The Church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.– John Calvin
Especially in our day, and whether you’re a fan of Calvin or not, it’s hard to dispute the need for a solid teaching framework in passing on the Christian faith. As theologian Al Mohler observed, “we live in a culture where many are not only lost [Isa. 53:6], they’ve lost even the memory of what it is that they’ve lost.” A case in point is the picture above. In one sense, it perfectly summarizes the case for Christian catechesis: Catechize because now is not forever. In other words, there’s more to this life. Eternal realities matter and we need to learn and teach God’s perspective. The “then and there” should inform the “here and now.”
The truth is, however, that the picture above has nothing to do with Christian catechesis. Rather, it’s a great visual from an aspiring alternative rock band (Nickelback-esque) that liked an old word and put their own spin on it. Their site says:
“Catechize is defined as ‘to question systematically or searchingly.’ Everyone out there has many questions about life, we just ask ours through music.”
For this band, the fact that catechize once meant primarily to teach and give answers through the use of questions is totally lost. Their re-imagining the term works because few have any memory of the original meaning.
It also works because these days questions are welcome in a way that answers aren’t. Yet, passing on the Christian faith means passing on a solid framework of revealed answers to important questions. It’s a mission that’s counter-cultural and it’s not easy. We all know, however, that growth in any important area requires discipline and intention: weight loss, fitness, playing a sport, writing well, etc. Even basic math or learning English requires memorizing a base structure like multiplication tables or ABC’s. It’s the same with catechisms—collections of questions and answers designed for memorization and recitation to teach others the core doctrines of the faith.
Catechisms have different purposes:
- Instructional– To explain the gospel and the key building blocks on what it’s based (doctrine of God, human nature, sin, etc.).
- Apologetic—A catechism is more than a summary of what the Bible teaches; it stands out against the errors of the times. In our case, secularism is the water we swim in and includes beliefs like:
- I’ve got to be true to myself and certainly not some tradition or scripture unless I like what it says.
- My beliefs should make me happy and if yours make you happy, then that’s good for you. It’s not right, however, for you to impose your answers or truth on me or anyone else.
- Pastoral—forming the character of Christ in the body of Christ (both as individuals and in community).
- Confessional—for example, we use catechisms to test our ministers related to licensing and ordination.
Tim Keller in his introduction to the New City Catechism Devotional gives four reasons why we still need catechisms:
- Classic catechisms “take students through the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.”
- “The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do discipleship courses.”
- “The practice of question-answer recitations brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.”
- Catechetical instruction helps us be less individualistic and more communal. It reminds us that Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father,” rather than “My Father.”
Besides the above, catechizing gives a framework so that Christian words and phrases are understood in a Christian way. Or to use carpentry imagery, think of it as “a mental foundation on which… spiritual life will be built.”
What happens when we don’t have a framework of healthy, orthodox spirituality? In construction, when you don’t have a robust framework that’s to code, it affects everything: insulation, drywall, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc… Without a strong framework, we settle for chicken-houses, shanti’s, and cardboard boxes. When you’re homeless spiritually, there’s no choice but to settle for hacks and “abandominiums.” Abandominium—that’s a word my friend who works with ex-offenders in Camden taught me. It’s basically an old condominium that’s now abandoned. Many of the residents of his halfway house jokingly say, “I got me an abandominium.”
One emotionally unhealthy gentleman I knew—I’ll call him Jack—had a brilliant mind. With no strong catechetical framework, however, he was susceptible to anyone who played on his emotions or claimed supernatural experience (e.g. “God spoke to me…” or “God told me in a dream…”). Without a strong understanding of historic Christianity, Jack gravitated to teachers who tended to yell loud, have little training, and always interpret the Bible literally.
Today, he’s tormented by false or inadequate concepts of things like hell, the unpardonable sin, suffering, and the silence of God. Fear and shame are his masters, not Christ. He loves his spiritual abandominium and it’s difficult to get him to consider living anywhere else. In some ways, it would be better if he knew nothing about the Bible and Christianity. I’ve often wished there was some way to bull-doze his shack-like thinking so he could get a fresh start with a proper foundation and framework. Yet, we all know—even from experience with ourselves: it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks.
That’s why catechesis is largely preventative work. We catechize children so they don’t go through life vulnerable to “every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14) like Jack. Yet, even as adults with bad habits and various forms of “stinkin thinkin,” there’s hope: we can unlearn things and scripture memory and catechesis help. As noted above, memorization drives messages deeper in to the heart. It also drives out lies, replacing them with truth.
This year I’m teaching an adult Sunday School class on How to Better Understand and Pass on Your Faith. It’s designed to reintroduce attendees to the benefits of catechesis and in the process to help them 1) better understand and internalize their own faith and 2) pass it on in effective and healthy ways to the next generation. We will be using the New City Catechism, a modern-day resource aimed at reintroducing the essentials of faith.
If you’d like to join us, consider downloading the free app “New City Catechism” and/or getting this excellent and inexpensive package. For more related to the importance of teaching on children early, watch this fun and fascinating 7.5 min. video.
 Quoted in Westerhoff and Edwards, A Faithful Church, 127.
 The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2017), 8.
 The New City Catechism: 52 Questions for Our Hearts and Minds (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2017), 8.