By Dr. Bryan Smith
One of my heroes is Dr. Glen Schultz. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He’s the founder of Kingdom Education Ministries, he often writes for this magazine, and he’s been involved in Christian education for more than fifty years. On top of all that, he’s a great guy.
The other day I was reading his blog, and I came across a post titled “Is the Church Falling Apart?”1 His point is that Christianity in the United States is struggling. The main reason? Believers—even those who attend church regularly—are getting very little Bible instruction. Typically, people go to church once a week; the service is no more than an hour, and the sermon is twenty or thirty minutes. Meanwhile, through media, friends, and the daily grind, our culture constantly sends us its messages. This disparity in messaging leaves Christians worldly, more worldly than they realize.
What is Glen’s advice? Longer sermons? More weekly services? I’m sure he has opinions about those things, but that’s not his focus in the blog post. Instead, he exhorts all of us to be intentional about instructing our young people in the faith.
He says that anything the church does is likely to see limited success without this. That’s because “adults have developed their worldview or belief system at a much younger age. Once this is developed, it is very difficult to change.” But children are different. They’re impressionable; they’re open to changing their minds, even about basic things. So while our children are young, we should invest in shaping their worldview.
How should this be done? Among other things, Glen’s article suggests using a catechism.
WHAT IS A CATECHISM?
A catechism is a summary of the basic teachings of the Christian religion. It usually takes the form of a set of questions and answers. These begin with claims that are simple and easy to memorize. For example: Who made you? God made me. But eventually, the list steps the child up to more challenging claims. Like this one: What is justification? Justification is God’s forgiving me and accepting me as righteous in His sight.
Through repetition, children get to the point where they can recite an answer with ease. Over two or three years, children learn more than 100 answers to questions about God, humanity, sin, salvation, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, and prayer. By the end of the catechizing process, a young person has a basic understanding of the fundamental teachings of the Bible.
So, who uses a catechism? If you had asked this question a century ago, I would have said that just about everyone does. But that is no longer the case. Few churches today catechize their young people. Why? As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons.
Aren’t Catechisms for Catholics?
First, many people are uncomfortable with the idea of a catechism because they associate it with being Catholic. It’s true that Catholics have historically taken catechizing very seriously, but that doesn’t make it a Catholic idea. Protestants have used catechisms since the early days of the Reformation. In fact, the earliest catechisms were Protestant, not Catholic.
Martin Luther published two catechisms in 1529, and he used both with great success in the following decades. It wasn’t until the 1550s that the Catholic church—distressed by Luther’s effectiveness—decided to take the idea and use it for its own purposes.2
Baptists, too, have a rich history of using catechisms. The first Baptist catechisms appeared in the 1600s. To date, one of the most famous catechisms was written by the Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon. He published it in 1855 when he was only twenty-one years old. Some churches still use it.
Will My Child Become a Christian Robot?
Second, many people believe that catechizing is a recipe for formalism and deadness. Christianity is a relationship with God, right? So how can memorizing questions and answers make a person a better Christian?
The problem with this objection is that it assumes that catechizing is nothing more than rote memory work. But that is not the case—or at least it does not have to be.
This is a lesson I learned recently. Over the past several years, I’ve been involved in producing three catechism courses for BJU Press. We call these courses Truths for Life. They’re designed to be taught in first through third grade in homeschools and Christian schools (though they can be used in church ministry or as a part of family worship). At the core of these courses are 147 truths (we call them Bible Truths) presented in a question-and-answer format.
But there is much more to these courses than just the questions and answers. Each Bible Truth is introduced by a historical account from the Bible—usually one with lots of action and conflict. After telling the young person how God parted the Red Sea, chose David as king, or raised Jesus from the dead, the instruction connects the main point of the narrative to the Bible Truth. Over the next several days, as the child works on memorizing the Bible Truth, he engages in various learning experiences that help him grasp the truth and why it’s important. He may sing the Bible Truth, role-play a portion of the Bible account, come up with an object lesson that helps explain the truth, discuss with someone how he plans to apply the truth to his life, or use the truth in prayer.
The goal is not just to memorize an answer. It’s also to understand the answer, know how it applies to life, and learn to depend on God in living it out.
When it’s done right, a catechism can be life-changing—far from being lifeless and boring. By the time the child has worked through all the questions and answers, he knows what he believes and what that belief means for him. And since a child’s memory is tough and resilient, the beliefs he knows he will know for the rest of his life.
Dr. Glen Schultz raised the question, “Is the church falling apart?” Maybe. But it certainly doesn’t have to. The Word of God bears fruit (Isa. 55:11; Matt. 13:18-23). Christians, however, will have to sow the Word in faith. Catechizing our children in the basic teachings of Scripture is an important way of doing just that.
Dr. Bryan Smith has worked in Christian education for nearly thirty years. He has been a classroom teacher as well as a textbook author. Currently, he serves at BJU Press as the Senior Manager for Biblical Worldview Formation. He and his wife, Becky, have six children.
1. Glen Schultz, “Is the Church Falling Apart?,” Kingdom Education Ministries, October 24, 2021, https://kingdomeducationministries.com/2021/10/is-the-church-falling-apart.
2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Catechism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed April 30, 2022, https://britannica.com/topic/catechism.