The Lost Art of Catechesis

Leicester R. Longden

The most pressing topic for me today is what J.I. Packer has recently called “the lost art of catechesis.” How is it, I have come to ask myself, that so many churches do not know how to hand on the faith? How is it that in my thirty years of pastoral work prior to seminary teaching, every congregation I served was puzzled and surprised when I began to teach the classical elements of catechesis: the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Sacraments? “This is all very interesting,” they would say. “Why haven’t we heard this before?”

My seminary teaching this last decade-plus has only made the loss of catechesis seem more powerful. Seminarians, for all their enthusiasm and sense of call, reveal again and again that they have arrived without much catechetical formation and have, in fact, come in search of it. Our spiritual formation groups among first year seminarians continually expose the reality that few of their sending congregations prepared them with habits of prayer or regular spiritual disciplines. Not only do they not know much about the Christian faith; they don’t know how to make progress in it, other than by certain vague notions of “ministry” and “service,” or by obtaining an academic degree in “divinity.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the problem is the inability of congregations or seminarians to quote old catechisms or rattle off the Articles of Religion, although it would be something if our people had at least an acquaintance with them. No, by catechesis I mean what J.I. Packer and G.A. Parrett define in their recent book, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010).

Catechesis, they argue, is “the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty and delight” (p. 182). And being the Calvinists they are, they quote Calvin’s famous letter to the Lord Protector of England in 1548: “Believe me, Monseigneur, the Church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.”

We can quote our own “father in the faith,” John Wesley, with regard to the absolute imperative of formative catechesis: “…the preaching like an Apostle, without joining together those that are awakened, and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer” (Works of John Wesley, 21:424).

Over twenty years ago, William Abraham raised a similar concern in his book, The Logic of Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989; see his more recent thoughts in William J. Abraham and David F. Watson, Key United Methodist Beliefs [Nashville: Abingdon, 2013]). He argued forcefully for a reinstitution of the catechumenate as an indispensable part of the ministry of evangelism and initiation into the life of faith. “Extensive catechesis or instruction, incorporation into the body of Christ, the handing over of basic spiritual disciplines, participation in the works of the Holy Spirit — all these are minimum equipment to enable the convert to stand up to the ravages of the world” (p. 207).

The work of scholars like Christian Smith (Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009]) and Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010]) is revealing that the recovery of the art of catechesis is becoming ever more urgent.

All this is to say that I want to explore in a series of articles the broad topic of the lost art of catechesis and how it might be reinvigorated. My current research on reclaiming the catechumenate in The United Methodist Church will yield trajectories for discussion and exploration.

Here are some possible questions and directions for our future conversations:

  • Current resources for catechumen-like experiences in the local church.
  • How can membership, baptismal preparation, and confirmation classes function in ways similar to a catechumenate?
  • Comments from readers of this blog about their experiences with formation or the lack of it, resources they’d like to recommend, or questions they’d like to raise.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Posted Oct 21, 2013

3 responses to “The Lost Art of Catechesis”

  1. jamespruch says:

    I’ve been following the blog for a little while. While I’m a reformed pastor, I enjoy reading other “tribes” who are focused on the gospel. So, from this Calvinist, I appreciate your post!

    Grounded in the Gospel is a terrific book for reinvigorating catechesis in the church. Parrot, Packer’s co-author, has written a larger, more academic version of that book called, Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful. That resource would be a welcomed help, I think. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read Parrot’s whole book, though I’ve dabbled in it.)

    Developing a structure like the catechumenate is one thing. People feeling the need for it is another. The whole issue of catechesis losing ground, I think, is a by-product of the modern Western mindset that discipleship is an “option” for Christians like roast beef is an option for me at the local restaurant. People think that membership, baptism, catechism, etc. are optional “activities” rather than essential elements of what it means to start, continue, and finish well in the faith. So the big question is: how can we change the culture in our churches so people think differently?

    Looking forward to your research findings!

    • Les Longden says:

      re: jamespruch

      I’m a Methodist who teaches at a Reformed institution, so we should get along just fine. I appreciate your calling attention to Parret’s larger book. I’ve used that text more as a basic Christian Ed text, but the Grounded in the Gospel book, I find, really helps students to grasp the urgency of the catechesis issue in a practical way.

      And you are clearly right that there is a gap between structuring a catechumenate and people’s desire to enter one! This is not new. Consider all the sermons in which Augustine pleads with those on the catechumen roles to take the final step toward baptism!

  2. Felix says:

    How might catechesis work at a non-denominational “Bible” church? I guess for that matter what kind of format does Catechesis usually take?
    I volunteer in my church’s youth ministry and over the past few years I’ve developed an interest in more formal doctrinal education as I’ve realize you can’t hit upon all the important things to know about the Christian faith in a timely manner with just weekly Bible study.
    That said, what exactly would you say is the goal of catechesis?

    Here’s my own experience with formation:
    In my mind, I associate catechesis with catechisms and spiritual retreats. Having attended low-church evangelical congregations all my life I never did either of those; the only formal formation I remember having was a four week class that my middle-school youth group had for those who newly accepted Christ–but that was optional. I don’t remember what they taught. So most of my formation was done informally through listening to Sunday sermons, reading my Bible, reading books, and talking to other Christians when issues like baptism or healing came up. From what I can tell, this seems to be the way most evangelicals are spiritually formed–at least the ones I know.