When I joined the Presbyterian Church in 7th grade, I was required to memorize the Westminster shorter catechism. Yes, I said memorize and no, I wasn’t required to memorize bible verses, I was required to memorize what we believe as Christians. I still remember how torturous this process was. The first question was “What is the chief end of man?” Yes, you heard me right, “man.” After all, this was the 1970s. Inclusive language hadn’t quite infiltrated into our Christian Ed materials, yet.
I grew up in the South. Mostly amidst Baptists. I remember that most of my friends when we lived in South Carolina during elementary school were Baptist. The first year I asked to go to their vacation bible school in the summer because all my friends were going. Every year after that I asked to go because they had chocolate soda at break time. These were the sodas that all the kids went for first and I could always get a grape or an orange Nehi if the chocolate ones were gone, but wow! The chocolate sodas were sure good. I don’t even think they make those anymore. And we certainly didn’t serve those at our church.
The point is, there were very distinct cultural, theological and liturgical differences between the Baptists and the Presbyterians in my small town in the South in the 1970s. And even as kids, we knew what these differences were. The Baptists memorized bible verses; the Presbyterians memorized creeds and catechisms. The Baptists had altar calls, the Presbyterians sprinkled (as in, infant baptism). The Baptist bible school had soda, the Presbyterians might have had punch or lemonade in little paper cups, I really don’t remember, but we didn’t have sodas, a plenty, for everyone to just drink, at will.
A couple of weeks ago, my youngest daughter began a “first catechism” class with all the other third graders at our church. They asked the parents to meet simultaneously for four or five Sundays so that we could become familiar with what our children were learning in their catechism class.
The first session was snowed out. The second session there was a room full of parents and our Christian Educator introduced parents to the idea of catechism as a recitation of our common beliefs as Presbyterians and then offered an overview of what our kids would be learning in the weeks to come. One of the pastors then offered an overview of “Seven Essential Tenets of Reformed Theology” as a refresher course for parents.
The thing is, for most of these parents, it wasn’t a “refresher” course. It was an introduction to Reformed Theology. This pastor just graduated from seminary and is in her first year of pastoring. When she finished, she said, “I’m sure you all already know all of this but are there any questions.” What became apparent was that most of the people in the room didn’t have any idea what it meant to be Reformed vs. Baptist vs. Catholic. They were delighted with the information that she had shared.
One of the first questions was from a mom who asked, “So, what are the differences between Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Catholics? My kids have asked me and I don’t really know what to say to them.”
This is not uncommon in the 21st century church. People choose their church affiliation for a variety of reasons – location, friends, daycare, preaching, programming, or any of a host of other reasons. Fewer and fewer are choosing a church because of its denominational affiliation.
While I am a cradle Presbyterian, I don’t actually bemoan this shift. As I will share in future posts, there are meaningful reasons why I am a Presbyterian and why I think Presbyterianism is important, but ultimately, I’m a Christian and my commitment is to justice and to living a life that follows in the path that Jesus taught us to live. This week’s decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to reform our definition of marriage is part of the work of justice and part of what it means to me to be Presbyterian.
I think that the decline of the mainline denominations is not necessarily a decline of belief in God or a lessoning of people’s commitment to the lessons and morality of justice, compassion, and love that are at the core of the Christian tradition. I think that it is more a reflection of a shift in culture. People today are inundated with choice and choice is touted as a reflection of democracy and even affluence. Regardless of why these changes are happening, the result is that most of the people in the pews don’t really know the difference between the various Christian denominations. In some ways these differences are insignificant, in other ways they are profoundly significant. I hope to address these differences in my upcoming posts.
Even if I don’t believe there is a massive decline in belief in God and the sacred in our world, it is true that the landscape of Christianity is changing. It is changing quite rapidly and I’m not sure that Christian leaders are really keeping up. What we need in this time of profound change is a new way of thinking about how we teach the values of Christianity, the core of the gospel, when people don’t know or care what it means to be Presbyterian or Reformed or Baptist or Methodist or anything else. Holding this class for 3rd grade parents was one small inroad in the giant gaping chasm but we need to do so much more.
In response to the question of my fellow catechism parent, I plan to offer a series of blog posts where I address the questions – Why I’m Presbyterian, Why I’m Reformed, Why I’m Ecumenical, Why Denominations Don’t Matter To Me, and Why Denominations Are Really Important To Some. I may change the titles along the way as I write them – but that’s the gist of it.
I do want to end by saying that I was surprisingly pleased with what a good job we have done in rewriting the catechism so that it is appropriate for 3rd graders. After I picked up my daughter from the first class, I asked her, “So, what did you learn in Sunday School today?” and her answer was “That I am a child of God. That’s the first question of the catechism – ‘Who Are You’ and the answer is ‘I am a child of God.’ Isn’t that cool mom?”
Yes, it’s very cool. Way cooler than “What is the chief end of man.”