This Sunday our Thrive Discipleship class will begin a 52 week journey through the New City Catechism's 52 questions. We are beginning this week (04/02/16) with Question 1: What is our only hope in life and death? Why are we doing this?
The New City Catechism was developed by Tim Keller and Sam Shammas from the Reformation catechisms. Its aim is to help teach and explain the building blocks of the gospel and to help strengthen the church’s distinct identity. Keller explains one of the major purposes of catechisms is to “set forth a comprehensive exposition of the gospel—not only in order to explain clearly what the gospel is, but also to lay out the building blocks on which the gospel is based, such as the biblical doctrine of God, of human nature, of sin, and so forth.” As a Reformed Baptist church, we liked that the New City Catechism is friendly to various denominations.
Among the myriad of options for Sunday School curriculum, why did we decide to teach catechisms of all things? After all, isn’t this the 21st century?
No doubt, for some, the word “catechism” can have old-school connotations. Most Protestants hear it and think of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But the truth is, catechism is a practice dating back to the times of the book of Acts with the Apostle Paul, and then on throughout church history. The word ‘catechism’ comes from the Greek word katechein which means to teach orally or to instruct by word of mouth. To teach using catechisms is to instruct systematically by questions, answers, explanations, and corrections. In almost all of the 16th century reformed confessions, you’ll find somewhere a testimony of the importance of catechetical instruction.
In American Evangelical Christianity today, however, the practice is all but lost. We have replaced a solid knowledge of the faith with ‘experience.’ To be sure, experience is important, but experience must always come through truth. Michael Horton puts it this way in his book The Gospel Commission: “It’s possible to have ‘head knowledge’ without ‘heart knowledge,’ but it’s impossible to have the latter without the former. We have to know at least some things in order to be moved to praise, maturity, and obedience.”
The catechisms provide us with a simple and effective way to nurture our students in a concrete knowledge and understanding of the faith. I believe it is time catechisms are brought back into our families and churches and, in particular, our youth ministries.
Five reasons catechisms are essential in Youth Ministry:
1.) It is crucial that teenagers learn systematic theology and doctrine. In Kenda Creasy Dean’s book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, she coins the term “Christian-ish.” She describes how young people don’t speak Christianity but Christian-ish. In her book she asserts that the difference between a Christian and an “Almost Christian” is doctrine rooted in the heart and yielding life.
2.) The Great Commission places a heavy burden on the church to “teach them everything.” The catechisms/confessions give us the essentials.
3). Catechisms put the story of redemption in succinct and accessible forms. Westminster Seminary President, Robert Godfrey, once said: “the reason we need them is because life is short and the Bible is a big book.”
4.) Catechisms provide an excellent opportunity and resource to help parents in their call to disciple their kids. By teaching catechisms in our youth ministries, parents can easily join in and reinforce learning throughout the week, helping them process and talk through what they memorize.
5.) While it is true that faith shapes practice, it is also true that practice shapes faith. These two observations reinforce each other.
I should note the potential abuses of learning catechisms. First, it is possible that one can put them above the Biblical Word of God. We must always remind our children and youth that catechisms are valuable because they serve as summary statements of what the Holy Scriptures themselves teach about a particular doctrine. Therefore, they should always serve as a kind of springboard to more effective Biblical study. Second, although learning catechisms requires work and effort, we must always remind our students that this work and effort will not earn God’s acceptance – in Christ, they already have His acceptance. We must keep the gospel central, even in our teaching, learning, and practices.
Packer, J.I. and Gary Parrett. Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old- Fashioned Way. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010.