The case for catechesis
A discipleship method that has been used for centuries is still relevant and can be fun too
Q1: What discipleship method has the church used for centuries, yet largely forgotten today?
A1: Catechesis—teaching with catechisms.
Often based in Q&A format (like this article), catechisms are primers that walk people through the truths of the gospel and how these truths form us. Like links in a chain, they connect one truth to another, asking questions in a logical series like “What is God?” “How and why did he create us?” and “How do we glorify him?” And most include the three pillars of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.
Catechesis dates back to the early church. The church back then made its study a prerequisite for baptism. The reformers revived the practice with Luther reinstituting the office of “catechist.” Calvin even said, “The church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.”1 And though the two best known catechisms—the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647)—come from the Reformed tradition, nearly all denominations have their own versions.
Q2: How did this vital practice nearly vanish?
A2: Sunday school.
Despite the many blessings of the nineteenth-century Sunday school movement, it replaced pastor-catechists with lay teachers, and catechisms with Bible stories.2
But there are other reasons why some hesitate to try this ancient practice. After all, isn’t memorization of doctrinal truths too heady? Shouldn’t we devote such memory time to Scripture itself? And aren’t Bible stories more engaging anyway? Such were the concerns we had when considering The New City Catechism (Japanese version) for our children’s ministry curriculum. Several years and 52 Q&As later, here are four ways we found it fruitful.
Q3: How might catechesis be valuable today?
A3: For Children
When we took our Sunday services on Zoom last year, I was concerned for the children reluctant to participate. But I won’t forget what happened the week themed “Ask anything about the Bible.” The kids erupted with questions: “Who wrote the Bible?” “Why is the cross important?” “Who made God?” Not to mention the questions about heaven and hell!
Such is the brilliance of catechisms. They start with what children are full of—questions.
A3: For Evangelism
Early on, we began writing songs to help memorize the catechism. After several weeks of learning a song, I’d test the kids by asking, “How would you respond if someone asked . . .” and then insert the catechism question, slightly reworded. Sometimes I’d get blank stares, other times long-winded responses. Nothing clicked. Then I’d re-ask the question, only singing it as they had learned. Nearly every time, the kids could sing back the answer, only this time with an “Aha!” look in their eyes. They realized the lyrics were more than a gospel truth, but the answer to a real question a friend or classmate might ask. (We don’t doubt the unchurched dads listening in each Sunday had a few of their own questions answered too!)
If the catechism’s first advantage is starting with a question, its second is providing a memorable answer for all who ask.
A3: For Missionaries
Catechisms during the Reformation not only helped spread the gospel, they spread literacy.
Teaching through The New City Catechism helped my Japanese. Catechisms are great textbooks for missionaries building a gospel vocabulary.
A3: For Worship
One Sunday after the kids acted out a Bible story, we interviewed all the characters. Among the questions were four from the catechism leading to Question 19: “Is there any way to escape punishment and be brought back into God’s favor?”
What struck me wasn’t how they connected the dots from question to question. Nor was it seeing the catechism give them a framework to interpret the story. It was the joy on their faces as we ended, singing the answer to Question 19: “Yes, God reconciles us to himself by a Redeemer.”
Mere knowledge has never been the final goal of catechesis. From the days of the early church, it’s always been the formation of “habitus,” our reflexive, habitual behavior.3 And if there’s one habit that catechesis led us to every week, it was worship.
The Japanese catechism text, as well as Japanese musical resources for the first volume (Questions 1-13) are all available for free via the links below. Christ Bible Institute also published The New City Catechism devotional book (Japanese), available by contacting them directly. May these resources help to form our worship, just as catechisms of old have across the centuries.
The New City Catechism Japanese Free Resources:
Devotional Book: Email firstname.lastname@example.org (only shipping fees required)
1. J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010), 23.
3. Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 2.