The Lost Art of Catechesis

A Witness to Biblical Faith and Practice

With the forthcoming publication of To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, not only the Anglican world, but the church in general, stands to receive a truly remarkable document. Inside are 368 question-and-answer pairings that root Christian teaching in the three-fold order of traditional catechisms: that of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. Unlike modern renderings of the various catechisms of the past, this catechism addresses many areas of deep concern for the church today as she navigates life in the modern world. From the start, we envisioned this catechism to be a robust witness to biblical faith and practice, a tool that in the hands of skilled practitioners could be used for centuries to come to instruct, form, and make mature disciples. We were interested to provide the Church with a firm basis upon which to set ourselves to this important task.

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, catechesis comes from the Greek word katēcheō, meaning to “sound down” or to “resound.” Paul writes: “in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct (katēchesō) others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor. 14:19) The church father Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the late fourth century refers to how the word resounded in those hearing the instruction (called the catechumens) as in an empty space, like a cave, not having a word of its own, but made to resound with the praises and truth of God. This basic instruction we call simply catechesis. Since the Reformation, Christians have produced documents to guide and shape this instruction called catechisms.

To Be a Christian

J. I. Packer, Joel Scandrett, Anglican Church in North America

With 360+ pairs of questions and answers, as well as Scripture references to support each teaching, this catechism instructs new believers and church members in the core beliefs of Christianity from an Anglican perspective.

Unlike Reformation-era catechisms, this catechism is aimed primarily at adults being instructed in the basics of Christian believing, prayer, and living for the first time. That is not to say that the catechism isn’t useful for those who are already Christians—it very much is. It is rather to say that the voicing of this catechism is meant for the purposes of catechetical evangelism. This involves the restoration of the ancient catechumenate, that framework within which new believers were instructed prior to being baptized. But it also involves the restoration of a whole range of practices and skills—arts, if you will—which to this time have been almost entirely lost. Catechesis is not simply a matter of having a tool. It’s a matter of having a teaching tool—the catechism, as well as a wide range of other tools, and being able to apply them through imaginative skill to have a dynamic teaching that is beautiful and powerful. Just as a carpenter uses saws, chisels, and planes to build furniture or houses, the catechist relies on the help of the Holy Spirit to skillfully use sharpened tools to build Christian lives, in short, to build up the body of Christ.

Practical Advice for Catechesis in the Church

I have spent the last six years planting Christ Church, a parish church in Waco, Texas. Around the time I began this work, the draft of To Be a Christian was released. At the urging of our launch team, I began to teach it, going question by question through the whole. It was an exciting time! For me, it was as if the blood was rushing back into my veins as I read questions and asked the people to respond with the answer before explaining the meaning of each answer more closely. Metaphors, analogies, and anecdotes flooded into my mind and the people in that initial group responded with questions which never ceased to probe into the depths of Christian teaching. Within a few months, a group of twenty-five had expanded to over fifty. And within a year, our congregation was over a hundred strong. The joy of retreating back to the basics of the faith, and doing so in a leisurely manner, without a set agenda, and without cheesy, off-the-shelf curricula gave life to us. People immediately started putting the teaching into practice, especially as we asked each week: “How is this going to matter tomorrow?” A group of college students began to pray morning prayer together. They’ve been doing so for nearly five years. As our people learned about healing, we began to pray intently for the healing of our members. People have been healed. We not only gained strength in practice, but our cohesion in matters of teaching was amplified. Many found that they simply could not buy in, and they have found another church to join. Many found that they became enthusiastic in ways they couldn’t have predicted. And others found themselves renewed in the faith that they had received as children and young adults.

Churches thrive when they have a simple process that leads people to spiritual growth and maturity.

How do I do this work at Christ Church? Well, it’s rather simple, actually. Every Sunday morning, all adult and young-adult newcomers within the past year, all those being instructed for baptism, and many others gather for a one hour session in the pews of our church. We start with a hymn. Singing opens the mind to be engaged in the perception of truth. Then, we pray, usually one of the provided prayers in the Catechism. And, with catechisms and Bibles open, we begin the instruction. We pick up where we left off the previous week and we start the Ccatechism fresh every August. It takes the better part of a whole year to get through, but the pace is set by the people in the room. Sometimes, confusion or multiple questions means that we only cover a few question and answer pairs in a morning. Sometimes, we move rather quickly.

As I teach, I pay close attention to the range of reactions, especially facial responses and body posture. This visual feedback is important for several reasons. First, I want to know that I’m making the needed connections. I also want to know who is engaged in the instruction and who is struggling. I often arrange to meet the latter later on in the week. I’m also looking for open wounds. Many times, the work of catechesis can reveal deep hurts and brokenness. The process of conversion can be painful. I want to offer immediate pastoral care to those who need it.

In the first few months, I make it a point to meet individually with everyone engaged in this course. I want to hear their story, know what their prayer needs are, and even ask them questions like, What do we do that seems weird to you? Catechesis happens best when relationships are being built up. This also serves as an on-ramp to the wider life of our congregation. After a year of catechesis, most people join our parish as members, are confirmed, and begin to get involved in our various ministries. There are second-step courses for latter years. Children receive regular instruction in certain parts of the catechism. The result of this has been dynamic growth. Churches thrive when they have a simple process which leads people to spiritual growth and maturity. We have found that reviving the lost art of catechesis has done precisely that!

Lee Nelson is a part of the North American Committee of Catechsis. He is the founding rector of Christ Church, Waco, a parish church of the diocese of Fort Worth in the Anglican Church in North America. He also leads catechesis initiatives in the Anglican Church and was part of the team that edited To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism edited by J. I. Packer and Joel Scandrett. A graduate of Nashotah House and Texas A&M University, he was ordained as a priest in 2005. He and his wife, Ela, have seven children.

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