Q: Who made you?
-- From the Catechism for Younger Children
For centuries, parents and the church engaged in systematically teaching children biblical truths from manuals of Christian doctrine called catechisms. But formal catechizing gradually fell out of favor and today, not many evangelicals are acquainted with the practice.
"Catechisms were often used until about the fifth century," says Gary Parrett, who wrote, along with J.I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way.Children and new believers were taught "the essentials of the Christian faith, including beliefs, values, practices, and key episodes and dates."
"Catechism in the general sense of instructing Christian people in the basics of their faith was a part of the life of the church from the beginning to greater and lesser degrees," adds Paul Wolfe, associate pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Va., and the father of three elementary-school age children.
The decline of catechism began after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The practice did not experience a revival until the Protestant Reformation centuries later.
"The writing and employment of question-and-answer teaching tools especially emerged as a key component of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century," says Wolfe. "The early Reformers, having recently discovered the true gospel of God's grace themselves, realized that Christians of all ages desperately needed to be schooled in the fundamentals of that gospel, and they took it upon themselves to produce catechetical documents to that end."
Despite the revival of catechizing by the Reformers, the practice has once again declined in the 21st century. "The Protestant Reformers renewed the urgency and emphasis on catechesis from the 16th century onward, but it fairly quickly lost its popularity as the unity of Protestants gave way to numerical growth of new denominations," says Parrett. "Today, there are about 40,000 different denominations, and catechesis now faces a new challenge because of confusion, lack of unity and consistency" among the beliefs of these different groups.
While Wolfe says the Presbyterian tradition he belongs to still cherishes and promotes catechizing children, "sadly, the practice has fallen on hard times of late in other denominations."
While catechizing children may seem old-fashioned, the benefits of following this time-tested tradition are numerous. "Catechizing deepens our knowledge of Scripture, of the Lord's will for our lives, and of our faith and confidence in the Lord," says Parrett. "The number of people interested in catechesis seems to be growing today in many circles."
"The chief benefit to children is that it requires them to state the truth, instead of always hearing the truth stated by others. As they mature, it fosters their own reflecting upon, and wrestling with, the truth, because it's always ready at hand (in their own minds) for them to work with. It also helps parents to know where their children might be struggling to remember and understand important biblical ideas," says Wolfe
While catechism has received an unfair reputation of being only about rote memorization, the practice's very design is to engage children in studying and understanding biblical truths. "The practice of catechizing fosters a well-rounded understanding of the Christian faith because it requires the children to cover the wide scope of Christian truth," says Wolfe. "Also, like learning hymns, it impresses upon the children the fact that they're part of the church, since they're committing to memory the same words that many other children have learned before them and are learning to this day."
For parents, the benefits of catechizing children go beyond seeing their offspring grow in faith. Catechism can challenge the faith of parents, too. Wolfe suggests that parents should think about the following questions when catechizing their children: "Do I understand well the answer to the question I'm asking? Do I grasp these truths well enough to respond to the questions my children might pose in response? Do I have a well-rounded understanding of the gospel, as I seek to foster that in my children? I'm interrogating my children to help them develop as God-honoring theologians, but have I sought to become such a disciple myself?"
Start at the Beginning
Developing a catechism routine for your family doesn't have to be a daunting task. (See the sidebar for suggestions of which catechisms to use.) "If the children are very young, start with the Catechism for Young Children," says Wolfe. "As with all religious practices, there's great wisdom in starting with small steps. That way, the children (and the parents, too) are less likely to feel overwhelmed and discouraged."
Parrett recommends belonging to a "church that emphasizes catechesis." He adds that purchasing a "catechism that can be a center for memory, prayer and discussion" is essential. Also, schedule times of regular discussion of the catechism and of prayer.
The Wolfe family has woven catechism questions into their daily family worship, along with a program of Scripture memorization. "We also draw upon catechism answers the children have learned when the answers are relevant to some hymn we're learning or a Bible story we're reading. That helps them to see how it all ties together," says Wolfe.
Catechism need not become simply another task to complete. By approaching catechism with both joy and patience, parents can use this important practice to build their children's knowledge of Christ and the Bible.
Patience comes into play "because there's no hurry. Don't pressure yourself (and your children) to cram a whole lot of words and ideas into their minds in a short time span," says Wolfe.
Joy should be evident "because the memorization of words and ideas are not drudgery. Don't forget to remind your children why you're doing this, and to interrupt the catechizing with reflections of your own, including what a great gospel we have to learn. You can have fun with it, too, without trivializing it, such as every once in a while, turning the tables and letting the kids ask you questions," says Wolfe.
Catechism might seem more 16th century than 21st century, but employing the practice in your home will be profitable to the growth and understanding of you and your children's Christian faith. Even in the midst of our technological age, we should hav ea care to not be neglectful of this old-fashioned yet important aspect of our Christian heritage.
Choosing a Catechism
Catechisms are available today, either as downloads from websites or via purchase through Amazon.com and other bookstores. Here are some of the best-known and most widely used catechisms.
Catechism for Younger Children, based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism
John Calvin's Geneva Catechism (1545)
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Martin Luther's Small Catechism (1529)
The Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechism
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired @ Home: The Christian Mother's Guide to Working From Home. She lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her at www.sarahhamaker.com.