Education & Formation: Third Case Study
Statement of the Case
Rev. Wasserflut, who has served for two years as Pastor and Head of Staff at Redeemer Community Church, just received a phone call from Cynthia. She is the daughter-in-law of Al and Jane, who have been active in and generous to the congregation for several decades. Most people refer to Cynthia’s in-laws as among the “pillars” of the church. Cynthia’s husband Ted, while listed as a member on the rolls, has not been to church much—except for Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday services—since the end of eighth grade when he was confirmed. Cynthia is not listed as a member and has tended to identify herself as coming from a “rather agnostic” family of Roman Catholics. Cynthia and Ted had their first baby eighteen months ago.
Cynthia told Rev. Wasserflut that she had called in order to ask if he would do a favor for their family. She said that for reasons that still baffle her, her Catholic parents keep pressuring her to get little Johnny baptized. She said that she had found the perfect way to make them happy. She and Ted had been talking and they want to have Johnny baptized on Christmas Eve, which happens to fall on a Sunday this year. Additionally and rather surprisingly, she said that she wants to be baptized at the same time as Johnny. “It would be so nice to get both of us done at the same time,” she said.
Cynthia has called to ask Rev. Wasserflut to see if he would be willing to do the double baptism on Christmas Eve (two weeks from now) because as she said, “The whole family will be here. Can you believe it? My parents are even coming all the way from Sydney, Australia for the big event. We’ve actually been planning this for about the last six months and now that it is almost here, we are so excited.” She also told Pastor Wasserflut that they want him to come over to Al and Jane’s home after Sunday morning services on Christmas Eve to perform the baptisms in their home. Cynthia wants to have a family baptism in her in-laws’ home because she would feel embarrassed standing up in front of everyone in church, especially given the fact that attendance will be up because of the holidays. Just before ending the call abruptly in order to run off to an appointment Cynthia said, “I really hope you can do it, Pastor, because it would be such a wonderful Christmas gift for our family.” Pastor Wasserflut promised to call her back that evening with his response.
- Identify one or two of the most important education and formation issues at play in this case.
- Why do you think that the education and formation issues are not immediately apparent in this situation?
- What three things should Pastor Wasserflut say to Cynthia when he calls her back? Support your response with appropriate theological and pedagogical rationale.
As much as we would like to believe that Christian education and formation are on the top of the priority list for Christians in most congregations, the reality is likely far from this. For "cultural Christians" already on the outermost fringes of church participation, this is even less the case. Nationwide, church participation is declining, while number of people who self-identify as Christians is rising. Certainly, people don't feel a "need" for baptism or other sacraments in order to consider themselves Christians.
While this particular case is doubtless played out in congregations--I encountered at least one similar request as a church staff member--it also seems particularly exaggerated, almost presenting too many angles from which a minister could simply pass the buck and say, "No, I'm afraid my tradition and our church policy won't allow for that." What are the ramifications of rejecting the family's request? At best, it upholds the standards of a dying institution<ref>Note that I attribute the "standards" attached to baptism to institutional religion, and not baptism itself.</ref> for a little while longer, until all those who would still uphold it are gone and no longer able to do so. At worst, it does absolutely nothing to educate and form the family in question, or draw them closer to Christ and the church. Instead of taking an "easy out," I wonder if we might view these circumstances as a rare, evangelistic opportunity to reach out in love to a family on the fringes of faith. And because of Cynthia's at-least-marginal interest in baptism, there is also an opportunity for education and formation, albeit one with a short window. Consequently, and contrary to the question asked of us in this case study, I think the education and formation issues are quite readily apparent in this situation.
According to James Brownson, in the opening chapter of The Promise of Baptism, the sacrament of baptism is inextricably linked to the question of what it means to call one's self a Christian. This and a few other questions would be a great place to start--indeed, asking the right questions is a time-honored pedagogical practice. When responding to Cynthia, Rev. Wasserflut might ask her what she thinks it means to be a Christian? If not already part of her answer, a second helpful question might be to ask Cynthia if she thinks baptism is necessary to the understanding of "being a Christian" she just articulated? Is a faith community a part of that understanding? If baptism and community are both essential, what role should the community play in the actual baptism? A tangential (but probably necessary) question would be to ask whether, as a child of Roman Catholic parents, she had already been baptized?
On a pastoral note, I think it's important to ask the above questions in an open-ended manner, not looking for a predetermined "right" or "wrong" answer, but rather allowing Cynthia to think out loud and formulate her own understanding. The questions are not for the purpose of accepting or rejecting her proposal, but rather as an educational moment that helps her discern what she really wants to do, and why. When the appropriate opportunity presents itself, Rev. Wasserflut can also share with Cynthia the corresponding understanding held by the church in each of these subjects--again, not implying that the way of the church is the only "correct" way, but rather to raise the question of compatibility: Is she comfortable proceeding if her understanding is different than that of the church? If different, would she be comfortable putting the church in that position?
It is possible that through gentle questioning Rev. Wasserflut might raise enough cognitive dissonance in Cynthia's thought process to extend the conversation into a more intentional pursuit of education and formation (in the two remaining weeks and beyond), leading Cynthia to baptism and participation in the community of faith. It is also possible that the questioning might lead Cynthia to the realization that she and/or her family are not ready to take this step. If she comes to this conclusion on her own, through the guidance of Rev. Wasserflut's questions, she has not been rejected, leaving a door open for future positive encounters with the church. Is it also a possibility that Cynthia might choose to proceed guided by non-spiritual motivations and understandings? In short, yes--just as much as people inside and outside of the church have always followed their own pursuits for varying reasons. At the end of the day, Cynthia has expressed a desire to be baptized. Our command from Christ is to baptize her, trusting that just as God provided the opportunity for baptism, so God will also provide opportunity for education and formation.
I have talked at great length about Cynthia's baptism because I see her as the most pivotal player in this case, and the one with whom Rev. Wasserflut has established contact. But the other players in this case--Cynthia's husband, her son, her in-laws, her own parents, and the church congregation--each have roles to play which could be more fully addressed in a developed response.