How to Pass on the Faith, Part 1: The Problems with Catechesis

One who is catechized must share all good things with the one who catechizes. Galatians 6:6 (a literal rendering)

Catechesis—teaching using questions and answers—is a strange religious idea and many have no clue what it means.

My friend, Jay, recalled his first experience with the word: He went to play ball with his neighborhood buddy but found, unfortunately, his buddy wasn’t immediately available.  Why? He had to go to something called “catechism” first.  And so Jay followed his buddy to the Catholic church and waited for him on the steps.  Then, after “catechism” was finally out of the way, they got to play ball.

Like my friend as a young boy, many view catechesis as a foreign and unwelcome experience—a boring interruption in an otherwise fun day. Others see the practice as antiquated, irrelevant, or even potentially brain-washing. Even people of faith point out that you can’t make kids Christian by dumping information into their heads.

Despite the unfamiliarity and bad press, catechesis is a biblical practice reflected in the verse above and is related to one of the marks of the earliest Christians: devotion to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). Catechesis comes from the Greek katechein and means to teach orally or to instruct by word of mouth. It is broadly defined as “the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, delight.”[1] Catechisms are collections of questions and answers designed for memorization and recitation. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have used catechisms in this way to teach others the core doctrines of the faith—especially as contained in the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Whether one is a fan of formal catechesis or not, passing on the faith to the next generation is important to all Christian parents. The question is how do we pass it on?

It may only take “a spark to get a fire going” but you don’t start the fire of faith by memorizing facts. As Jamie Smith has emphasized in his writings like Desiring the Kingdom, true change happens at the level of desire not knowledge. Not disagreeing with Smith, however, many arguing for the importance of catechesis point out that “you are laying the kindling and logs in the fireplace, so that when the Holy Spirit ignites your child’s heart, there will be a steady, mature blaze.”[2]

Those who argue for the ongoing use of catechisms face many cultural obstacles as well. Here are just three that the authors of Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way point out:

  • “Catechesis assumes the existence of authoritative truth that needs to be taught.” Our culture, however, roots truth, not in a sovereign God, but in the autonomous self. And so, my truth may not be your truth.
  • “Personal guesses and fantasies about God replace dogma as our authority…”
  • “Today’s agenda is learning Bible stories rather than being grounded in truths about the Triune God.”[3]

The older I get, the more I’m a fan of creeds and catechisms. Still, I’m with those that want—on the whole—to pass faith on informally, rather than formally. Those who have parented or worked with youth know well that significant things often happen at insignificant moments. Further, if you associate something like a catechism with a rigid, curmudgeonly parent or teacher, that’s going to affect how you view catechesis itself. Many studies show the importance of emotional health and parental attachment in raising healthy children. In fact, one study showed that “having an emotionally close relationship with fathers may provide a broad, secure foundation that is more important that specific interactions around religious topics.”[4] These studies speak to the priority of warm, accepting, safe, and enjoyable relationships in passing on faith.

Another problem I’ve personally observed, especially in reformed circles, is the tendency to elevate head knowledge—including catechesis—over topics like relationships, healthy marriage, vocation, emotional health, or a heart for God. That’s why for some “attention to doctrine is sometimes actually avoided, lest it induce contention and cold-heartedness and thereby diminish devotional ardor.”[5] But “rote memorization of catechisms without a lively, interactive relationship of didactic exchange between catechist and catechumens was not… the Reformers’ intent…”[6] Their aim was to change the heart through habit and ritual in repetition, and this is done by “lively, interactive” exchange in the context of loving relationships. Otherwise, familiarity breeds contempt and what is memorized will be just like a train that runs continually by that no one hears anymore.

Finally, there are some who feel that if you’re going to take the time to memorize something, why not just memorize Scripture?  What can compare with God’s word?  I sympathize with this view. Psalm 119:11 says “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (ESV) I grew up from the fourth grade on in a Christian school environment.  We were required to learn three verses a week and one chapter per month.  Honestly, it wasn’t too hard because we repeated the three verses out loud several times a day and we did the same once a day as a group with the chapter of Scripture (e.g. Psalm 1, 23, the Beatitudes, etc.). All the memorization was in the King James Version (KJV) and, I suspect, informed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Over the course of my life, I’m amazed at how many times scripture stored in my heart has benefited me, and how much I still recall.

God promises that his word will not return void (Isa. 55:11) but that doesn’t replace the need for a formal framework to pass on the essentials of historic Christianity. It is to this topic—the Case for Catechesis—that we turn, next week.

In preparation, consider learning more about one of the following that you know the least about: The Apostles Creed, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Westminster Shorter Catechism, or the New City Catechism.



[1] J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old –Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 182.

[2] The New City Catechism: 52 Questions for Our Hearts and Minds (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2017), 8.

[3] Op. Cit.,15.

[4] Greg Priebbenow, “Dad Matters! . . . The Spiritual Influence of Fathers,” Formingfaith, accessed November 14, 2016, Used by permission.

[5] J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old –Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 17.

[6] Ibid., 65.

Carpenter | Theologian (cover photo by Ken Larter)