The lost art of Catechism

Catechism (n):

  1. an elementary book containing a summary of the principles of the Christian religion, especially as maintained by a particular church, in the form of questions and answers.

In our church we regularly run courses for people who want to find out more about the Christian faith. In the past we’ve run Alpha, and more recently we’ve started running Christianity Explored. By the grace of God we have seen a number of people come into the church over the last few years, partly as a result of these courses. In my home group at the moment we have a number of folks who have only come into church in the last few years and I’ve had a chance to get to know them pretty well – and get to know their needs, spiritually speaking.
What I’ve been finding is that people who come into faith these days are coming from a background of virtually no knowledge about God, Jesus, the Bible, the cross, etc. There is just simply no background knowledge of the Christian faith. Everything has to be built from the ground up, which takes time.
The realisation that I’ve been coming to is that we need to rethink the way that the church disciples new believers. Sunday services are a good start – but we’ve found it’s tough to encourage people to come when there are so many other competing demands on time. Church is a big commitment – a commitment which is absolutely worth it, for sure – but I think it’s hard to understand just how significant it is for people to make that commitment. According to some research I read recently, even those who are committed will come twice a month – something which we see in our church here. Is twice a month enough to understand the Christian faith? And even if someone comes more – sermons are not generally designed to teach faith in a systematic way. Church services are a good start but they’re not enough!
Bible studies are usually the next step. And for good reason: I have benefited so much over the years from them – but again, they have limitations. What I’ve found in my home group these last few years is that the newer Christians have actually struggled more with Bible studies because they do not have the Christian worldview to go along with it. Understanding the Bible takes time and effort, and in particular one needs to understand the ‘big picture’ of the Bible and its theology alongside the individual books and chapters. The two feed into each other – growth in one leads to growth in the other.
So the question in my mind is: how can we, as churches, focus on being intentional about teaching a Christian worldview? Especially for new believers – who have heard nothing but the world preaching to them for their whole lives. To put it another way, how do we best equip people coming from a background with virtually no Christian understanding to come to a mature faith?
Bible study will get you there – but it will take time if you work your way systematically through books of the Bible. There is an alternative, which has been used by the church for centuries but has fallen somewhat out of favour these days: catechism (or catechesis, but let’s not complicate things). A catechism is a series of questions and answers designed to teach the faith, which are designed to be learned by members of a church – in the Anglican tradition, the catechism was designed to be used before confirmation. (There is a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, but we’ve never used it in our church and I think most churches don’t use it).
The idea is that it teaches believers a kind of ‘Christian basics’ course, which covers things like who God is, the Bible, the ten commandments, the creed, etc. It’s a (relatively) short summary of the Christian faith. Tim Keller says: “classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.” It is, in other words, what all believers – but especially new Christians – need to get going in the Christian life.
Personally I think that revising the catechism format for the 21st century would be a great way of discipling believers to face the problems of a post-Christian world. That’s not to say it should replace Bible study, but rather complement it.
I’m not the only one saying this – and, in fact, I was very heartened to see that one church has produced the New City Catechism. This is a catechism which is taken from a number of classic catechisms but updated for the 21st century – you can read it all online or via an app, alongside a few paragraphs of explanation. There are 52 questions and answers – one per week over the course of a year. (Not too taxing!)
Personally I think this is a great idea and I’m going to try and start using it at every opportunity. I’ve actually started vlogging my way through the catechism, if you’d like to join me you’d be very welcome – here’s the first video (the introduction basically says just what I’ve said here).
Learning doctrine has been immensely helpful for me in my Christian life – not simply reading the Bible (although that is essential), but putting the pieces together. The catechism is an excellent way of starting to do that. If you’ve not done it before, I would urge you to give it a try.