Friday 13 November 2009

Gerald J. Mast on Catechism in the Worshipping Community

Gerald J. Mast, ‘Catechism in the Worshipping Community’, Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics (2007), 86-91.

Taking a cue from Kevin Vanhoozer’s proposal about doctrine being ‘a stage on which the enactment of Scripture unfolds in the life of the Church’ (86), with the church as a ‘theater of the gospel’ and its members a ‘company of performers’ (87, citing Vanhoozer), Mast provides a short but helpful review article exploring the significance of worship, liturgy, and everyday practices in ‘shaping the hearts and minds of growing believers’ (86).

He marries three suggestive points about catechesis with three significant books.

1. Catechesis through Worship

Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshipping Community (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007).

Chan seeks to correct what he sees as a weak evangelical doctrine of the church ‘by highlighting the neglected arts and habits of Christian worship that make the body of Christ visible in time and space’. Habits of worship, cultivated by the church, ‘are themselves the doxological fulfilment of the Church’s mission’ (87). Mast notes that Chan’s approach raises questions about conventional practices that separate the worship of God from the mission of the church (87-88).

Worship, according to Chan, should be shaped by the Word and the sacraments, where ‘the Word proclaims the coming reign of God’, and ‘the Eucharistic meal makes that reign visible in the present’. The incorporation of new members into the church via catechism must ‘prepare candidates for membership to participate rightly in worship’ (88).

Catechism has focused on three elements: confession of the triune God in the creed, following the Ten Commandments, and praying the Lord’s Prayer. Chan maintains that such a framework allows issues of discipleship to be addressed – the creed helping us ‘to address a world of religious pluralism’, the Commandments speaking ‘against the grain of market-centered consumer capitalism’, and the Lord’s Prayer challenging ‘an exchange-focused economy that breeds poverty and homelessness’ (88).

2. Catechesis in a Countercultural Community

Debra Dean Murphy, Teaching That Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2007).

Murphy critiques religious education programmes that ‘abstract the values they inculcate from the particular faith traditions in which they had been embedded’, as well as the kind of public theology that ‘seeks to reduce Christian particularity to commonly held civic virtues such as freedom and justice’. Instead, she ‘establishes an agenda for Christian catechesis that instead of making church members into polite and contributing citizens will rather identify them with the countercultural community of the Church and with alternate ways of knowing that are rooted in the counter-story of Jesus’ (89).

Both Chan and Murphy assume that church members will be best formed through recovering the ancient traditions and habits of the church. Mast considers it unlikely that these can do so by themselves, suggesting that ‘for Christians to be truly shaped into the life and mind of Christ, they must break down not just the division between basement education and sanctuary worship but also the barrier between the gathered and the scattered body’ (89).

3. Catechesis through Embodied Discipleship

Sara Wenger Shenk, Anabaptist Ways of Knowing: A Conversation about Tradition-Based Critical Education (Telford: Cascadia Publishing House, 2003).

Here a case is made ‘that practices of discipleship are as significant, if not more so, than the classical liturgical habits in developing countercultural Christians’. For Shenk, ‘theological knowledge cannot be abstracted from embodied discipleship; yet the embodied practices... are not so much the recitation of classical creeds or the weekly Eucharist but such mundane and practical acts of Christian discipleship as rejection of the sword and oaths, reading and discussing Scripture, faithful family life, and voluntary service’ (90).

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