Guess when this was written?

How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. 

You might think someone wrote that this week. but it was written almost 500 years ago. It’s part of the Preface to Martin Luther’s Short Catechism.

Oh, you bishops! How will you ever answer to Christ for letting the people carry on so disgracefully and not attending to the duties of your office even for a moment? One can only hope judgment does not strike you! You command the Sacrament in one kind only, insist on the observance of your human ways, and yet are unconcerned whether the people know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or indeed any of God’s Word. Woe, woe to you forever! Martin Luther, Small Catechism Preface

Luther held pastors responsible for the people they shepherded, as well he should. That’s nothing new. Read through the Bible and you’ll see that God holds the spiritual leaders of His people responsible for what they believe and how well they live their lives based on what they believe.

We like to introduce a new Bible-based series at the beginning of each year. We pray Why Learn A Christian Catechism will be helpful to you and your family.

Why a Catechism?

Catechisms are a series of questions and answers that teach Christian doctrine (teachings) to children and adults. God gave the responsibility of teaching His Word to children to their parents and catechisms are one way to do that.

You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. Deuteronomy 6:7

What is the “them” that parents should diligently teach their children, and talk about them as they sat in their houses, walked by the way, when they “lie down” and when they “rise up”? Look at the verses that proceed Deuteronomy 6:7 and you’ll see that Moses was referring to the commandments God gave to the people of Israel – specifically the Ten Commandments (see Deuteronomy 5 for context).

Therefore you shall be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess. Deuteronomy 5:32-33

The Ten Commandments was a type of early catechism.

Therefore you shall keep every commandment which I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and possess the land which you cross over to possess, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord swore to give your fathers, to them and their descendants, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’ … Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land of which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, like the days of the heavens above the earth. Deuteronomy 11:8-9, 18-21

The process of fathers and mothers teaching their children God’s Word has a history that goes back thousands of years. Children were wise to hear and heed the instruction of their parents.

My son, hear the instruction of your father, And do not forsake the law of your mother; For they will be a graceful ornament on your head, And chains about your neck. Proverbs 1:8-9

What Is A Catechism?

A “catechesis” is a method of instructing children or new converts. The earliest catechisms were based on teachings from the Bible. The Hebrew Shema is based on first hearing (שָׁמַע shâma’) God’s Word, then memorizing the words they heard.

She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad – Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! Deuteronomy 6:4

Children memorized Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments as part of their learning. Many scholars believe the Apostle Paul quoted from a very early catechism taught to the followers of Christ soon after Pentecost:

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen. 1 Corinthians 15:3-5

Catechism comes from the Greek word katécheó, which means “to instruct orally, teach by word of mouth.” The idea was that a person learned through meaningful repetition (katá ēxéō). Here are a few examples of where the word was used in the New Testament:

… that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. Luke 1:4

This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. Acts 18:25

… yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. 1 Corinthians 14:19

Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches. Galatians 6:6

The question for this series is “Why learn a Christian catechism?” Can’t Christians grown strong in faith and action without learning a catechism? Yes, they can, but are they growing? Are Christian children, teens, and young people learning solid Christian doctrine and applying that knowledge to their lives? Are parents and preachers discipling children and teens well? Are children and teens growing up and continuing to follow Christ the rest of their lives?

Look around and tell me what you see in Christianity today? Unfortunately, a majority of Christians (young and old) know very little about what the Bible teaches. Their instruction in the basics of Christian doctrine seems lacking. They rarely share the Gospel with family and friends and often get confused when a non-Christian challenges what they believe.

Another problem is that many Christians believe the wrong things. What they believe about the Bible often doesn’t agree with what the Bible teaches. That’s a big problem that has led to many problems in churches and families.

As we’ve reported on our GraceLife and Faith & Self Defense blogs through the years, many young people raised in Christian families and churches are denouncing Christianity as untrue. They are “deconstructing and deconverting.” Pew Research estimates that while about 40 million people will convert to Christianity worldwide in the next 30 years, about 106 million people will leave Christianity during that same time period – most of them becoming religiously unaffiliated. That’s a net loss of 66 million Christians around the world in the next 30 years from ‘deconversion’.  Christianity is already a minority in many countries where it used to be the majority religion. Christianity in the United States is estimated to become a minority religion within 20-30 years. What religion will take the place of Christianity in the US?

Depending on whether religious switching continues at recent rates, speeds up or stops entirely, the projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070. Over that same period, “nones” would rise from the current 30% to somewhere between 34% and 52% of the U.S. population. Pew Research

A “None” is someone who has no religious affiliation. When asked by Pew and other research companies about their religious affiliation, Nones answer “none of the above.” Nones are the fastest-growing group of young adults in the U.S., Latin America, and Western Europe. Think about that for a minute. Young people who have no interest in God or religion will soon outnumber Christians in the countries where Christianity once flourished and dominated. The religious landscape is changing quickly and it doesn’t look good for Christian families and churches.

So, what are Christians to do in the face of this challenge? We need to return to knowing and loving God. We need to return to solid biblical preaching and teaching. We need to tell “Nones” about Jesus Christ. Most of them know little if anything about the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ the Savior.. Whose fault is that? Theirs? I don’t think so.

How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!’ Romans 10:14-15

I have never attended a church that used a catechism, but I can see its benefits. Even as Martin Luther blamed much of the problems in the churches he visited almost 500 years ago on pastors, we can do the same today. However, that does not let parents off the hook. Parents should never depend on pastors and teachers at church for the spiritual education of their children. God holds parents primarily responsible. Pastors and teachers should support what parents do with their children. Unfortunately, too many parents and pastors have neglected their responsibilities.

At present, the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs concentrate on practices such as Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism and can at times be superficial when it comes to doctrine. In contrast, the 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. Also, the catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do typical discipleship courses. Finally, the practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.

Because we have lost the practice of catechesis today, “superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—career-wise, community-wise, family-wise, and church-wise—are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today.” New City Catechism Introduction

Choosing a Catechism

Choosing a catechism to use with your children or in your church depends to some extent on what you believe. Some of the catechisms differ only slightly in teaching. However, some of them differ more. If your church already uses a catechism and you are comfortable with its teaching, it makes sense as a parent to use that catechism with your children. That way you are supporting what they’re learning at church and the church is supporting what you are teaching your children at home. If your church does not use a catechism or uses one you are not comfortable with teaching, then we may be able to help you in choosing the best one for your family.

We will look at ten catechisms in this series. There are more than ten, but these are some of the best-known catechisms among Christian churches and denominations. If you don’t see a catechism on this list that you find helpful, let us know in the comments section below and we’ll consider adding it to the series.

  1. Early Church Catechisms
  2. Luther’s Catechism, Small and Large
  3. Calvin’s Catechism
  4. Heidelberg Catechism
  5. Westminster Catechism, Shorter and Longer
  6. Keach’s Catechism (aka The Baptist Catechism)
  7. A Puritan Catechism
  8. Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer
  9. Wesleyan Catechism
  10. New City Catechism

Though I see benefit in learning longer catechisms as an adult, you may find it better to teach your children a shorter version. Short (small) versions are easier for them to learn, memorize, understand, and follow.

Important LOVE Note

One of the keys to teaching children and teens is that they know you LOVE them. Getting kids to memorize a catechism is only helpful if we teach and lead them in a spirit of love. If children feel loved and protected within the home, the home is the best place for them to learn about God’s love for them.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 1 Corinthians 13:1

… speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— Ephesians 4:15

And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4

Next Time

We’ll look at some of the Catechisms of the Early Church in the next part of our new series.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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