Today I want to conclude our discussion on Christian catechesis by addressing three areas. First, why is catechesis, and a catechism in particular, so often neglected in our discipleship today? Second, what are some things we may learn from our study of Christian catechesis that may be applied to our situation today? Finally, what are some tools out there that might prove helpful for instructing others in the faith?
Why Is Catechesis Neglected Today? Why does it seem that the church has neglected catechesis, and a catechism in particular, for instructing believers in the faith? First of all, not all church traditions would necessarily agree with that statement. Many of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters have continued to utilize the Westminster Longer and Shorter Catechism with great effect in their homes and churches as a tool to educate children, teens, and adults in the faith. In other church traditions, such as Pentecostalism, the use of a catechism is generally not even considered. But why is this? Why the difference between these church traditions? One reason is the connectedness the current church traditions have with the past. Presbyterian denominations are rooted in a church tradition stretching back to the Reformation. Many of the practices established during that time continue in some form in current Presbyterian teaching and polity. Pentecostals on the other hand are largely new comers to the church world. Although many of its early leaders did come from Methodist backgrounds, where a catechism would have been utilized to some degree, Pentecostalism as a movement quickly amassed followers from several church traditions that would not have regularly used a catechism. In addition, Pentecostalism developed at a moment in church history when other instructional methods were far more prominent in the church landscape, such as Sunday school and its emphasis on the direct study of Scripture (Osmer, “The Case for Catechism,” 409).
Another reason often cited for the decline of a catechism is the use of current educational methods. Many of these methods emphasize “individual exploration, personal discovery, and group discussion” (Packer, Growing in Christ, xiii. See also Meade, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds, 3). These newer methods tend to deemphasize such practices as rote memorization, which is a staple in Christian catechesis. But do these trends in education mean it is not possible to utilize a catechism to instruct persons in the faith? I don’t think so. What is necessary is finding a way to take what one learns in a catechism, biblical knowledge and theological categories, and wed them to current educational practices. While attempting to do this, one must keep in mind that Christianity is a written faith. What we know and believe about God, ourselves, and how we respond to that revelation is found in the Bible, God’s inspired, infallible, and authoritative word to humanity. We cannot minimize the necessity of learning facts and ideas from Scripture. However, how we go about attaining those facts and ideas may differ. We may chose to utilize memorization in order to hide God’s Word in our hearts. But we may also go about understanding a point of doctrine by engaging in group activities, led by a competent and well-informed instructor. We may use the content of a catechism as the basis for our instruction to our students. A catechism would be especially helpful for anyone teaching doctrine or systematic theology, given the layout of a catechism. It may also be useful in family worship as parents, who may not have had the opportunity for deep theological training, to instruct their children in the faith, in a manner that is nonthreatening, since it does not require the parent to wax poetically about the depths of biblical doctrine.
Is it necessary to utilize a catechism when instructing others? I don’t think so. Although it may prove helpful and useful in some settings, I believe what is far more important isn’t necessarily the method one uses to teach others, but what one is teaching and that one is teaching. Content and instruction are preeminent when it comes to transmitting the faith from one generation to another.