptism will have a work assignment that imparts the values of the church in practical ways. The early Christian leaders asked: Are the catechumens visiting the sick? Are they caring for the poor? Today we will build into the catechetical programme a practical assignment: working in a food bank; helping teach English to immigrants; doing grocery shopping for the elderly. These sessions will aim to help the candidates see people as God sees them, and to shape their reflexes – to recognise that Jesus is really present in those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, in prison (Matt 25:31ff.). Today, as in the early church, no one will be baptised until they have shown that they are as eager to serve the poor as they are to discuss big ideas.
Candidates will memorise key Bible passages – New Testament passages that emphasise thanksgiving and the peace of God (Phil 4:4-7), psalms that encourage the believer to wait in trust when things don’t develop as rapidly as they desire (Ps 27:14). But all candidates, today as in the early church, will memorise two passages that profoundly affect people’s lives – the Sermon on the Mount and the ‘swords into ploughshares’ passage from Isaiah 2.2-4. The former is the church’s prime source of practical and spiritual guidance; and the Isaiah passage fills Christians with hope in the action – hidden now but someday manifest – of the peacemaking God. Candidates for baptism develop the habit of memorising scripture.
Candidates will be taught to think critically about culture. What areas of contemporary culture can Christians fit in with? What areas must they be cautious about or repudiate? The 2nd-century Epistle to Diognetus talks about Christians who followed the customs of their country in clothing and food, but who were ‘resident aliens’ in the way they handled wealth, loved their enemies, and refused to abort or expose unwanted infants. How about today? Catechists will help the baptismal candidates learn to think missionally, to decide at what points to blend in with the wider society and on what issues to nonconform freely.
Candidates will be taught the historic faith of the Church. In pre-Christendom, after the candidates had begun to learn how to live as Christians, they were given the creed to memorise. The catechists taught them the meaning of this summary of Christian thinking, clause by clause. Today the catechist may start by asking the candidates what their questions are. These will be many and varied, in light of the spiritual smorgasbord of our time. Catechists will deal with these in light of the teaching of the church, as expressed in statements such as the Apostle’s Creed or The Mennonite Confession of Faith. Today, as in pre-Christendom, catechists will help candidates navigate their way through the ‘heresies’ that are floating about, and to learn to avoid these. Careless thinking about the faith can kill faith.
Candidates will be prayed for, and will be taught to pray. At the end of every teaching session, teachers today, as in the early church, will lay their hands on the catechumens and pray for them. They will pray that they may be protected from the evil one and find joy and freedom in Christ. Similarly, every Sunday in the morning service the pastor will pray for candidates who are growing in faith as they move towards baptism. Prayer for catechumens is critically important. So also, it is important that the catechumens learn to pray. Today, as in the early centuries, the Lord’s Prayer will be the heart of the Christian’s prayer. Apprentice Christians will use it line by line, as an outline prayer. What could be more important than praying this distillation of the piety of Jesus?
The catechetical process will culminate in a ritually impressive baptism. In pre-Christendom, candidates were immersed three times, naked; then they were clothed in white robes, given the milk and honey of the promised land, and led amidst great joy to the fellowship of the eucharistic table. Today we may skip the nakedness; and we may not have milk and honey. But we will find ways of making the baptismal service ritually impressive – beautiful, exultant, exuberant. Why not? The candidates have completed a journey – from death to life. They have died to their old selves; they have been reborn to life in the resurrection of Christ (Rom 6). They have learned to say no to Caesar’s lordship, no to the tyranny of violence and escalating lifestyle – and YES to Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of the world and Lord of their lives. Why observe this half-heartedly? For from this process, new Christians have emerged, who will be as attractive to non-Christians as the Christians who had attracted them. The baptismal services of the early Christians often took place on Easter, the day of Resurrection. I propose that in post-Christendom we make Easter our primary baptismal day, too.
In the Christendom centuries, churches could retain their numerical strength by genetic means. In post-Christendom this doesn’t work any more. Birth rates are lower; communities no longer have coercive power over their young; people wander off. But when the Christian community is attractive and question-posing, and when people are drawn to an initiatory process that is both rigorous and joyful, there will be people from within Christian families and from the hungry world that is watching us who will be attracted, who will want to be initiated into Jesus and in baptism to say to him, YES!
Alan Kreider is Mission Educator with the Mennonite Mission Network; he teaches courses in the early church at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, USA.
This article is reprinted, with adaptations for the UK context, from the Summer 2004 issue of Leader, a magazine for congregational leaders in North America. Used with permission of Mennonite Publishing Network.
1. Alan Kreider: Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1995); Alan Kreider: The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999); Jane Hoober Peifer and John Stahl-Wert: Welcoming New Christians: A Guide for the Christian Initiation of Adults (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1995); Thomas M. Finn: From Death to Rebirth: Ritual and Conversion in Antiquity (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1997).