It’s a special Sunday at our Presbyterian church because members of the confirmation class are going to make their first public professions of faith, and a set of new parents are bringing their 6-month-old daughter to be baptized. The presiding minister is going to ask all but the baby a few direct questions. Do they “turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” They will almost certainly reply that they do. When the minister asks, “Who is your Lord and Savior?” they are expected to reply, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” Then,
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple,
obeying his word and showing his love?
I will, with God’s help.
These are simple questions, in a sense. No one will be asked to explain why they believe these things or what they understand the words to mean. They are not required to give their personal endorsement to doctrines that distinguish Presbyterians from other Christians, nor declare themselves on one side or other of issues debated within or among denominations.
And yet, while simple, in a sense, the answers to these questions are meant to be anything but automatic; and those who answer them in good faith are making serious commitments intended to affect their lives profoundly. What does “evil” mean? And how does it manifest “its power in the world?” What does “Lord” mean, in this context? “Savior”? “Christ”? “Disciple”? Even “God”?
Not too many decades ago, it was commonly presumed in largely Protestant America that anyone of good will ought to be able to make such a profession of faith. Even now, we tend to take the questions and answers for granted. Our affirmations will not be questioned, and there will be no investigations of our sincerity nor any penalties if we fail to follow through. Good faith will be presumed all around as, of course, it must be.
In those olden, nostalgically golden days when American society was largely supportive of religious faith (and particularly Protestant versions of it), the answers to the questions asked at key moments in church were pretty much what “everybody” agreed were the “right” answers. The Bible and key Christian affirmations were more or less familiar to almost everyone. Not so any longer. Today, the answers to those crucial questions are not taken for granted, and ought not to be. To answer any of them positively puts us in a countercultural position: swimming against the stream.
New occasions teach new duties. Except that we are having a hard time figuring out what the new occasion calls for in the way of new duties. It used to be that people learned their faith at home or figured it out for themselves with a little help from Sunday school and youth groups; churchly ways were mainstream. So, what are we supposed to do now that most of the supports have disappeared? When society is not so likely to applaud our faithfulness? When a few scattered hours with the church are utterly overwhelmed by time spent focused on work or wall-to-wall homework; structured activities replacing what was once “leisure” time; and messages on small (or large) screens?
And yet, the questions we answer in church are still big questions. Too big to answer casually. How in the world will we manage, in these times, actually to engage them seriously? But wait a minute. There’s another question for those making a profession of faith:
Will you devote yourself
to the church’s teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.
Some will recognize the origin of this question in Acts 2:42, a description of the follow-up program for the many newly-minted Christians who responded to the Spirit’s leading on the day of Pentecost. In early centuries, church officers asked those who came to inquire about its faith “What do you seek from Christ’s church?” The answer was a simple one: “Faith.” Faith is not in the power of the church to give, but it is in the church’s power to bear witness to it, embody it and teach those who are open to it how to try it on. How? By deep exposure to its “teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Faith usually begins small — like a mustard seed, maybe — but it can become more robust with practice.
John Calvin, our own reformer, and Augustine and probably others described the church as a kind of “mother”: “For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance … .” This is still a useful image for the church, but we may add others: mentor, for example, or coach. The church is not just an optional add-on for people who like organized groups. It is part of the gospel — the good news. A primary role of the church is to function as a mentoring community, helping us to grow from childish to mature faith.
But who is this “church” with a job description of mothering, mentoring, coaching? It is, of course, all of us — all the baptized — but it is particularly the responsibility of officers of the church (teaching elders, ruling elders, and deacons) to lead the way. When we choose such officers and ordain them, we put before them a longer list of questions than those they answered when making their first professions of faith. Church officers pledge themselves to trust in Jesus Christ and “through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit;” to accept the Bible as authoritative for the church and for themselves; to “receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith;” and to “be instructed and led by” our confessions as they exercise leadership in the church. Their answers to these and other questions put them in the front line of a mentoring community.
Presbyterians, like Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, and some others understand the church — with its various officers taking the lead — to exercise communal responsibility for nurturing its members in the faith. The beneficiaries of this mentoring are young and old, those new to the church or well established in it. Presbyterians leave a good deal of room for diversity of understanding and of practice, but we work within a framework we share with the oldest members of the ecumenical community. We count on the fact that, with the larger church, we have inherited the fruits of multiple generations of experience questioning, reflecting on, pondering and practicing the faith first known to the apostles. Our mentoring responsibility, led by the ordained officers, is to nurture and coach members and would-be members in the same faith that has been affirmed and embraced by our own church and our ecclesiastical kin.
So, how do we take this mentoring business seriously in this time when faith is being challenged and when just doing what we have always done is clearly not enough? We find ourselves in a time of working out the answers, but surely we already have an agenda. How do we provide spiritual coaching to those who are already members, but are not likely to show up for a class? How do we make use of life’s transitions to transform them into teachable moments? Formal teaching is familiar enough, but how do we help people to “try on” Christian disciplines that include prayer (personal and communal), service, stewardship and reflection on their own lives in the light of the gospel? And who will undertake these personal coaching roles, particularly on a one-to-one basis? (We need to bear in mind that often the most effective mentors/coaches may be peers, with pastors and educators coaching the coaches.)
First on the agenda: Commit ourselves to own our shared role as a mentoring and mentored church. Such a commitment is essential if we are to continue to draw essential nourishment from the cupboards of our mother, the church. Otherwise, we may imagine that the cupboard is bare unless we fill it with whatever is in reach, whether nourishing or not.
RONALD BYARS is professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary. This article reflects themes from his recent book, “Finding Our Balance: Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism.”