The Making of Zombie Theologians: Catechesis, Spiritual Direction, and the Future of the Church

Over the years catechesis acquired a bad reputation. There were a number of reasons for this state of affairs.

One was the traditional format that was used to teach the Christian faith. Catechesis became inextricably attached to an aging format that consisted of leading questions and brief answers that were committed to memory. As such, teaching the Christian faith was associated with pat answers, simplistic truths, and a dictatorial approach to transmitting the Christian faith.

In an age of growing individualism and disdain for every kind of authority, it is not surprising that catechesis became inextricably associated with a narrow, rote, and unsophisticated approach to theological formation.

Catechesis floundered for more mundane reasons as well. Not without reason, pastors, priests, and ministers of small congregations complained that they don’t have time to teach people the faith. Leaders in larger congregations often surrendered responsibility to staff members whose interest in “innovative” programs supplanted an interest in the perennial demands of basic Christian education.

The problem, of course, is that if you aim at nothing, you hit it.

As one who teaches spiritual direction, it has become clear that the absence of basic catechesis has made the task of spiritual direction exceedingly difficult. When we ask about a directee’s experience of God, it is often clear that even people with extensive experience of the church know little or nothing about their faith.

That’s a problem in a spiritual discipline that depends upon questions that invite an individual to explore their relationship with God. While God can be trusted to find a way to work in any person’s life, we have made that task more difficult by failing to form people in the Christian faith.

Left to their own devices, far too many people have become “Zombie theologians,” left to wander impulsively, shaped by a ragbag of cultural messages and personal preference. Understandings of God, providence, prayer, and an endless number of other subjects which provide the basic furnishing of the Christian mind is missing; and what members of our congregations believe is often as Un-Christian as one could imagine.

If the church hopes to survive a Zombie Apocalypse of its own making, it will need to discover a lively, fresh, and faithful approach to catechesis.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Schmidt holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation and directs the Rueben P. Job Institute for Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He is an Episcopal priest and author.

This article is reposted here with the kind permission of the author. It was originally published on


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If the War Goes On

If the war goes on and the truth is taken hostage
and new terrors lead to the need to euphemise,
when the calls for peace are declared unpatriotic,
who’ll expose the lies?

– John Bell

We sang these words in church on Sunday, and my spirit was ashen within me as it always is when I see and sing them. There is so much that is true here, such hard truth.

I was struck a few years back by the Chaplain-General of the Canadian Armed Forces when he described war as the complete and utter failure of human sin.

I am rendered speechless when I realize how much Canada does in the way of arms sales to global customers, with little or no oversight as to the wisdom of making those sales for long-term global security, let alone the inevitable use of those arms against civilians and conscripted soldiers.

My spirit is ashen each Remembrance Day. I can only cling to the cross where Jesus died and remember that his death, those deaths, the deaths that took place even as I wrote this, grieve God’s heart … and that, somehow, death is not the last word.

God have mercy on us. God mend our warring ways.

If the war goes on and the daily bread is terror,
and the voiceless poor take the road as refugees;
when a nation’s pride destines millions to be homeless,
who’ll heed their pleas?

Rob Fennell teaches theology and the history of Christianity at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, NS.

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Oui ou Non?

I had the pleasure of spending a few days this week in beautiful Montreal. Only after landing did I realize that I was in Quebec on the 20th anniversary of the infamous referendum vote on sovereignty that gave federalists the tiniest majority on a night where Canada felt ready to come apart at the seams. How different the mood in Quebec today as I landed at the airport bearing the surname of our new Prime Minister designate, a legacy honouring his iconic Father. Sovereignty, that watchword of the 1990s, that kept us around a television set late into the night 20 years ago in a University dorm, has faded from everyday discourse. Cab drivers and hotel clerks were more keen to discuss the Canadiens hockey team this week rather than expressing their opinion on voting “Oui ou Non.”

My purpose for being in Quebec 20 years after the famous vote had, in fact, to do with Sovereignty and the decision, “Oui ou Non.” My journey to Quebec was, however, a theological rather than a political one. I was attending the largest national gathering of Church Planters in Canada. The Canadian Church Planting Congress brought together 700 planters and educators to pray, engage and testify to the “new” things that God is up to in our nation. From video links with Charles Taylor discussing, “A Secular Age” to American Church planting megastars (who were remarkably well informed and sensitive to the Canadian context) to examples of local church plants in small towns across the country, we gathered to declare God’s Sovereignty and to help form missional communities where people can give their “Oui ou Non” to the Lord Jesus Christ.

What was telling was how few “formerly mainline Christians” were present at the conference. There were a few of us from the Presbyterian Church (St. Andrew’s Hall and Presbyterian College, McGill), a number of Anglicans from Ontario and Quebec (with a snappy cocktail party hosted at the Bishop of Montreal’s home), one United Church person…and that was about it. Being a church history geek, it gave me pause to consider that God is now acting so powerfully in corners of the vineyard that used to be our wheelhouse. Planting churches and forming new missional communities is in our DNA from the 19th Century pioneer to the 1950’s suburban expansion. What happened to us? Where is our excitement and urgency in planting new communities of Christian faith that declare God’s Sovereignty and help people take steps towards faith in Jesus with a simple, “Oui ou Non?”

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver and Director of The Centre for Missional Leadership.

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Love Wins?

Love Wins! This seems to be a slogan these days whenever some jurisdiction embraces a progressive agenda of full inclusion of LGBTQ people. Traditional Family Values! A slogan from the other side, less catchy but almost as ubiquitous.

I sit on my denomination’s Committee on Church Doctrine as the representative of St. Andrew’s Hall. The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s highest governing body, General Assembly, has begun again to ask questions concerning the full inclusion of LGBTQ people. I can’t offer any deep insights into the work of the committee but I can say, we must progress past such a simplistic statement as “Presbyterian Pride – God’s Love Includes Everyone.” This kind of sloganeering does not actually say anything about the Christian God. We must also progress past arguments that hide behind phrases like “traditional family values” for they too say nothing of a living God working in our midst.

For many opposed to same-sex marriage, the issue is not about salvation. They never deny that love wins. Someone may hold a strong doctrine of election – God’s love including everyone in salvation – without also holding a pro same sex marriage stance. Perhaps a gay or lesbian man has salvation granted through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ but is still expected to live out that grace in celibacy. The question is not necessarily about salvation it is about sanctification, a much more difficult area to navigate because it is far more dynamic. God’s love may win in relation to salvation but not lead to an affirming stance.

By definition, slogans obscure the particular. They are meant to encompass a large range of meaning in a pithy statement. Unfortunately, in this case, if God’s love includes everything that we like then we are in deep trouble. When simply substitute God’s grace as a short form for our own beliefs about justice, love, and morality, we have descended into ideology. God does not so much have love as is love and to that end all characteristics of God get included such as God’s justice, righteousness, and holiness. If these theological attributes get excluded and all we mean by God’s love is some sort of niceness we have settled for a cheap grace that bears the imprint of our Western middle class ethics. We settle for religion or ideology that is the most abhorrent form of heresy because it is really a form of apostasy – once professing a living God and now substituting a human idol.

Bumper sticker theology rarely captures the fullness of Scripture. It fails to take the primary lens by which God reveals God’s self seriously. It also fails to take itself seriously. Thousands of hours of labour has gone into subordinate standards, into academic research, into weekly preparation for preaching. For what? To be summarized as a “God’s Love Includes Everyone?” Seriously? I have dedicated my life to following the creator of the Universe, to trying to understand who Jesus Christ is, to discerning the Holy Spirit at work in the world when all I needed to do was know that “God’s Love Includes Everyone?”

It cuts on both sides of the line. “Traditional family values” says nothing about how God acts in the world today. Appeals to a tradition notoriously run aground on the hard data of history. Tradition is slippery and we can easily idolize one part of it. We do not do justice to the person of the Spirit when we lock ourselves into a rigid and stale orthodoxy. We must not fear that God continues to act.

All of this is to say, slogans on Facebook are a poor substitute for careful consideration of what God is doing today. Please hold the Presbyterian Church in Canada in prayer as it attempts to faithfully, gracefully, and wisely discern its way to continued faithful witness.

Rev. Dr. Blair Bertrand is the pastor at Calvin Presbyterian Church in Abbotsford, BC and a recent PhD graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary.

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Messiah Marathon

The departure lounge at YVR was crowded at 6 am with the signboard announcing our flight to Chicago.  I was off to an Association of Theological Schools conference but I noticed a “higher than usual” number of people dressed in Lululemon and sipping Lattes. The flight was oversold and it seemed odd that this Friday morning route would be so busy.  Hmm.  Was there a yoga event in Chicago something like Premier Christie Clark’s failed “Burrard Bridge yoga shutdown” from this past summer?

Hand luggage stowed, seat belt fastened, I turned to my seat mate and asked, “What’s the big event in Chicago this weekend?”  “Oh, it’s the Chicago marathon!” she said excitedly.  “There’s a whole group of us who are going to the windy city together to run the race.”  “Awesome,” I said.  “How long have you been training for the race?”  “My whole life,” she without missing a beat.

Hmm.  How curious, I thought, flying to Chicago in order to attend a conference on being a more effective theological educator while sitting beside a marathon runner.  I thought about how Hebrews 12 talks about a race that we are called to run as Christians

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. 

As Christians we are called to run a Messiah Marathon through our discipleship to Jesus for the sake of mending God’s broken yet beloved world.  How might we stand out in the world like a group of lululemon clad runners in an airport departure lounge?  How might we equip and inspire our “runners” from Sunday School to Seminary to run their race of faith looking to Jesus?  How might we encourage followers of Christ to say that they’ve been training for the Messiah Marathon “their whole life long?”

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Missional Leadership at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.

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Breakfast with Bikers

I sat down with my breakfast tray full of rubber eggs and a stale croissant and smiled at the leather clad bikers all around.  How did I get myself into this situation?  I was in Calgary this past weekend to preach at Grace Presbyterian Church and lead the Elders after worship in a Session retreat.  I arrived Saturday night and was met by my friend Rev. Dr. Jean Morris.  Over a great pasta dinner in a trendy part of town we caught up on life and ministry and went over the various elements of worship and learning set for the next day.  I checked into my hotel room at the Best Western hotel downtown (3 blocks from the church) and reviewed my sermon for the next day – Luke 15…parable of the lost sheep.  You know the one.  Jesus has just finished offending the Pharisees in Chapter 14 at a fancy dinner party giving them the old, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” line.  Then we roll into Chapter 15 and Jesus is eating with “sinners” and the Pharisees are disgusted.  Jesus reminds them that every time one sinner repents a party breaks out in heaven.  Of course, for the so called 99 “righteous” their self-assurance means they appear to be without need of God’s soteriological gift of grace.  Funny that.

So, the next morning I go downstairs for the free hotel breakfast and the entire room is full of bikers.  Apparently I was the only guy in town not there for a biker convention.  Nevertheless, in my “preacher’s suit” I sat down at the one free spot in the eating area, surrounded by bikers.  I greeted them warmly and noted that the guy beside me had a “BC Chapter” logo beneath his skull and crossbones.  “Hey, I’m from Vancouver!” I said to the large, hairy man beside me.  This could go either way, I thought to myself.  “Me too!” the man said with a warm smile.  I was introduced around the table as I met guys from various motorcycle branches across Western Canada.  “What’s with the suit?” one guy asked me.  “I’m a preacher,” I said, “I’m preach’n a couple of blocks away at Grace church.”  “Cool.  I believe in God,” the biker said in response.  This started a long conversation around the table.  I couldn’t help but think of the bible verse I was going to preach that morning on Jesus keeping “mixed company.”  After the rubber eggs and stale croissant were consumed, I bid them farewell and God bless.  “God bless you,” they said as I waved goodbye.  Later that morning, I told the congregation in the Sermon time that God is full of surprises in the company that we keep and that I had even just had “breakfast with bikers.” I think Jesus would approved.  Somewhere, beyond the stained glass sanctuary, I think I heard the roar of a motorcycle engine…

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall and Director of the Centre for Missional Leadership, Vancouver.

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Grace and gratitude

We usually don’t get to thank the people who’ve made our lives possible.

Think of the schools you’ve attended, the camps that marked your childhood, the hospitals that have nursed you to health, the congregations that show life in its depths. Their founders, if their names are even known to you, are long gone. There may be dusty plaques or the odd eccentric historian who knows who they were, but you can’t go shake their hand and say “thanks.”

It was a rare gift then that I got to do that recently. The Rev. Laura Butler and her late brother the Rev. Ralph Butler and his wife Wanda gave the money for the endowed chair I hold at Vancouver School of Theology. She’s a feisty 95, bright as the morning sun, and someone without whom I would not be where I am. I got to shake her hand, look in her wise and lively eyes, say “thanks,” and pray with her. It pleased her I think. It certainly pleased me.

Her life has been remarkable. Her father, for whom the chair is named, the Rev. Ralph Butler, was a Canadian Methodist before the merger that made the United Church of Canada in 1925. The youth group at one Westmoreland Methodist in Toronto (a town once called the Methodist Rome) raised money to send a minister to help Methodist churches on the west coast of Canada as a summer intern. Ralph loved the place as soon as he got here. He also loved the daughter of the older minister who came to hear him preach, encouraged him, and invited him over for dinner. He asked if he could “correspond” with her when he returned to eastern Canada. She said she would like that. The property in Victoria he later purchased would grow in value as others discovered a similar love for British Columbia. It would fund the gift that their daughter would give that would bless my family and, hopefully, many others through and after me.

This year is the centennial anniversary of a big year in Ralph Butler’s life in 1915. He was ordained in the Methodist Church in Canada. He married that elder minister’s daughter with whom he’d corresponded, one Elisabeth Letitia Baker. And in case that wasn’t enough for one year, he also received his first appointment in the Methodist Church, to a parish in the appropriately named town of Mission, BC, then leagues from Vancouver, now becoming an outer suburb. He later served a three point charge in Washington state, encouraging his children Ralph and Laura to preach along with him. This meant young Laura was preaching in her early 20s in the early 1940s not far removed from undergraduate work at the University of Washington. I asked several different ways if it wasn’t exotic or objectionable to some to be a young woman pastor in the early 1940s. She ignored the question first, then shot back, “Only the people interested in hell objected.”

She was more interested in heaven, and in building outposts for it here, which is what institutions are meant to be. Her conference asked her to build a new church in a neighborhood in Seattle near a Boeing plant going full blast for the war effort. She went door to door asking folks if they wanted to be part of a new church she was starting. “`Sure, we’ll help!’ some said. ‘Hell no!’ others said.” She started a women’s group in one home. A youth group in another. A men’s group followed. A Roman Catholic layman started a store and offered its use to the fledgling congregation (“I thought that was impressive from a Catholic in those years”). She built a building from two previously existing buildings, one a quanset hut, the other an army chapel. She had walls and pews and church accoutrement, but no floor. Cement was hard to get in wartime. When it came, the day the volunteers would pour, the weather looked rainy. The smart thing would have been to cancel. Laura prayed. “And I don’t believe in praying for the weather,” she said, but she did that day. And the day dawned beautiful and cool. It worked. Church planters: don’t try this at home.

By the time she got to Boston University School of Theology to study for her seminary degree she had already served a three-point charge and built a church. Her professors were unimpressed. “Forget everything you think you know about the church,” faculty said. “We’re going to re-form you.” She was the only woman preparing for parish leadership in her class (others studied Christian education). Her first year on campus was Martin Luther King’s last (“We never met,” she said. “He wasn’t quite as well known yet,” she adds charmingly). The great Howard Thurman was the chaplain. Laura is proud that communion was only served by black and white hands together.

BU seems not to have wiped the slate clean with Laura’s ministerial identity. But it did shape her love for theological education.

Upon graduation Laura returned to Victoria, where she served Metropolitan United Church for 31 years, outlasting a handful of senior ministers, taking the parish away to a family camp regularly, preaching and teaching and leading and marrying and burying. I told her she looked like she could bounce out of her chair and preach right then. “I gave up preaching when I turned 90,” she said. She has also graced camps with her largesse. I told her many ministers count Christian camping as formative in their vocations, myself included. “It’s a good start,” she says. “What was Jesus doing with the disciples in the wilderness?”

I’m struck by the goodness, and sturdiness amidst uncertainty, of the institutions that the Rev. Laura Butler has blessed and by which she has been blessed. The goods of parish, of seminary, of camp, and the deep goods of human life made possible by them without which life isn’t worth living: friendship, the ability to spot grace and name it, gratitude, and worship. The goods inherent in church planting, in braving new places as a pioneer, in bringing God’s good news to those who otherwise would be without it despite obstacles and with prayer and joy. The parlor in which we met was right out of the Victorian era (appropriately enough, meeting in a town named for Vicky). Images of her minister ancestors grace the walls. “I come in here and say ‘hello family!’” It’s not a bad start to a day for any of us—to thank the family that’s made our life possible even if we never met them.

On the other hand, the danger of getting to thank those who’ve blessed you is that you realize just how heavy the mantle is they’ve placed over you. I’ll wear Laura’s parents’ names around while I work and live in Canada. Their love of place, of one another, of service to the church, will be heavy. Yet they wore them with joy, so I can too. And they’d agree the real yoke we wear is given by one who promises that it will be easy and light.

My visit in her home with Laura’s ministers Allan and Megumi Matsuo Saunders of First Metropolitan United Church was just concluding with prayer when there was a surprise phone call. It was Laura’s sister-in-law Wanda, who also had helped create my position. Another chance to say “thanks.”

Deo gratias.


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