Can catechesis get in the way of making disciples? (Part 2)

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(You can find Part 1 of this post here.)

In the last post, I suggested there are two ways that catechesis can get in the way of making disciples. First, I wrote about how catechesis can at times use skewed methods (which normally start with experience rather than with revelation) which can often swerve (perhaps unintentionally) off the path of discipleship of Christ.

The second way that catechesis can get in the way of making disciples is, in fact, on the other end of the spectrum: content itself can get in the way of the goal of discipleship.

Let me get something out of the way first… I love Theology, there is nothing I love more than a good theological discussion (well, perhaps nothing is taking it a bit far, but… you get what I mean). Those of us who love theology and thinking intellectually about the faith are perhaps more likely to become catechists. But, the more catechesis I give, the more I realise: how many of those we catechise are enticed by thinking intellectually about the faith? Definitely a minority. And yet, those of us who are drawn to principles and intellectualising dominate formation, create formation materials, and teach in a way that we would want to be taught.

Would you agree with me so far?!

I have been really struck in recent months on the importance of stories. Part of our training as Called and Gifted teachers is in the art of telling a good story. It has made me much more attentive to how I use stories in catechesis. The response is remarkable. As soon as you begin to tell a story, you notice immediately the attentiveness in the room increase. Smiles are cracked, heads nod… It begins to make sense. A recent discussion in the Forming Intentional Disciples Forum ‘sealed the deal’ for me. Sherry Weddell explained how stories are how adults process new information; they are the secret to helping people move towards accepting new ideas. She suggests that the most powerful way is helping people tap into their own personal experience… How can we do this? One way is speaking about common human experiences, through your own story. Make people laugh, help them see real life, revealing how God works in it. Another important way is to have either small group discussion or moments of silence or quiet music to help people reflect on their lived experience, and how this truth corresponds within their own reality.

After personal experience, vicarious experience – the stories of others – is next effective. Our own testimonies, what God has done in our life.

Only after this, does teaching of principles seal all of this. This teaching sums up and articulates the new worldview they are trying to appropriate as their own.

Now, before you think I’m going all wishy-washy and dispensing with doctrine, I am not! The entire point of telling a story is not to entertain, but to paint a picture which shows how this doctrine makes sense. Our Lord did it constantly 🙂 It is about catechising in 3D, not 2D. At the heart of any catechesis must be vivid teaching points that we want participants not only to understand, but also to begin to live and appropriate in their lives.

Catechesis that is overly propositional (and boy, have I seen a lot of this!) – that does not have at its heart an encounter with Jesus and the impact that has on our life – is not going to change lives.

A good priest friend told me recently that when he arrived in a parish, he introduced a thorough and doctrinally-sound RCIA programme. He was pleased to get it going, and to offer solid teaching to the participants every week. However, he found that many of these people, having been received into the Church, were not seen again in the parish! The fruitfulness of this programme was no better than the previous ‘Catholicism-lite’ RCIA programme.

I think we need to let this sink in for a moment…

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves:

  • In RCIA (for example) what is the experience of those with little education? Is the teaching clearly and immediately applicable to their daily, lived experience? (At the same time, do we ensure that those on a more intellectual search are catered for too, perhaps with additional one-to-one discussions?)
  • For every catechesis we give, is there some way for the participants to respond? Either through writing, discussion, in prayer…? How are concepts and ideas brought down into practical application? How are participants assisted to make practical lifestyle changes?
  • Does our love of Theology get the better of itself?! Do we tend to teach something because it excites us? Is our focus on the content more than the needs of those we are catechising?

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