Catechesis is an activity of the church uniquely related to conversion. Catechesis developed in the early church as a means of preparing people for the primary ritual associated with conversion—namely, baptism. For the early Christians, baptism marked a dramatic transformation of life. It was adoption into a new family, citizenship into a new kingdom, death and rebirth. As such, they needed a mode of preparation for entering this new way of life that matched the esteem with which they valued conversion.
One of my guiding assumptions about catechesis is that a theology of conversion will be closely linked with a practice of catechesis. In other words, if you think conversion means radical transformation, then you'll tend to value sound catechetical teaching. Thus, in order to develop a catechetical ministry, we need to think at the same time about conversion—about what it means for people to become Christian.
Gordon Smith, president of Ambrose College, has spoken for a lot of evangelicals who desire a more robust theology of conversion—one that gets past the emphasis just on "decisions" that has plagued many revivalist-influenced churches. In Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation, Gordon Smith lays out five guiding principles for thinking about the nature of conversion. In response to the question "What must we do to be saved?" these five ideas lay the parameters:
- Conversion must take into account the range and depth of "the human predicament." Understandings of conversion will largely depend on what we're being converted from. Thus a robust doctrine of conversion needs to account for the "intellectual, affective, penitential, and volitional dimension" of human being, the bodily as well as spiritual dimensions, the corporate as well as individual.
- Conversion is an experience of Jesus. It's not about an encounter with ideas, principles, or laws. Conversion is the result of an experience with a person.
- We need a way of talking about conversion that stresses its cosmological dimensions. Conversion is about more than what happens "in our hearts." It's got to do with God, life, the universe, and everything else. Smith wants to think about this in kingdom language: "Our understanding of conversion needs to be located in the light of the in-breaking of the reign of Christ."
- Conversion needs to take on a distinctly corporate character. It's personal, but not individualistic. Conversion is conversion into this way of life, a way of life that actually exists in real space and time, a way of life that exists in a lived community of those who make up the church.
- Conversion needs to be logically related to sanctification, or Christian maturity. For Smith, we need to understand follow the Bible's way of talking about conversion, which sees conversions as the "beginning of a life in which one ultimately experiences the sanctifying and transforming grace of God. It must lead to spiritual maturity. It is a good beginning."
from: Transforming Conversion, p. 41.
I might sum these up by saying that a theology of conversion entails a robust conception of sin and salvation, is rooted in Christ, has cosmic implications, takes place in the church, and results in holiness and sanctification.
All of these are crucial elements of a theology of conversion that starts us off in the right direction for thinking about catechesis.
What else might we add to this list?