Recently I posted an ordination sermon entitled Seek Faithful People. As the New Year starts (it's already started at Advent if you follow the historic Christian calendar) our thoughts turn towards the new year and, hopefully, how best to serve Christ.
In case you weren't aware, American "Christians" often don't have much of a clue about what Christianity is all about. Articles like The Greatest Story Never Told that chronicled biblical illiteracy in 1999 could be reprinted with little change today. On December 13th, 2010 George Barna highlighted six "megathemes" for the American church in 2010. His first observation? The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate. When you read 4 out of the other 5 "megathemes", you'll see they all fit together as part of one megaproblem. The "Church" is becoming less distinctively Christian, less convinced of the necessity of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and less confident of the superiority of the Christian faith over it's rivals. As a result, profession of faith in Jesus Christ has less impact individually and corporately than it should. The only "megatheme" that seems positive is an increase in the desire to engage in positive community action. But even that is a testimony to the Church's broader appearance of irrelevancy.
What's a pastor to do?
I'll suggest a pastor can do what ONLY a pastor can do... engage the whole congregation in effective catechesis.
He will, of course, engage others in the work as appropriate, but he must oversee and model the role of chief catechist and work to make sure that the basics of the Gospel and Christian Living are transferred to the next generation of Christians.
As Willow Creek's own self-study shows, even 30 years of high quality "programs" don't replace deep disciplemaking. (See Out of Ur's Willow Creek Repents? )
The pastoral catechesis I envision is not a "program" in terms of an "appendage" to the life of the church. It IS the way to the church, it continues through the life of the church, and it produces each crop of the church's new leaders. Catechesis involves the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures on the Lord's Day and at other times, but there must be a system in place that allows it to be ongoing and bind the whole life of the church together.
And so that catechesis does not become simply a mental chore or gnostic achievement, it is not complete until it results in lives "sold out" to Christ and engaged in fervent and intentional Witness, Service, and Life Together.
What I'm about to discuss assumes that you and your people have a Catechism. Our church uses the Heidelberg Catechism and so my discussion presumes it. If you use Luther's Small Catechism, you can follow the paradigm of Pastor Peter Bender. Presbyterians can base their work on the Westminster Shorter Catechism and get some ideas from Starr Meade's Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.
In particular, note the Heidelberg's first question and answer: "What is your only comfort in life and in death?"
Once you and the people have that ingrained, it becomes as appropriate to use on a hospital visit as in a confirmation class. It serves to help us check ourselves in the midst of our daily frustration as we ponder what really is our source of comfort and assurance? It becomes a litmust test for aspiring church workers. What is their heart's desire, really? At that point, pastoral catechesis is not only beginning to have some effect on the congregation, it's beginning to have it's proper effect on the pastor.
We are so overwhelmed with "products" and "strategies" and "books" promising stupendous results that we forget the confessions we swear ourselves to teach.
Instead, we should be doing something that makes our own lives simpler and increases the odds that, over a period of time, our congregations will become those who live in the fullness of Jesus Christ.
Here are some suggestions. Do them all.
1. Recite responsively a section of the catechism each Lord's Day. The Heidelberg Catechism is designed to do just that. It only takes a few minutes before the service to read it together. Start there. It takes just a few minutes. While you may want to preach a series or even weekly catechism sermons as some do and have, even starting with this practice is sufficient for a start.
2. Give each family in church a copy of the catechism with scripture proofs included so they can be encouraged to read the weekly Lord's Day portions. Alternatively, you could print it weekly in the "bulletin" and perhaps make a study guide. You can see how one church accomplishes this here.
3. Throw away your store bought "new member curriculum". Expect all new aspiring church members to receive a catechism and teach through key questions and answers such as "What is your only comfort in life and in death?", "What is True Faith?", etc. Use the catechism to teach the great themes of sin, salvation, and grateful Christian living. Along the way teach the true meaning of the Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. And as the Heidelberg does, emphasize their practical application all the time. Prepare them in this way to renew their baptismal vows and remind them what those mean as well. Constantly bring them back to these basics as the foundation of the Christian life of Grace.
While you're at it, teach them to sing the Psalms and begin learning them so that they will be people with a deep faith. Psalm singing, along with becoming people of the catechism, will give your people a unique spiritual identity that is qualitatively and quantitatively different than the average American "moral therapeutic deism" that passes for Christianity in most congregations. Couple that with a bias for action - see part 6 below.
4. Require aspiring leaders to go through the catechism weekly with you as you work through it's great themes together.
5. When visiting, remember Richard Baxter. He and his assistant transformed a small community through catechizing from house to house. Certainly you can remind your people of the precious answers found within the Catechism that renew our faith in times of struggle and hardship!
6. The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism can even be used in evangelism. Where DO we find our comfort? What idols have we erected in the place of Christ and His salvation? By understanding the catechism, we don't need to "learn" a new presentation of the Gospel. The catechism includes your "presentation".
7. In every setting, follow a simple procedure: C.A.P.S. These stand for Catechism, Accountability, Prayer, and Service. Never divorce the study of catechism (or the study of scripture for the catechism expounds scripture) from it's application (accountability), from asking God to transform us and those God sends us to (prayer), or from putting faith into action (service). For the last, be sure to have your people go with you to serve the Lord. Let them see you model how to serve before you send them out with their own spiritual apprentice in tow. This is how our Lord taught: input, application, prayer and putting truth into practice.
7. Refer to the catechism in sermons as appropriate. This comes easier as you understand it better yourself. Because the catechism addresses God, man, sin, salvation, prayer, the Gospel, sacraments, good works, the commandments, the providence of God, our duty and delights - there is much that can be used as we apply the scriptures in our preaching.
8. Drill the children in memory drills related to the scriptures and the catechism so that they will not be people who are ignorant of the basics of the faith.
10. You must use your preaching to expose your congregation to the whole of scripture. Remember that preaching too is catechesis. So is the Liturgy. So is the observance of the Church Year. But all of these things communicate to us the truths of scripture. Your preaching must expand upon and round out the fixed body of knowledge of the catechism. Sermons should, of course, be biblical. Your preaching should be based on the text of scripture and - over a period of time at least - cover the great themes of scripture. Whether you do this through the use of a lectionary or "lectio continua", demonstrating allegiance to and dependence up the Word is more important than anything else. Any preaching that doesn't let self-help psychology overtake the word of the Lord is the place to start.
11. Use of the catechism should always be joined with the reading of the entire Bible on a regular basis. As you lead people to read the catechism, also be encouraging them to read the Bible daily.
These levels of catechesis are overlapping. When used, your congregation will be catechized weekly, individually, at their entrance into the congregation, and as a tool to use with their families and those they reach out to. Sooner or later, by God's grace, the truth of the Gospel will saturate the people and the congregation will be blessed as God is glorified.
Note: This item was crossposted at Reformatus.us