Why Catechesis Now?

The church in Western culture today is experiencing a crisis of holiness. To be holy is to be “set apart,” different, living life according to God’s Word and story, not according to the stories that the world tells us are the meaning of life. The more the culture around us becomes post- and anti-Christian the more we discover church members in our midst, sitting under sound preaching, yet nonetheless holding half-pagan views of God, truth, and human nature, and in their daily lives using sex, money, and power in very worldly ways. It’s hard to deny what J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett write:

Superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—careerwise, communitywise, familywise, and churchwise—are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today (Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, 16).

This is not the first time the church in the West has lived in such a deeply non-Christian cultural environment. In the first several centuries the church had to form and build new believers from the ground up, teaching them comprehensive new ways to think, feel, and live in every aspect of life. They did this not simply through preaching and lectures, but also through catechesis. Catechesis was not only for children, but also for adult converts and even for leaders—all of whom were grounded in gospel truth by mastering, in dialogical community, material composed for their particular capacities and needs.

In the heyday of the Reformation, church leaders in Europe again faced a massive pedagogical challenge. How could they re-shape the lives of people who had grown up in the medieval church? The answer was, again, many catechisms produced for all ages and stages of life. Martin Luther and John Calvin both produced two, as did John Owen. The Puritan Richard Baxter produced three.

Almost Complete Loss

But in the evangelical Christian world today the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs are usually superficial when it comes to doctrine. Even systematic Bible studies can be weak in drawing doctrinal conclusions. In contrast, catechisms take students step by step through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology and doctrine, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.

Catechesis is an intense way of doing instruction. The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts in deep, encouraging meditation on truth. It also holds students more accountable to master the material than do other forms of education. Some ask: why fill children’s heads—or for that matter, new converts’—with concepts like “the glory of God” that they cannot grasp well? The answer is that it creates biblical categories in our minds and hearts where they act as a foundation, to be gradually built upon over the years with new insights from more teaching, reading, and experiences. Catechesis done with young children helps them think in biblical categories almost as soon as they can reason. Such instruction, one old writer said, is like firewood in a fireplace. Without the fire—the Spirit of God—firewood will not in itself produce a warming flame. But without fuel there can be no fire either, and that is what catechetical instruction provides.

Catechesis is also different from listening to a sermon or lecture—or reading a book—in that it is deeply communal and participatory. The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning. It creates true community as teachers help students—and students help each other—understand and remember material. Parents catechize their children. Church leaders catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones. All of this systematically builds relationships. In fact, because of the richness of the material, catechetical questions and answers may be incorporated into corporate worship itself, where the church as a body can confess their faith and respond to God with praise.

Our people desperately need richer, more comprehensive instruction. Returning to catechesis—now—is one important way to give it.

* * * * *

On October 15, The Gospel Coalition in partnership with Tim Keller will launch New City Catechism—a joint adult and children’s catechism consisting of 52 questions and answers adapted from the Reformation catechisms.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    I am currently working on a curriculum focused on this concern under five main headings. My suggestion is that to live fully in this life (as God intended), we need a deep vocabulary of:

    1. Creation: the original story
    2. Depravity: the back story
    3. Grace: the salvation story
    4. Growth: the present story
    5. Glory: the end story

    These points provide a full Christian worldview. Our ways of understanding each theme (in combination with the others) must become an active part of the way we look at life — in success and failure — in gain and loss — in suffering and sadness — in our aspirations and ambitions — in daily life. What does each theme contribute to the way I understand God, myself and the world?

  • Roger Gallagher

    Our Next Gen minister takes baptism & confirmation candidates through the 39 Articles (we’re Sydney Anglicans.)

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  • Daniel Broaddus

    Luther’s Small and Large Catechism!

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  • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

    We need to believe the Word of God. Why does the author assume that “catechesis” is a more effective means of Christian instruction than simple Bible teaching?

    The Catholic Church has catehesis. How has that worked out?

  • Brad

    Hey John,

    I don’t think Tim Keller is “assuming that catechesis is a more effective means of Christian instruction than simple Bible teaching.”

    Keller wrote, “Our people desperately need richer, more comprehensive instruction. Returning to catechesis—now—is one important way to give it.”

    Also, isn’t catechesis just one way to “simply teach the Bible”?


  • http://www.callingmuslims.com C.L Edwards

    @ John Carpenter In love brother where in that post did you see anything about the word of God not being good enough or Catechizing is “more” effective then the Bible? A Catechism is a tool that employees the word of God and summarizes it..if done right. Studying the word of God is a must but can take years, how is a brand new Christian going to get their heads around the Christian worldview unless you summarize the major doctrines of the faith for them? Are they suppose to walk around still being secular humanist and post modernist until they finish studying the Bible? It just seems strange to you because modern Christians don’t use them like we use to but its not just some Roman catholic thing.

    • Mark G

      It seems common among evangelicals to be against catechisms and confessions, however, these claims that one should just believe in Jesus or the Bible seems to be to be epistemologically uninformed and in theory leaves everyone with their own personal confession. That plays well to American dislike of authority, individualism, and pragmatism. Alternatively, these historical statements are summaries packed with theological depth and backed by a lot of work with scripture that many people will never take the time or have the skills needed to accomplish such depth. How many people could develop a biblical understanding of the trinity, or of the hypostatic union on their own? I suggest that most of us would come up with a heretical understanding.

      • Dan

        Mark, great points! Very succinctly stated.

  • Susan

    Amen to this–much needed! I wonder if this sort of teaching is common in the Jewish community.

  • earle

    Yes, catechism is important in its own way but it does not change lives. Theology is man’s attempt at explaining God and debates have been going on for centuries. While it stimulates intellectually, it does nothing for your salvation. Whatever happened to sola scriptura?

    Maybe it’s just me but I would rather point to Bible verses than cite catechism when asked difficult questions. We don’t need more theology, we need more men and women who not only know the gospel, but are willing to suffer for it and lead by example, not by words. Look at Martin Luther, he refuted the catholic church not by theology but by the book of Romans!

    • http://www.thekingsfellowship.com Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

      Luther then proceeded to write both a Larger and Smaller Catechism.

      Good grief, brother! Catechisms (when written faithfully) do not supplant Sola Scriptura but re-enforce it by drawing from and summarizing Scripture.

    • Mark G

      @Hi Earl, I think catechisms & confessions have changed my life. They have certainly changed how I understand the Bible. Conversely, the Bible or rather reading the Bible in and of itself doesn’t change lives either. It is only the Holy Spirit aworking through the Word that changes lives. One can know a lot of Bible or about what it teaches and still lack the supernatural resurrection power of the Holy Spirit.

      There is also another way to look at “theology,” i.e., other than strictly man-centered. I would argue that scripture itself is theological and that good catechisms and confessions must closely reflect the theology of the Bible. Studying the Bible is not just doing theology, it is also discovering theology. I happen to be reading through Luke-Acts and it theological to the core. For example, the author presents throughout that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah promised in the Old Testament who came to restore/redeem Israel. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus has been glorified and now sovereignly reigns and rules through the Holy Spirit (the Acts of the Apostles = the Acts of the Holy Spirit) to ultimately consummate his heavenly kingdom. The author is presenting a theological view.

  • Andy

    @earle Martin Luther wrote two of the best known catechism specifically for training kids. Luther’s life and actions repudiates your post.

  • earle

    Ah, I apologize if I came off the wrong way. Reading the article, it almost seemed as if the gospel wasn’t enough anymore. Perhaps I was looking too far into it but that was certainly the implication that was jumping out at me.

    • http://www.thekingsfellowship.com Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

      Many Blessings Earle!

    • http://thinkingwithareformedmind.blogspot.com Steven Mitchell

      Earle, the thing to remember about catechisms is that they do not replace the gospel in any sense. As others have pointed out, catechisms are simply pre-constructed by which the gospel can be communicated. Just as sermons do, or hymns do, or personal conversations with others. The gospel isn’t just something that people intuit; because it is news, it must be communicated. Catechisms are just one package — one with a long Reformed heritage — of communicating that news.

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  • http://americanprotestant.tumblr.com S. Wesley Mcgranor

    We should not fall to revision and deconstruction, nor any postmoderd vain. But, acknowledge the cultural/social upheaval of the past Counterculture, and why the West is where its at. Yet, not in a manner apologizing, nor affirming its tenents.

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  • Sam Lin

    I agree with what Keller says but can anyone share insight on how to actually lead a group of people through a catechism? What does it look like to use a catechism if it involves mostly memorization? Thanks!

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  • http://www.twitter.com/edbarrientos10 Eduardo

    What I’d like to know is how to use a catechism. I wasn’t born in a Reformed Church, I’ve never been under a catechism. I’d like to know how to use it. How do you start using it with children? And with new believers?

    • Mark G

      When our kids were young we used the Westminster children’s catechism. They memorized questions/answers just like you would memorize verses. Of course you need to explain what they mean and show them related scriptures, but you have to bring it to a level they can understand. You can probably find versions with “proof texts.” You also need to explain the gospel and why it is important to understand what the Bible is and what it teaches, and why it is important to understand these basic biblical truths and to have a relationship with Jesus. They aren’t just learning “bare” facts. They need to come to grips with Christ.

  • http://christian-apologetics-society.blogspot.com/ Timothy

    >”The Catholic Church has catehesis. How has that worked out?”

    Apparently, fairly well.

    Under the old Baltimore Catechism Catholics steadily increased from 2% to 5% to 7% to now over 22% of the U.S. Population. I run into adult converts every week who completed the Catholic Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA).

    Worldwide, the new Catechism is helping the Catholic Churches grow by around 15-17 million per year. That’s the equivalent of a new Southern Baptist denomination each and every year.

    I’d say they are doing something right.

    Before I forget, others have mentioned older Christian catechisms. My favorite is the short 4th Century Easter catechism of Cyril of Jerusalem wherein he instructs on Christian baptism. He describes the converts as being naked, baptised and annointed with olive oil.


    God bless…

    • Dan

      Pew Study recently released, shows percentage of Americans considering themselves affiliated with RCC has been quite steady over 40 years – not increasing, but only marginally decreasing.

      The percentage claiming Protestant affiliation has dropped significantly.

      Now do we necessarily tie these to catechesis? Maybe, maybe not. But Protestantism is clearly flagging when compared to RCC. The growth, as you may be aware, is in the “Nones” – those who have no affiliation to any religious tradition.

  • Nick Savastano

    I filled in for youth basketball ministry(we play a game and at Half-time we do a Gospel Centered bible study everyone in the community is invited to come and play and listen to the teaching) the same day as this article blog was posted(how ironic!), and I was given permission to freely teach on whatever topic I wished as long as it had the Gospel message. I read 4 questions from the Shorter Catechism(I’m Baptist go figure)that were related to understanding God’s attributes etc. I simply wanted to try it with them to see how they would respond, and they fully enjoyed and were challenged by the questions, they engaged by trying to answer the questions. Although they weren’t exactly the right answers they still liked it. They told it was different and they want to go through all the questions so they can learn more. It was great so don’t think that young kids will think it is “boring” or “old-fashioned” they really do want to be challenged in the thinking of the things of God.

  • Lukas Naugle

    You can download the iPad app now on iTunes.


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  • Dan

    I’m currently in a non-catechetical tradition, yet I totally agree with catechesis. However, I can see that for catechesis to be successful, a church must fully embrace them and mostly of all among the pastor and elders. To successfully apply catechesis in my own church would require a wholesale culture change. It’s one thing to try to do it at home, as parents are required to teach their kids; but it’s awfully hard when it feels like it is so opposite of what kind of teaching they receive at church.

    Moreover, we haven’t even discussed the adults yet, who may be the most resistant of all. I have to admit that it’s a tough sell for people who aren’t used to actually being required to study anything, and who may be more interested in practical application or therapeutic aspects of modern-day church.

    So if catechesis is going to fly in a church that isn’t used to it, it had better be communicated very well with a plan to reinforce it through the commitment of leadership. It had also better reflect the actual teaching of Scripture without altering the Gospel message and downplaying the perilous condition of man outside the grace of God.

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