How do we prepare to enter discipleship?
I was baptized into the faith when I was twelve years old. I would be lying if I tried to claim it was a dramatic, repentance filled experience. I had been raised in the church from the time I was born. We were an “everytime the door was open” family. We attended church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, and every night of the Gospel Meetings. My parents read me Bible stories when I was little, and we would at times go through Bible trivia questions together. I was faithful, as much as a twelve-year-old little boy can be faithful. When I decided to get baptized, I wasn’t asked questions to know if I understood what I was doing, and I wasn’t required to study with the preacher. I just decided it was time, and was baptized that evening. Suddenly, I was a disciple.
I’m very thankful for my faith shaping experience. My parents, and my church family, did an excellent job of teaching me the stories of God, and instilling in me a love and passion for God. I don’t feel as if I missed out on some great teaching moment. Still, my experience may not be normal.
I spent twelve years in full-time Youth Ministry, and was privileged to baptize dozens of teenagers. Rarely was I ever asked to study with the teenager first. Even for teens who did not grow up in church, I rarely encouraged them to slow down and study before being baptized. I would talk with each of these teens before baptism, and try to convey the seriousness of what they were doing, but basically if they wanted to get baptized we performed the sacrament as quickly as possible. As a church family, and as a minister, we didn’t stand in the way. I don’t say this to complain, I simply state it because that was the culture; and still is the reality where I currently serve.
While the current practice is not wrong, it is a far cry from the catachumen process of the early church. In the early church (2nd, 3rd, 4th Centuries), before becoming a Christian and being baptized, individuals would go through a process of instruction in the faith often referred to as the catachumen process. This would include many different teachings, from basic theology and doctrine to mentorship in faithful living. It was only after this process was completed that one entered the waters of baptism and become a Christian. While the length of the catachumen process varied depending on location and time period, it was known to last up to two years at some points. Two years is a long time to “wait” to become a Christian. However, it helps to show the seriousness of the decision that is being made.
What brings all of this to mind is Jesus’s encouragement in Luke 14 to count the cost. Near the end of the chapter Jesus shares two parables about wisdom in thinking through decisions before making a commitment. One parable is about a someone wanting to build a tower but needing to determine if they have enough resources before they start. Another speaks of a king who must determine if he has a chance to win a battle before heading into war. In both instances Jesus highlights the foolishness of beginning a project without first determining if the project will be successful. One must first count the cost before starting an endeavor.
Perhaps these thoughts should frame our attempts to help individuals prepare for faith. While two years of instruction seems extreme (since one doesn’t have to have a perfect understanding to become a disciple) planning for no instruction also seems extreme. How can one understand the commitment they are making if they have no real understanding of God and discipleship? Our current process, at least in my own faith tradition, insinuates that we are so overjoyed that someone actually wants to become a Christian that we don’t necessarily care if they understand what they are committing to. I don’t have quantitative evidence that this type of process leads to more individuals abandoning their faith, but common sense would make one think some instruction is better than none.
As Christians, and especially as church leaders, we should spend more time thinking through how we help individuals prepare for discipleship: in essence help them count the cost. This will probably include instruction both before and after baptism. Before baptism, we should be honest about the seriousness of the decision, the difficulty that following Christ can become, and the reality of carrying the cross. There are consequences to faith. After baptism, we must do a better job of surrounding and mentoring new converts in the faith. We can’t expect them to automatically mature in faith. We must walk beside them, support them, and guide them into deeper love of God and others. If we don’t, then perhaps we are the foolish ones who haven’t adequately counted the cost.