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.

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Videos & the blog – update

I’ve just uploaded the last in my series on “How to grow as a Christian” – looking at the cross from Mark’s gospel.

I apologise that my blog has become even more neglected over the last month, but I have been uploading videos weekly.

If you want to follow these videos, the best thing is to subscribe to my channel there (click the Subscribe button on that page). You can also subscribe on Facebook, but I tend to find Facebook a bit more unreliable for showing you new content.

I will try to get a mailing list set up with new videos as that is probably the safest way! But the best bet for now is to subscribe on YouTube.

I’m not going to close the blog, but I just wanted to explain where I am while I’m not here…

Can we be optimistic about 2018?

Happy New Year to all my blog followers! Seeing as my last one seemed to be received well, I decided to do another vlog message thinking about the subject of whether we can be optimistic in 2018. Given that the world is in such a mess at the moment – the bad news seems to be relentless – can we be optimistic about the coming year? This is my answer.

Peter Adam on depression

I’ve been on a roll talking about mental health lately, so I thought I’d share this video I’ve just found (courtesy of the Gospel Coalition). It’s of Peter Adam talking about mental illness – in particular, his suffering with depression for 30 years.

It’s a very honest interview and well worth watching.  Three points jumped out at me:

  1. How helpful it was to know that the depression was not random or pointless, but that God was sovereign over it. In particular, Peter was able to give some ways in which God had been able to use his depression over the years to good effect. This doesn’t make a bad thing good, but makes me give thanks to God that he always uses evil things for good purposes in the end (Genesis 50:20).
  2. He says that mental health shouldn’t be considered a different kind of issue to others which people experience. We are all broken in all sorts of different ways. The church is a place where sinful and broken people come together to find forgiveness and healing.
  3. I really liked what he said about the church. Someone once said “The church is a hospital for broken people, not a museum for perfect people.” I think this is true: sadly, a lot of churches are museums for perfect people – where the relationships never really get beyond the superficial. In my home group lately, I think all of us have begun to reach the level in our relationship where we are able to share what’s actually going on in our lives, to open ourselves up to being vulnerable. It has been immensely helpful for many of us to open up, share, pray for and support one another. The verse Peter mentions is Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Carrying each other’s burdens – a wonderful picture of the church.

I hope you enjoy the video, he says a lot of helpful things which are well worth listening to from someone with 30 years experience.

Follow-up on mental health

A few weeks ago I blogged about a Christian perspective on mental health. In that piece I started out by saying, “There is far, far more to say and I just wanted to make clear from the outset: this is just the beginning.”

Well, today Glen Scrivener wrote an excellent piece on the Gospel Coalition website which I think is well worth reading as a sort of follow-up looking at how the gospel actually works in his and his wife’s particular example – dealing with anorexia. I said that there was plenty more to say, and I think this piece is an excellent complement to what I originally wanted to say.

I hope that this kind of thing encourages Christians to speak up more in the context of mental health. I can’t remember where I read this now, but last week I came across a quote, saying something like: “Christians can’t answer every question, but every Christian should be able to finish the sentence ‘only God got me through…’

Churches shouldn’t be museums of perfect people but hospitals for for the broken.

Glen finishes the article:

It’s always tempting to think these struggles are a departure from the trajectory you’re meant to be on. Life is meant to be an unbroken ascent into . . . wait . . . that’s a theology of glory, isn’t it? As theologians of the cross, we ought to know Jesus is at work right here and right now, even—and especially—in suffering. He’s willing and able to redeem us from all evil (Gen. 48:16).

We aren’t meant to sidestep or outwit this “departure” from our plans. The Lord knows how to redeem the years the locust has eaten (Joel 2:25). Maybe you’ll be able to comfort others with the comfort you’ve received in your affliction (2 Cor. 1:4). But whatever happens, you can let him handle those details.

So friend, receive from Jesus, get in community, look at your own sins, love your partner, and pray, pray, pray. Jesus enters the mess and says, “Here I am. Let’s engage right here, right now.”