The Rev. Canon Judy Paulsen was on a flight to the Maritimes when the idea came to her. For some time, she had been troubled by the lack of basic Christian knowledge among some of her students at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary in Toronto.
“There were students coming into the college, offering themselves for leadership in the church, who were really missing what I think are basic catechetic pieces,” she says. “They may have had a very spotty understanding of scripture or may not have known anything about the spiritual disciplines.”
A former parish priest, Canon Paulsen had observed this in some of her parishioners as well. Although they attended church regularly, they had a very limited understanding of the Christian story – one of the main reasons why they didn’t try to share it with others.
“There’s more people today who don’t have any church background,” she says. “For those who do, they often feel guilty that they don’t know the Bible better or they think everybody knows it better than they do. In church, we often throw words and phrases around that are Greek to people.”
On the flight, she started to think about creating a simple course that would teach the basics of Christianity to lay people. It would be designed so that those who took the course could later teach it to others.
Back in Toronto, she shared her idea with some colleagues and was encouraged to act on it. On behalf of Wycliffe College’s Institute of Evangelism, where she is the director, Canon Paulsen applied for, and received, a $25,000 grant from the diocese’s Our Faith-Our Hope campaign to get the course off the ground. “The diocese was really generous in giving us the money to pay for its development,” she says.
The course, called Christian Foundations, will be held at Wycliffe College on nine Saturdays in 2016 and 2017. At the end, there will be a commissioning service in the college’s chapel.
The course will give participants a basic introduction to the Old Testament, the Gospels, the Book of Acts and the Epistles, the creeds and canon of scripture, church history, Christian disciplines and vocation and service. They will explore these subjects through a series of questions, including: How can I know God? What is the story of Israel? Who is Jesus? How did the church get started? What do Christians believe? Why are there so many sorts of Christians? How can I grow in my faith? What is my part in the Kingdom of God?
Although anyone can take the course, Canon Paulsen hopes that churches will send people who will want to teach it to others when they return to their parishes. “The material is at a basic enough level that if somebody has a heart to see people learn more about the faith, that’s really all they need to facilitate it back home,” she says.
Several churches have already expressed interest in the course. The Rev. Stephanie Douglas-Bowman, the incumbent of Christ Memorial Church in Oshawa, hopes to send two people. “What I like about Christian Foundations is that it’s equipping lay people to lead,” she says.
With a congregation of about 150, her time and energy are limited. Lay people who can teach the Christian basics in adult confirmation classes and other programs means more ministry can happen in the church, she says.
“What I like is that I can send them on this course, they will receive all the training they need, and then they can come and teach in the parish. My hope is to have lay catechists in this teaching role in the church.”
She adds, “There’s only so much bandwidth a cleric has, and so you look for courses like this. I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel every time. If there’s a good group like Wycliffe who has put together this program, I’m really happy to use it.”
Canon Paulsen says that churches that already have people who can teach the faith and do not need to attend the course can simply use the course’s workbook. The workbook, which costs $30, is attractively designed and includes maps, photographs, prayers, short narratives, interactive exercises and commentary that links scripture to contemporary issues.
“If churches want to just order the workbook and take it and lead it, that’s great,” she says. For people or parish groups that want to take the course but can’t make the trip to Wycliffe College, there will be an option to participate in the classes via WebEx, an online conferencing service.
The course material was written by Canon Paulsen, her husband Pat Paulsen, who is an experienced teacher of the Bible and church history, and the Rev. Canon Susan Bell, the diocese’s canon missioner and the chaplain of Havergal College, an independent girls school in Toronto. They will be teaching the course as well.
For those attending the course in person at Wycliffe College, the cost is $500, which includes the workbook and lunches. Canon Paulsen says it’s a worthwhile investment for churches. “Our hope is that it’s not just about information – it’s about transforming the people taking the course,” she says. “Our goal is that they feel confident telling the story.”