When you read the word catechism, or catechesis, what comes to mind? Something our Catholic friends do? Something people used to do back then… Have you even heard the word? Many of us rarely, if ever, heard the word catechesis or catechism but this has been part of the church since the very beginning. While we may not think of it as something that is part of the American church life, it is in the words of one of my old seminary professors Gary Parrett in the book he wrote with J.I. Packer, ‘Grounded in the Gospel’ “not only a biblical idea, but a very biblical idea”.
Let’s look at this subject under four headings. What is catechism (or catechesis, the act of instructing from the catechism)? What is the Bible foundation for this process? How did we lose it and why do we need it? And how do we go forward?
First, what is catechism or catechesis? It is a method of oral instruction involving question and answer techniques. The word catechesis comes from the Greek meaning "to echo the teaching" and it involves memorizing the concepts and then repeating them back. It’s been said that "Catechesis is nothing other than the process of transmitting the Gospel, as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it” (http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/catechism/catchism/what-ischatechesis) Parret defines it this way. “Catechesis is the churches ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight”. (From Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, by Gary Parrett and J. I. Packer, published by Baker, 2010.)
The Commission of Jesus is to go and make disciples, but there is more than winning converts and baptizing them. We are to be “teaching them observe (meaning understand and obediently live out) all that I have commanded you” (Mat 28:20). This ministry of teaching and forming has traditionally been referred to as catechesis in the wide sense, as the church has sought to make disciples of all who are under our care. We don’t just become Christians to sit; we are to grow in the gospel. We want to help people believe, but then instruct and build them up to serve and share and be continually changed by the gospel.
But in a narrow sense it is this method, of learning through question and answer. This is, as it has been noted, “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”. It is different from listening to a sermon or lecture---or reading a book---in this way. Catechesis is deeply communal and participatory. The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning. The result is that “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”. (http:/thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/10/11/why-chatechesis-now)
Second, what is the biblical foundation for Catechesis? In the book of Galatians, Paul writes, "Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor" (Galatians 6:6). The Greek word for "anyone who receives instruction" is the word katechoumenos, one who is catechized. What Paul is saying is that there is a body of material, the basics of the faith, doctrine, how to pray, how to think and act, that was taught to them by an instructor (here the word "catechizer"). And the instructed was to share all good things, payment maybe, the all good things seems to be payment, but the sharing goes deeper than money. The Greek word koinonia, fellowship, is used for sharing, and it seems clear that catechesis is not just one more service to be paid for, but is a rich fellowship and mutual sharing of the gifts of God, as we seek to have God’s word dwell in us richly.
Now, how did we lose it and why do we need it? This process of catechizing all believers, but especially new believers, was something that the early church did rigorously. But, over time, it waned, as the Catholic Church and the feudal state merged in the middle ages. In this time, the mission of winning the lost and instructing believers in the faith grew dim, because it was assumed everyone living in Christendom was a Christian. But, with the reformation, it was reintroduced, and was used widely. The great reformers like Calvin and Luther all wrote catechisms, and sought to make sure all in their churches were catechized. The Catholic Church, which had lost the practice, even reintroduced it. Sadly, the practice of catechesis has been largely abandoned today, in part because of the rise of Sunday school, which taught stories but not the basics of faith and how to live as Christian. But again, it was a slow decline. Packer and Parret argue that the result of losing the practice of catechesis is that today our churches have: "Superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—career-wise, community-wise, family-wise, and church-wise.” These are “all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today." (From Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, by Gary Parrett and J. I. Packer, published by Baker, 2010.)
Despite various programs, the church has not been able to regain its rich gospel roots, and the practice of grounding people in what it means to live as a Christian. And that’s on the American church. Most American Christians today don’t have a solid grasp on the basics of their faith, because the American church has failed to give it to them. Parrett notes that in many churches, if a newcomer starts coming to a church regularly, it’s a matter of time before they get asked to do any number of things, to get recruited to plug into this or that, and he say that this happens “what is unlikely to occurs is that anyone would make a serious inquiry into the newcomers spiritual condition, or offer the person a carefully conceived opportunity to be instructed in the Christian faith”. He goes on to say that an interesting phenomenon has happened when courses have been offered to introduce “seekers” to the Christian faith, the result is often that these classes attract a large number of church members as well, because many are hungry for the rudimentary of the Christian faith. That’s a sad and true analysis of where most American churches are at. Even the ones that work hard at building disciples.
Lastly, how do we go forward? So, how do we re-ground people in the gospel? Parrett and packer argue that the way forward is reintroducing Catechesis, and making sure that everyone has the basic foundation in place. And many are listening. I am. Since I became the pastor, I have been taking small steps where I could. When someone joins the church, they go through a six to 8 week class on the basics of Christianity and being in Christian community. All new members are required that read Basic Christianity by John Stott, and Doctrine: What Christians should believe, by Mark Driscoll (both are available in the library to read if you have not done so). Furthermore, I have sought to impress upon every believer the necessity of being fed by the word, both through private study and devotions, and through expository preaching of the word of God. This coming year, I would like to add another layer to this by going through the New City Catechism with all of you. The New city Catechism was released in October by the Gospel Coalition; it is an updated catechism that draws on some of the great catechisms of the reformation, Calvin's Geneva Catechism, the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, and especially the Heidelberg Catechism. It gives good exposure to some of the riches and insights across the spectrum of the great Reformation-era catechisms. The hope of the gospel coalition is that it “will encourage people to delve into the historic catechisms and continue the catechetical process throughout their lives”. I have brought this to the deacons, and we would like to have us learn this as a church. Its 52 questions, one for every week of the year. We will incorporate it into worship, put it in the bulletin, and seek to remind each other of it via social media. My hope is that together, we will push each other to learn it and be changed by it, as it seeks into our churches DNA. Furthermore, I would encourage everyone can use the interactive App and website that has bee put together to allow you to deepen your understanding of every subject addressed. There is video commentary, and deeper insight all made available at http://www.newcitycatechism.com. Check it out, and pray that as we incorporate this into our worship over the next year, that we will become more and more centered on the gospel and grounded in the gospel, growing deeper and deeper in the gospel.