This is a conclusion of my mini-series on teaching the Christian faith. I had thoughts of continuing this series further, but because of my upcoming move to Spearfish, the series will conclude here. I pray that Zion’s tradition of solid catechesis and Lutheran faithfulness will continue for many years to come!
In 1847, the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States was formed in 1847 (Die Deutsche Evangelische Lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio, und andern Staten). And demonstrating what motivated them to sail for America, their first constitution required “Christian schooling of the children of the congregation.” Perhaps because of living conditions in the early years of America, the focus on fathers being the primary catechists in their homes was greatly diminished. Because many Lutheran churches had day schools, Lutherans were slower to adopt the American innovation of the Sunday School. But by the end of the 1800s, most Lutherans had them and publishing houses started offering materials for sale.
As I study and teach the Small Catechism today, it is amazing to me how many remnants of Rationalism and Pietism remain in our own materials. In our own Sunday School and midweek programs, a lot of emphasis is placed on transferring information to the students, and training in holy living is only tangential at best. In our own thinking about what it means to be Christian, we are deeply influenced by pietism and rationalism, and we see its fruits in the churches all around us. Today if we purchase materials from our publishing house, catechesis is clearly thought of primarily as intellectual instruction. Our publishing house offers workbooks, worksheets, handouts, and teacher guides to help the teacher convey information to the students. Very little emphasis is placed on teaching of holy living.
As an aside, one of the many reasons for shift in thinking is the lightning-fast adoption of English in American Lutheran churches. In 1900, almost all materials published were in German. But when WWI happened, most congregations abruptly switched to English. The unintended consequences of this meant that many practices, hymns, instruction books, and devotional material were not translated to English and their use and influence were lost. Meanwhile, the Methodists had been publishing songs and materials in English for well over a hundred years. There are stories of Lutheran churches having services entirely in German one week, and switching to a service entirely in English the following week. With such a fast change, what materials did they have access to? Mostly, they were Methodist materials and hymns, and those were all deeply affected by pietism.
Back to catechesis, by the 1940s, the LCMS seems to have doubled-down on confirmation as a rite-of-passage. Rather than a catechetical event as a child is trained to live out their baptism, confirmation was a thing unto itself. In most of our churches today, as long as a child attends most of the classes, is not overly disruptive, and completes most of the requirements, then they can be confirmed.
At Zion, we have made it a point in the last eight or ten years to work against this. We have made a good effort to raise the bar, to expect something of our catechumens. I am pleased and proud of what we have accomplished, working together on this task! And yet more can be done. The dangerous seeds of rationalism and pietism both have born fruit in our own program and materials. I am aware that the area in which I have had the most influence – 2nd year catechesis – is far too rationalistic. And I see strong pietistic elements throughout. What I do not see is a strong focus on training in holy living. Our students learn things about Jesus, but they do not seem to consistently walk on The Way of Life. What IS consistent about our program is that almost 70% of children who grow up in our catechesis walk away from the faith during their first decade of adulthood. As one Lutheran pastor has quipped, “You know how you can tell which kids will be in church after confirmation? It’s simple: It’s the ones who are there before confirmation.” The reason for this is also simple. They have been trained not just in information, but in a lifestyle.
What do you think? Have you seen rationalistic and pietistic influences in our confirmation and Sunday School materials?