One of the most promising models of catechetical renewal today are the kinds of "gap-year" fellowship programs based out of local churches. These fellowships tend to be for post-graduates, usually lasting for about nine months to one year, and can be found throughout the U.S. and elsewhere. Each program has its own set of distinctive traits, but most aim to help their members discern their vocations while studying theology and culture in the context of community, mentorship, and spiritual disciplines.
The one I know best is the Brazos Fellows, affiliated with Christ Church Waco, and directed by Paul and Paige Gutacker. Below I want to highlight certain aspects of this model that are especially helpful for churches to consider as they think about renewing catechesis.
Fellows Programs tend to have some kind of vocational focus, with the aim of preparing young people for whatever career they intend to embark on by providing them with spiritual community and the skills of theological discernment. More broadly, fellows programs aim at deepening Christian discipleship during a crucial period in the lives of young adults.
The Brazos Fellows accomplish this by focusing on four key dimensions (taken from their website):
1. THEOLOGICAL TRAINING
Cultivating Deep Theological Reflection
Through a variety of educational experiences – a course of study, guided learning, guest lectures, and four retreats – fellows gain a theological framework for their future work, study, and ministry.
2. SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES
Incorporating Vital Christian Practices
Fellows commit to a Rule of Life and participate individually and communally in ancient Christian practices. Together these disciplines aim at personal and communal growth in Christ-likeness.
3. VOCATIONAL DISCERNMENT
Preparing for Your Unique Calling
Through prayer, mentoring, and professional coaching, fellows will grow in awareness of their strengths, personality, and unique design in order to discern God’s various calls on their lives.
4. LIFE TOGETHER
Participating in Shared Life
In addition to joining the life of Christ Church, fellows eat, pray, and discuss together as a cohort, all the while seeking the flourishing of transformative friendships and genuine community.
Individually, each of these four key dimensions is important to deeper discipleship and growth in Christlikeness. But the coherent integration of these components is what really makes the difference. Catechesis, after all, is not just theological instruction, nor is it just moral formation. It comprises an indissoluble form of theological, spiritual, and moral training. Being able to see how these components fit together — ideally so that they’re not even seen as four different components — is critical to making catechetical ministries thrive.
Fellows learn the art of living Christianly by living in a certain place for a certain length of time. For the Brazos Fellows, it's a nine-month interval, from August to April. Having a clear time frame for when the program begins and ends is an important means of curating the kind of focused learning environment that is distinctive of catechesis.
Additionally, a fellows program is tied to a specific place — certainly a specific city, and usually a specific church, though it can also be fruitful for multiple churches in a one city to partner in this work. One of the distinctive aspects of catechesis is that it is a form of education tied to the life of the church. It has the formation of mature Christians as its aim, but not just Christians in general, but Christians here, in this place. Learning the faith will take on a different shape in each particular place. One of the wonderful things about fellows programs is that they are not trying to be a one-size-fits-all, appeal-to-as-many-people-as-possible model. It's pretty much the opposite of the MOOC (massive online open courses) model of education, and looks a lot more like the Catechetical Schools of third-century Alexandria, where illustrious theologians like Clement and Origen were teachers.
Brazos Fellows emphasizes the communal and personal dimension of learning. Many of the fellows live together, or live with families in the church. The regular practice of spiritual disciplines, such as praying the daily office, means that fellows routinely interact with one another. The fellows have a mentor or tutor, usually a graduate student who is a bit further along in a similar path. And finally — one of the real gems of the program — fellows receive vocational discernment with Paige Gutacker, who is a certified life coach and spiritual director.
We tend to underestimate the importance of spiritual guides in formation process. As more and more schools model themselves on corporations or businesses, the patient listening involved in spiritual learning often gets lost for the sake of maximizing efficiency. But a unique way in which catechesis seeks to educate Christians is by taking seriously the personal, contextual dimension of learning. Historically, this has gone under the title “sponsorship,” wherein another more mature Christian comes alongside a younger Christian (whether in natural age or in spiritual age) and guides them in the paths of wisdom.
The basic idea is that we do not grow in Christ by ourselves. Not only do we need the church, we need particularly people in the church — people whose names we know and faces we encounter. The deeply personal learning that happens in fellows programs is also important to effective catechesis.
Starting a Fellows Program
A number of organizations exist to aid and support new Fellows Programs. The Consortium for Christian Study Centers (CCSC) and The Fellows Initiative (TFI) are two such organizations that seek to aid and serve local communities in the establishing fellows programs and study centers.
Perhaps the main thing to consider in starting a Fellows Program is how it is rooted in the local church. Through a process of education, discernment, and communal living — all within the fabric of a larger church body —fellows learn what it means to live the Christian faith in a way that sets a firm foundation for the rest of life. It cannot be a generic model. It needs to emerge naturally out of the life the local church.
One possibility for churches to consider is how to create these kinds of "catechetical schools" for different segments of a church's population. Perhaps churches could experiment with an equivalent kind of "fellows programs" for simply anyone in the church, not only college graduates. Eucharist Church in San Francisco does something much like this, and is seeing some very beneficial results.
In sum, the time is ripe for churches to consider a multitude of forms that catechetical instruction might take. Fellows programs are one such model, but there may be others as well. These are exciting times to be considering how we may catechize and shepherd those to whom we’ve been entrusted.