Catechesis for the 21st century

Two blog posts that I read this morning have been percolating in my brain. One warns of the danger of putting too much emphasis on doctrine, and too little on a changed life. The other warns against letting experience become the authority rather than sound doctrine. Both are concerned with the appropriate place of doctrine, and both are no doubt reacting against an imbalance often witnessed in our churches.

Dr. Platypus commends another blogger’s critique of an article in Christianity Today, “The Lost Art of Catechesis.” The authors of this article note with dismay that the lay-led Sunday School movement has pretty much replaced the previous practice of pastor-led catechesis. Despite all the good that is accomplished in Sunday School, children who have grown up in it know a handful of Bible stories (the same ones get taught over and over again) but generally lack “for any form of grounding in the basic beliefs, practices, and ethics of the faith.”

The critique jumps on what is seen as the subordination of Bible stories to learning a set of theological statements. If that were the essence of catechesis, I would agree. Many people associate catechesis with a catechism, a set of questions and answers that constitute a systematic explanation of what a Christian is to believe and do. They were intended to ensure that Christians understood the essentials of their faith, but today they are associated with a practice of rote memorization divorced from a practical outworking of one’s faith.

How did that happen? This post at Parchment and Pen notes a changing attitude toward study of the Bible over the course of church history since the Reformation. The Reformers insisted that Scripture was the authority, rather than tradition. They emphasized study of Scripture, not only for clergy but for laypeople as well. (And they also developed catechisms to go along with that study, as the authors of the CT article noted.) With the coming of the Enlightenment period, however, people came to see reason as the final authority rather than revelation.

Pastors were trained to expound the text of Scripture–and this came to mean explain the text, but not apply the text. Too many seminaries viewed one’s exegetical and theological skills as the lone spiritual barometer. There was no accountability of one’s life. Whether one believed the Bible and consequently tried to shape his life by its precepts was often not in view.

Gradually many Christians became aware of the sterility of such an approach. Churches had become full of people who could give all the right answers from a memorized catechism, but it did not affect their attitudes and their actions. Perhaps they did not even truly believe the doctrines they recited.

In reaction against this, many Christians began to emphasize personal experience. There needed to be a definite conversion experience, and a subsequent change of life. An emphasis on an intellectual approach to Christianity gave way to an emphasis on emotions. In some churches, doctrine became secondary. In others, doctrine remained important, but catechisms were out. If there was going to be rote memorization, it was going to be of Bible passages.

So today, a typical Sunday School class teaches a Bible story each week, with some practical application to the children’s lives, and they are encouraged (or required, depending on the church) to memorize a Bible verse that goes along with the lesson. Classes are taught by volunteers with little if any training. Leaders in charge of recruiting teachers often emphasize how little preparation is necessary. All you really have to do is read the lesson out of the teacher’s manual, and have the children do activities which are also laid out in detail.

At best, classes are taught by mature believers who love the children, pray for them, and model a living faith that teaches by example more than anything in the teacher’s manual. Many, many people have come to faith in Christ because of the love of a Sunday School teacher.

As it is usually hard to get enough volunteers to teach Sunday School, however, teachers are often relatively new believers themselves. They are eager to serve God, but they know little (if at all) more about the lessons they teach than the children in the class. Sometimes they don’t really want to teach, but they have been “guilted” into it.

I won’t even get into the matter of the curriculum, which is another whole issue in itself. Suffice it to say that the average child who has attended Sunday School for several years knows David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, Jesus feeding the 5000, Jesus calming the storm, and a handful of other stories that they have heard over and over again. Some curricula include less familiar stories, but spend so little time on each one that it is unlikely most children have any memory of them more than a few weeks later.

I do agree on the primacy of teaching Bible stories in Christian education – whether of children or adults. My favorite resource is rotation.org, which offers a different model for Sunday School than is used in most churches. (That is changing, though, as more and more churches adopt the Rotation model.) Rather than learning a different story each week, the students learn the same story (about) four weeks in a row, with a different type of activity and practical emphasis each week.

The “rotation” aspect of it is that there are four (or at any rate the same number as how many weeks the lesson is being taught) different classrooms, and the same number of classes (not necessarily organized by age). One room may use drama to act out the story, another uses art or music, another uses crafts, and another uses an adult storyteller. Adults are recruited who enjoy that particular activity (drama, art, music, even cooking, or woodworking, depending on the story), and they repeat the lesson all four weeks. This makes it easier to get willing volunteers, and it reinforces the lesson by repetition without getting boring.

As with any good teaching program, however, the important part is that it is not just about learning what happened in the story, but how it fits into the larger picture of God’s plan, and what it means to me personally. Besides many lessons plans donated to the website, there are good resources on how to set up the curriculum, making sure that it covers essential points of Bible history, doctrine, and how to live as a Christian.

As I haven’t attended a church that had this model fully implemented (a church I used to attend implemented it after we moved away, and I tried to use elements of it in my own teaching, but the rotation part doesn’t work when you have only one or two teachers and four to six children), I don’t know how the “shepherding” aspect works out in practice. While the adults presenting the lesson stay in their classrooms while the classes rotate in and out, each group of children has a “shepherd” who goes with them, and (ideally) stays with them all year.

This shepherd gets to know the children individually, knows their personalities and the things they struggle with in church and away from it. The shepherd prays with and for the children, and – one hopes – becomes a trusted mentor. While relatively little training would be needed for the volunteers who tell stories, lead in music or drama, or help with crafts, I would think the shepherd needs to be a mature Christian, able to guide the children in their spiritual growth.

And that is also an important aspect of catechesis, as it was once practiced, and as some churches are trying to relearn the process today. The closest I have seen to it is in the Confirmation class used in many mainline Protestant churches to prepare young teenagers (usually ninth grade) for church membership. In many churches, it is mostly a pro forma thing, another ritual to go through but one that has a very predictable result – at the end of the year everyone gets confirmed and welcomed into church membership.

In other churches, though, it is a time for much deeper teaching, for soul-searching, for exploring areas of service in the church and community, and for discipleship by an adult mentor. Learning answers to a catechism may or may not be part of it, but a well-formed understanding of what the church has historically believed is. So is a personal decision whether or not to join oneself to the church, not only as an official member but one who strives to live according to its teachings.

I noted that the authors of the CT article did not focus narrowly on catechesis as a way to learn doctrine. Rather, they spoke of “grounding in the basic beliefs, practices, and ethics of the faith” (emphasis mine). For an idea how catechesis used to be done in the Early Church, and a vision of how it could and should be done today, see this article. It is presented from a Mennonite perspective, so there are no doubt differences in the details of what I would focus on as far as ethical practice. But I think it is an excellent description of what all our churches should be doing.

One Response to Catechesis for the 21st century

  1. woleary says:

    This looks interesting. I’ll check that article you recommended out.

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