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Learning from our 3rd-century forebears


In those days it took three years to prepare for baptism

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Lisa Kimball

GALVESTON, Texas — Third-century Christians were onto something, Dr. Lisa Kimball told the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators Wednesday meeting at their annual event.

Kimball, professor of Christian Formation and Congregational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal), told the 700 or so church educators about educator Maria Harris’ teaching on the catechumenate, a three-year preparation for baptism — coincidentally, the same amount of time many Christian pastors are immersed in seminary training. “We have kind of flipped the equation,” Kimball said.

The idea in those days was “to become like us, live with us,” she said. “It’s like Hogwarts, where everything you do makes you a better wizard.”

With an advocate at their side, those early Christians studied Scripture, talking to the group about how they understood it. Lay leaders drove the process, and every milestone was celebrated. Before being baptized, students were invited to serve the poor.

“It required serious commitment and produced life-changing results,” Kimball said.

Modern-day congregations that practice something approaching this kind of immersive Christian education “raise up young people who flourish,” she said. “They discover their belovedness as children of God.”

When she asked a man named Michael why he keeps coming back to church, he told her, “I learn something every time I come to church about God and faith. And at 82 years old, it’s the only place that believes I can still learn.”

The ministry of Methow Episcopal church in eastern Washington state is an example of such a community.

Nearly four years ago, a couple with plenty of theological questions moved to the area and searched in vain for a church that welcomed their difficult questions. The couple purchased 12 copies of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and invited their neighbors and friends to their living room in Mazama, Wash.

Four years later, “it’s a thriving, lay-led congregation. It is fiercely lay-led,” she said. The bishop visits Methow Episcopal once a year, praying with folks there and “blessing them to be who they are. They are not anti-clergy, but they don’t want clergy to take over. They are also dedicated and growing.”

And they reach out to their neighbors, holding events like picking apples and pressing cider.

One of Kimball’s students is a catechist assigned to the community. One day, after preaching on baptism, twin 11-year-old boys asked him about being baptized for life. “Echoes of the Ethiopian eunuch, anybody?” Kimball asked the church educators. The boys are preparing to be baptized Easter Sunday.

“The language of faith there is authentic, old and sometimes sassy,” she said. “They are willing to criticize tradition, but their thirst is being quenched by living water.”

The theme of the APCE event, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” is everywhere at the Galveston Island Convention Center.

The front and back cover of the event folder attendees were given could be colored to illustrate the theme, and 12 sharpened colored pencils came with each folder. During Kimball’s talk and the worship service that followed, many educators listened while coloring.

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