Among the greatest gifts of my upbringing in a little prairie Lutheran church was all of the Bible memory verses. My wife had a similar upbringing, and my memory for verses is not what hers is, but nevertheless it does not take much for them to come to mind, especially when I need them most. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet,” “For I know the plans I have for you, saith the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope,” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son,” and “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.”
There are more, many more, garbled up with snatches of hymns, the Lord’s prayer, the Book of Common Prayer and the Lutheran Book of Worship, parables, Old Testament stories, and Luther’s Small Catechism. I do not have to work to retrieve these things. They are simply there, and I can run through them in my mind like prayer beads in my pocket. Many times they have been a comfort, or a conviction, or a warning, or a guide. Sometimes they have felt like the Lord speaking.
None of this came about by accident. It was the work of people like my pastor, Jim Rasmussen, who expected us middle school confirmands to sit down each Wednesday night for a whole school year and take a memory verse quiz. (We did this alongside handing in homework to test us on assigned portions from Luther’s catechism.) It was the work of people like Miss Vogsland and Mrs. Knutson, who came up with little jingles for us Sunday School kids to learn a new memory verse each week, and moved around little people and animals on felt boards to act out Bible stories, as we listened and drank it all in year after year. It was the work of people like Mr. Quanbeck and the army of college kids he recruited to serve as counselors at the summer camp where I spent a week with troupes of little Lutherans each year. And most of all, it was the work of my parents, who took my brothers and I to church each week (sometimes more than once!) and read devotionals with us when we were small every night before bed and said with us our prayers.
It’s not by accident that, even now, my two brothers and I are employed in one form or another by Lutheran institutions; I teach at the Lutheran seminary here in Columbia, my middle brother is a pastor in rural South Dakota, and my youngest brother works at the summer camp where we all went.
All of this came to mind over the past several weeks as I read an excellent 2012 book by Charles Foster, From Generation to Generation: The Adaptive Challenge of Mainline Protestant Education in Forming Faith. Foster (b. 1937) is an old hand in Christian formation in the Methodist church, and grew up in a church and family somewhere in small-town Oregon that seems very much like those in which I grew up. He went to seminary and served as a Christian education director in a mid-sized church in New York, after which he went to work for what at the time was the very extensive Methodist denominational apparatus for Christian education.
The book is, in part, a history and something of a lament for how much of that world went away in the Methodist church and other mainline denominations. For it did go away, in large part: in the 1960s and ’70s, most mainline churches chopped away at their Christian education departments, often in the name of congregational autonomy and in the wake of general distrust of hierarchical authorities and increasingly sharp disagreements about doctrine and ethics.
Where small to mid-sized congregations once had at their disposal an impressive and coherent curriculum that led young people through age-appropriate steps in understanding Christian faith, worship, and life as the Methodist church understood them, they eventually found themselves in the shoes of the chair of my last church’s education committee, who drove over to Family Christian Bookstore each semester and tried to find something that worked.
Where churches once had access to a network of denominational teacher-training certification courses and workshops led by experienced educators who knew well the official curriculum, they eventually found themselves in my shoes, trying last year to give our Sunday School teachers tips on how best to lead a classroom through the material that I wrote myself. (Not being trained to teach elementary or middle school students, I’m pretty sure I fumbled this task. Our volunteers who were themselves trained schoolteachers did well, but not because of the church, and our non-teacher volunteers wanted and deserved more help than I could give them.)
This denominational dismantling was often accompanied by a shift in teaching styles, to move away from “rote” memorization. As Foster puts it, “the focus of student learning centered on linking biblical narratives to the events and circumstances of their lives.” That was all well and good to a point, but inattention to the practice learning required to remember what the Bible actually says meant that fewer students wound up knowing enough of the Bible to link their lives up to it.
All of this happened, of course, not long after public schools for the most part lost their generally Protestant character, with Bible reading and prayer part of each day and full-blown nativity story Christmas concerts the annual norm. (The latter was still true for me in North Dakota, though I now know how unusual this is today.) Precisely when mainline denominations could no longer count on the public schools to form part of a reinforcing web of formative Christian institutions — family, church, and school — instead of doubling-down on church education to make up for the lack, they pulled back.
It all contributed to a decline in what Foster calls the “catechetical culture” of many mainline congregations. The old Christian education apparatus was formidable, and required a great deal of effort — Miss Vogslands, Mr. Quanbecks, and Pastor Rasmussens without number, dedicating hours upon hours to teaching and training and forming. A congregation only dedicates itself so intently to such hard work if it understands a central piece of its mission to be passing on the Christian faith to its young people. It must, in other words, be a culture of catechesis, not simply a group that has a Sunday School wing and a priest who teaches a weekly Bible study. Catechesis must be what we do, and not just something that some of us happen to do.
What sustains this kind of culture? A culture, as is often pointed out, is always at heart a cultus, a group of people vivified by its cult, its beliefs. A people is only a people if it is joined together in common action, and to act in common people must know and believe in what they are doing, where they are headed, and why.
Miss Vogsland, Mr. Quanbeck, and the little churches I grew up in did what they did because they believed they had been given a pearl of great price to pass along to me: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son whom God sent because he so loved the world; his Word that was a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their paths; the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself so that we could confess that the Lord is a God in whom we can trust, who is for us and for our salvation: This is most certainly true, and Amen.
Do our churches believe this? Do our clergy? If we do not, then it is really not that important to re-build what has been lost in our mainline church. Helping young people to feel welcome in our communities and encouraging them to be “people of faith” will do just fine. But if we do believe it, then I think Charles Foster is right: we have work to do. We have something to remember, and to pass on.