Teaching Christian commitment
in a world in flux
WHENEVER I have to tell someone
my denominational affiliation, I usually receive one of the following
reactions: "I don't believe it! You don't fit the bill.
You should join the Anglican Church" (or the Methodist Church,
or whatever church to which the inquirer belongs).
My response to their well-meaning suggestion is that I happened
to be baptised into an Assemblies of
God church. It is my spiritual home and will remain my spiritual
home unless I am thrown out. One doesn't think of getting oneself
adopted into a "better" family just because one suffers
some degree of maladjustment in the family into which one was
born. One doesn't just walk out of a bad marriage for a better
My explanation makes sense only if the inquirer shares certain
traditional assumptions about marriage and family. Traditionally,
the family is a basic identity marker. When one is born, one is
given the family name which fixes the identity of the child. In
a marriage the status of the man and the woman is radically altered
and fixed. As vows are exchanged, both are transformed from the
single state to the married state. In some cases, even the surname
of the woman is changed.
The taking of baptismal vows as one is incorporated into the family
of God involves a change no less radical -- that is, if we accept
the traditional understanding of marriage and family. But alas!
the traditional views of marriage and family which used to serve
as an appropriate symbol of our spiritual identity could no longer
do so because in a postmodern world families and marriages are
seen as the arbitrary constructions of the human will to serve
one's own private needs: if one doesn't feel "fulfilled",
that is a good reason to walk out of a marriage.
The reality of this situation was brought home to me not very
long ago when I was conducting a baptismal class at the church
where I was the interim pastor. I was trying to explain to the
candidates for baptism how important the baptismal vow is -- a
permanent commitment, just like the marriage vow -- when it occurred
to me that for many young people today, that is not the way they
have experienced marriage, either their own or their parents'.
I suddenly realised that I had encountered a pedagogical crisis.
In a world where traditional symbols of permanence lie shattered,
where do we draw our analogies for life-long church commitments?
Perhaps we have been relying too much on traditional symbols
to do the job for us. In a world of fluctuating morals, these
symbols have lost their power to communicate biblical truths.
And the church has also lost an important pedagogical tool.
It's time to reverse our strategy: instead of using cultural
analogies to teach church commitment, we need to begin with the
key symbols of church commitment: baptism and communion. Baptism
is incorporation into the church of God, in which we pledge our
life-long commitment to Christ. Communion is the concrete expression
of our shared life in the church, the family of God. These theological
symbols themselves must now be the starting point for teaching
But for this new pedagogy to be effective, the appropriate theological
symbols must be deeply ingrained into the church's collective
consciousness. The ancient church did this through the catechism.
Before a person was baptised, he or she would be put through what
is called the catechumenate, which consisted of about a year of
rigorous indoctrination. The catechumenate not only teaches important
doctrines, it drums into the catechumens (i.e., learners of the
catechism) that baptism is serious business with God. Baptism
thus became a powerful symbol of life-long commitment to the church.
The problem today, however, is that baptism has become largely
a broken symbol in a broken world!
Baptismal vows are taken no more seriously than business contracts
and even marriage vows. The radical shift in values is evidenced
by many a modern church's relentless pursuit of superficial "success"
defined largely in quantifiable terms. Modern church leaders are
becoming more like modern parents, who are so preoccupied with
their "success" (for their children's sake!) that they
end up with dysfunctional families.
It looks like we are caught in a bind: cultural symbols could
no longer teach us truths about commitment, and spiritual symbols
have suffered the same fate. The only way out of this bind is
to renew our faith in the God who promises to preserve his church
against the gates of hell.
God keeps his vows! With this confidence, we can begin the unglamorous,
churchly work of indoctrinating and catechising. Such work does
not promise immediate result, but over time the church will recover
its rich theological symbols of commitment that will enable it
to ride through the cultural flux and, hopefully, stabilise our
tottering institutions of marriage and family as well.
The Rev Dr Simon Chan was appointed the Earnest
Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College
last month. He is Dean of Studies at TTC and spiritual adviser
of Herald Assembly of God.