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.


Hymnology: By Faith we see the hand of God

February here at St Mark’s is ‘all-request’ month. People have the opportunity to request a favourite hymn or a song, and we’ll sing them  at services throughout the month.

My request for the month was “By Faith” by Townend and Getty. This is a song which is particularly inspired by the famous chapter 11 of Hebrews, about the ‘heroes of faith’. I chose it because I’ve been thinking a lot about the future recently, and what it means to step out by faith: so often it seems that God leads us down a road where we can’t see everything – we can maybe only see the first step or two. But we are called to take a step out in faith, and trust God that he will lead and guide us.

I thought it would be worthwhile thinking a little bit about “walking by faith and not by sight” in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews was a book which, as far as we can tell, was written to a group of Jewish believers who were in danger of giving up their faith in Christ and going back to the Jewish religion. The reason? They didn’t want to walk by faith – the Jewish religion had the temple and sacrifices and so on – things you could physically see, touch, smell etc.

What the writer to the Hebrews does is demonstrate that what Christians have ‘by faith’ is not only the true heir to what we call the Old Testament – the Hebrew Scriptures – but is actually more real than what we can see currently with our eyes.

In particular, he demonstrates that Christ and what has been accomplished through him is the reality, in a way which the Temple, sacrificial system and the Law could never be:

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. (9:24-25)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (10:1)

The earthly tabernacle and temple were not the reality: they were only “a copy” or a “shadow” of what was to come – i.e. Christ. They were only physical reminders to the people of the redemption that God was going to fully accomplish in Christ.

But Christ has come, the reality has come – and obtained “eternal redemption” with his own blood, rather than the blood of bulls and goats. He has not entered into a copy of the true sanctuary, but he has entered into heaven itself and appears for us in God’s presence. That’s an amazing thought!

So we come to chapter 11, where we see this ‘hall of fame’ of those characters from the Old Testament who the writer mentions. He demonstrates that all these characters, far from living lives oriented around what they could see, actually lived lives of faith – trusting patiently in what they could not yet see. Here’s what the writer says about them:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

All of these characters the writer mentions were looking for something beyond what they could see with their eyes. They were “longing for a better country – a heavenly one”. Their hope for the unseen future controlled what they did in the seen present. They were able to endure hardship and do mighty deeds because they knew that there was more to the world than simply what their eyes could see.

This is really significant for us today: I think it’s so tempting – for me at least – to simply look round at a place and see nothing but the physical. To see nothing but bricks and mortar, and people going about their days with no concern for the eternal. But God calls us to look beyond, to look to the future, to look to the heavenly city which he has prepared for all those who love him. This must control our days, not simply our immediate concerns but God’s concerns. We walk by faith and not by sight.

This is part of my “Hymnology” blog series

Family Illness: Update

I mentioned about this time last year that my Mum was not well. Well, she’s been on chemo pretty much since then and, despite the side effects of the treatment, she’s been doing pretty well. However, in around November she started getting a bit unsteady on her feet. We initially thought it was another side-effect of the chemo, however the symptoms didn’t stop – so last week, she went for an MRI scan. Apparently, the first place lung cancer goes is the brain, so the oncologist was a bit concerned.

We hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t be the case… however, she got the results back on Monday. The cancer has indeed spread – she has secondary tumours in her brain. She will need radiotherapy in order to treat; unfortunately due to the tumours being spread out they won’t be able to target it. The treatment should begin in the next couple of weeks.

It’s been a bit of a shock, to be honest – although I guess it’s always been on the cards, since she responded so well to the chemo (the original lung tumour disappeared) I didn’t really believe it was going to be the case. Obviously the outlook is not good at this stage, although of course we need to remain hopeful!

One thing which I mentioned at the time which I still feel now is the place of God in all this. I certainly feel a lot more calm about it than by rights I should do. The past few months have provided an opportunity to reflect on the role of suffering from a personal perspective, and my opinion hasn’t changed.

  1. There is something wrong with creation. My Mum’s illness is not something which is good, right and natural. It’s an alien intrusion into this world. Right from Genesis 3, creation has been “subjected to frustration” (as Paul puts it in Romans 8:20). The world is not as it should be, and death and suffering are part of that. We rightly weep at these things, for they are not part of God’s original good creation.
  2. That said, God has promised to renew creation. All those who believe and trust in Him will be renewed. Revelation 21:4 says, “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Paul says in Romans 8:18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
  3. God has proven this ultimately through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The ‘firstfruits’ – he has risen from the dead, and in turn at his return those who believe in Him will rise also like him.
  4. In the meantime, until that day, we know that suffering is not in vain. Paul says, again in Romans 8:28, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Although it’s hard to see at the moment, God has a purpose – there is no purposeless suffering. And it’s a great comfort to know, whether Mum dies in 1 year or 100, it will not be the end. This life is merely the beginning.

Frankly I don’t know what I would do without faith at the moment. If suffering was ultimately meaningless and death the final curtain call, I think I’d be beside myself. As it happens, I can trust in my heavenly Father, the trustworthy creator and redeemer.