Evangelical Hospitality by Baucum: Book Review

In Evangelical Hospitality: Catechetical Evangelism in the Early Church and its Recovery for Today Tory K. Baucum self-consciously engages in ressourcement[1] to leverage the Christian tradition of the catechumenate for “present missional challenges” (11). Baucum’s interest grows out of a personal “struggle for a living faith” and “desire to help other people in their spiritual journey” as he seeks to contribute to the fulfillment of the Great Commission (5).  In this regard, Baucum and I share similar motivations for approaching the catechumenate.

The ancient catechumenate serves as the “seminal precedent” for Baucum’s comparative analysis of early Methodism and The Alpha Course as means of evangelism and formation (2).  Baucum describes

his comparative study as “social scientific analysis involving observations in more than one social system or in the same social system at more than one point in time” (2).  He frames his study using encapsulation theory, following in the path of Lewis Rambo who applied it to conversion studies.  Encapsulation theory, developed by Griel and Rudy, builds upon the social construction of reality theory, social influence theory and conformity studies, which provide the basis for connecting identity and worldview to one’s social reference group.  In short, encapsulation theory posits three forms of encapsulation (physical, social and ideological) as the means by which organizations that seek identity transformation accomplish their aim.

Baucum’s primary purpose is to articulate how the social processes embedded within catechumenal styles of evangelism “actually create a “culture of faith” or an “evangelistic environment” conducive to trust in Christ which he describes as the “missing link” in contemporary evangelism (10).  Four processes are borrowed from Rambo: relationships create and consolidate emotional bonds to the group and establish the day-by-day reality of the new perspective; rituals give integrative ways of identification and connection wit the new way of life; rhetoric provides an interpretive system, offering guidance and meaning to the convert; and roles consolidate a person’s involvement by giving him or her a special mission to fulfill (Rambo 107-8).

This scholarly review also has an immediate goal: helping church leaders “create the kind of culture that is conducive to evangelization” (11).  He evocatively refers to this culture as an “evangelistic womb” nurtured by the processes above as “amniotic fluid” (35 and 5). Thus Baucum, as a practical theologian, pursues questions of three types: descriptive-historical questions, questions about the nature of conversion and those regarding practical application

Baucum makes several important discoveries.  First, his analysis of early Methodism and Alpha against the backdrop of the ancient catechumenate reveals enough similarities to substantiate the existence of a shared tradition that he calls “catechetical evangelism” (172). Second, Baucum’s work highlights areas for expanding Rambo’s conversion theory (177-178).  Rambo emphasizes dyadic relations between seeker and advocate rather than the “ever-widening circle of friends” of catechetical evangelism.  The visible relations between advocates serve as a window to the seeker upon the nature of the community open to him or her.  Rambo neglects discussing the importance of the quality of the relationships surrounding conversion.  A rich network of friendships makes more credible the offer of rich relationship with God.  Third, Baucum establishes that among the four processes identified (relations, rituals, roles, rhetoric) relationships are both primary and pervasive.  Fourth, Baucum offers four principles for contemporary practitioners.

The first principle Baucum offers contemporary practitioners is that friendship is to be viewed as both the means and end of conversion.  Second, rites can be effective doorways into community.  Third, the Sermon on the Mount should be taught as the primary rhetoric by appealing “to the heart through the head” (181).  Fourth, the lay community has an enormously important role in catechesis and should be thusly empowered.

Baucum’s key argument throughout is that effective evangelism requires cultivation of a “faith culture.”  This faith culture is the womb that nurtures rebirth (145).  It is this relationally constructed “evangelistic environment” that makes conversion a live option as it invites the inquirer into a different world and offers a new identity.  “Thus, people change primarily by changing primary reference groups and embracing their new meaning systems and learning to abide in the new plausibility structures which undergirds the new meaning” (27).  The relevance of this is that any proposal for a contemporary catechumenate must be saturated by relational processes.  Mere curriculum will not do.  While Baucum focuses on the relational process that brings seekers to commitment, I will extend his insight to the later stages of the catechumenate.   

The applications of Baucum’s study for my project are multiple.  The first is his  use of encapsulation theory, which will provide a framework for my project (26).  While Baucum focuses primarily on social encapsulation, I will look to ideological encapsulation, in the form of “rules of life” for fruitful reflection.  Alcoholics Anonymous uses the 12 steps effectively as a means of encapsulation to “codify and reinforce the AA worldview and program” (28).  As much as friendship is both means and end of catechesis so too is the disciplined life (178). 

The function of roles in the conversion process constitute a second avenue for research. While Baucum highlights relations as the key process, roles have great potential for contributing to missional formation since roles allow people to “experience new possibilities for the self” (143).  Roles, Baucum suggests, can serve powerfully as “faith experiments” (144).  John Wesley was encouraged to engage in a “faith experiment” by Peter Bohler who advised him to “Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” (70).  I am aware of one ministry in urban San Francisco that makes extensive use of “faith experiments” in groups for those who are interested in trying on the practices of Jesus (service, simplicity, prayer) irrespective of their beliefs about Jesus.  Perhaps catechumenal processes rich with experiments in action could capitalize on the observation of David Myers: “If social psychology has taught us anything during the last twenty-five years, it is that we are likely … to act ourselves into a new way of thinking” (Myers 137).

A third benefit to my research comes as Baucum notes that Augustine’s second stage of the catechumenate was largely a time for behavioral modification rather than doctrinal instruction.  Becoming a candidate for baptism required abandoning immorality and beginning to visit the sick and give alms (145).  Catechumenal focus shifted from orthopraxis to orthodox belief with the rise of Gnosticism but this prevailing orientation needs to be reexamined.  While we might balk at the language of behavior modification, the cultivation of virtue through spiritual practices is being rediscovered and at home in a formational catechumenal process.

A fourth asset to my work is Baucum’s analysis of local variations present in the use of the ancient catechumenate.  He follows Harmless in noting that Augustine’s catechumenate was on the “turbulent leading edge” of the church’s mission such that “shifts in the culture required corresponding responses from the church” (37).  This simple insight simultaneously validates the catechumenal novelties of early Methodism and Alpha, as well as gives permission to current efforts to revive the catechumenate’s function in ways organic to the times.  I will take this as historical precedent for the contextual and revisionary nature of my project.

Fifth, important for my work will be the attention Baucum gives to the teaching of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, as a primary source of formative rhetoric for the nascent Christian life (Ch. 5).  While my approach to interpretation and application of the Sermon diverges somewhat from that of Augustine, Wesley and Gumbel (with Dallas Willard) I am no less convinced that this text deserves primacy in catechumenal efforts.  Moreover, this text is unquestionably ripe for application within a praxis-based approach such as I intend to propose.

Baucum defines conversion as an “intensification of religious identity” but nonetheless seems to think of it in classical Evangelical terms, climaxing in Rambo’s penultimate stage of conversion, commitment.  His references to the moral and behavioral nature of the catechumenate shockingly bear no impact on his proposals.  My research promises to press for an understanding of conversion that includes Rambo’s final stage of conversion, consequences, and thus has clear behavioral and moral dimensions.  With a vision of conversion as apprenticeship in a distinctly Christian way of life (rather than primarily a movement to profession or a social re-affiliation) my work understands behavioral transformation as itself an essential dimension of conversion not merely something that ought to happen after conversion.  Thus, I will approach Christian conversion holistically as the transformation of the multi-dimensional person into Christlikeness.  This process rests upon a conversion of the will but proceeds to permeate all aspects of the person; bodily habits, emotional dispositions, thought and speech patterns all require conversion, as Paul said, “from darkness to light” (Col. 1:12-13). 

Finally, while Baucum limits his study primarily to the early stages of the catechumenate, I intend to extend his insights into the final stage, mystagogy, since it is here that expression of missional vocation is most clearly anticipated, and here that contemporary applications of the catechumenate seem to be weakest (Duckworth 12 and Schnurr 39).

Works Referenced
Baucum, Tory K. Evangelical Hospitality: Catechetical Evangelism in the Early Church and its Recovery for Today.  Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2008.  Print.
Duckworth, Jessicah. “Conversion and Catechesis in the Community of Faith: Examining the Catechumenate in Eight ELCA Congregations.”  Web. 12 Oct. 2010.
Griel, Arthur L., and David R. Rudy.  “Social Cocoons: Encapsulation and Identity Transformation Organizations.”  Sociological Inquiry 54: 260-78. 1984.
Harmless, William.  Augustine and the Catechumenate.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995. Print.
Myers, David.  Social Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1999.  Print.
Rambo, Lewis.  Understanding Religious Conversion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.  Print.
Schnurr, Dennis M. A Report on the Implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the United States.  Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, Inc., 2000. Web.  12 Oct. 2010  <http://www.nccbuscc.org/evangelization/journey.shtml>
[1] Baucum doesn’t define ressourcement, but implies that by it he refers to the mining of history for models or practices that can address contemporary issues and needs.

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