Why Pastors Should Catechize Their Congregations

The Importance of Catechesis

During my childhood, my friends and I used to run home after school and make our plans for all of the fun we would have, but every Wednesday one of my friends would remind us that he could not participate because he had to go to church for catechism. At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. My then-nine-year-old friend told me he learned stuff about the Bible. I didn’t think much about it then but in my years as a pastor and now as a parent I have come to greatly appreciate the practice of catechesis.

Catechesis is more than just teaching children about stuff in the Bible. Historically, the church orally instructed children and new converts in the Bible’s teaching and its doctrines; therefore most catechisms have a question-and-answer format. One of the earliest catechisms is the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.

Pastors and teachers in the early church regularly used catechisms, and the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers reinvigorated the practice. During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Reformed and Lutheran theologians wrote scores of catechisms in an effort to codify and teach the next generation the faith once delivered to the saints. One of the best-known catechisms is Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, which explains the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments, and prayer. Luther’s intention was to arm fathers with the necessary basic knowledge so they could teach and equip their children for the Christian life.

John Calvin’s Geneva Catechism of 1542 was written specifically for children and follows a similar pattern of topics as Luther’s Small Catechism. Zacharias Ursinus wrote the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which is one of the three pillars of the Three Forms of Unity for Continental Reformed churches. And the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648) is perhaps one of the best-known catechisms in the English-speaking world because of its famous first question and answer:

What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.

Catechetical instruction is part of the warp and woof of historic Protestant theology and practice.

In recent years, however, I believe catechesis has fallen on hard times. In the wake of revivalism many American Christians have sought the fantastic and emotional experience of an angst-ridden conversion rather than the quiet, incremental growth of catechetical instruction. In biblical terms, people seek the apostle Paul’s dramatic Damascus Road conversion (Acts 9:1–19) as the normative Christian experience rather than Timothy’s covenantal nurture by his mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 1:5–6). In other words, the overwhelming biblical evidence tells us that Timothy’s experience is normative, not Paul’s unique encounter with Christ.

In this vein, catechetical instruction follows the biblical commands that parents should instruct their children in the knowledge of God (e.g., Deut. 6:4–9; Ex. 13:14; Eph. 6:4). Catechesis provides the framework for children to understand the Bible. Scripture memorization should be a regular staple in the nurture of any child, but he must also understand how the various parts of the Bible fit together.

The New City Catechism

This modern-day catechism sets forth fifty-two questions and answers designed to build a framework to help adults and children alike understand core Christian beliefs.

Moreover, catechesis also teaches children the grammar of theology. When children learn to read and write they must also understand the role and function of nouns, verbs, pronouns, etc., so they can clearly communicate in written and verbal form. The same applies to theology. Children learn the difference between justification and sanctification, the nature of God’s law, and the particulars of prayer and the sacraments, for example. Combined with a regular diet of reading and hearing God’s word preached, by God’s grace and the Spirit’s sovereign work, children have all the necessary nourishment they need to grow into healthy Christians. But just as the early church instructed children and new converts, pastors have the opportunity to use catechesis to instruct the new converts to ensure they too can grow to maturity and move from milk to solid food (cf. 1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12–14)!

So pastors, make use of catechetical instruction with everyone in your church. You can even use it for brief segments of congregational responsive readings in your worship services. Parents, especially fathers, pick up a catechism and use it in the evenings to instruct your family when you sit down for a meal. Feed your family’s bodies with food but feed their souls as well with good catechetical instruction.

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