I just had a conversation with Jane. She’s in our children’s ministry. She’s excited because she’s going on a date with her dad tonight. They’re going to snack on Sprite and bananas and watch the latest episode of “Hannah Montana Forever.” It sounds like a blast! Right after that conversation, I came back to my office to write this essay on teaching theology to kids using a catechism. As I start to write, I can’t help but feel a little bit out of touch. Are kids today really interested in learning “theology”? If they are, is a centuries old catechism the best tool for teaching them? Can’t I find something more relevant for the generation of Miley Cyrus? After all, wouldn’t I rather watch TV than study an ancient doctrinal statement?
Do kids need to learn theology? We probably all agree that kids need to know Jesus, that they need to be changed by His love, and that they need to be welcomed and accepted by a Christian community. But do they really need to learn doctrine? Can’t the dry and boring stuff wait until they’re a little older? Maybe you’d never voiced that out loud in a staff meeting, but at least some of us have thought it. But have you ever wondered why we think of doctrine as dry and boring? I would suggest that it’s because we’ve failed to really understand the big truths of the faith and how they relate to salvation through Jesus.
The fact is that our kids already have theology. They have lots of thoughts about God. They’re thinking about spiritual things all of the time, and they have questions. When our children’s ministry studied the story of the cross from Matthew 27:32-54 last Sunday, the teacher read about how God turned His back on Jesus, because He could not look at our sin. John, a third grader, piped up and asked, “Isn’t Jesus God? How could God turn His back on Himself? There is only one God, right?” What great questions! But how many teachers or parents would be prepared to answer them? How many would just say, “Well, that’s what it says, so …”? How many would just give John a dry explanation of the Trinity? There is only one true God, but God exists in three persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here the Father turns His back on His Son. How many adults would realize that John needs to know about the Trinity, because it will add depth to his understanding of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us? Because God is three in one, Jesus is the perfect God-man who never sinned, and He is the perfect substitute, able to die and take God the Father’s wrath for sin—the punishment we deserve. That’s not boring. That’s amazing! It’s the gospel. It’s doctrine, and it’s exactly what our kids need to hear.
But why catechism? And what is it anyway? The word catechism and the practice of catechizing carries with it a lot of baggage. Some K! readers will immediately think, “Aren’t catechisms quirky, out-dated, and rigid?” If you are from a Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, or Lutheran background, you may remember studying a catechism in confirmation classes. Others will have never heard of a catechism at all. So, what is it anyway?
The word “catechism” comes from the Greek word katācheō, which means “to teach, to instruct.” The word is used in Bible passages like Luke 1:4 and Acts 18:25. It can be used for any kind of teaching or instruction, but it came to refer to a specific type of teaching very early in church history. In the early church, new converts were taught the basics of Christianity by memorizing a series of questions and answers. A catechism is just that—a series of questions and answers that teach Bible truth.
I would argue that the roots of this method go even farther back than the early church. When God rescued Israel from Egypt, He gave them a whole slew of laws, ceremonies, and sacrifices to help them remember His great rescue. These traditions were important, because God wanted Israel’s faith to be passed down to their kids and to every successive generation after them. So, God kept the kids in mind when He gave the law. One of the ways He kept them in mind was by anticipating their questions. In passages like Exodus 12:26-27, Exodus 13:14-16, and Joshua 4:6-7, we find a pattern like this one. “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them …”
God knew that kids would ask. After all, He made them with curiosity and a sense of wonder. So, when they ask, are we ready? In these passages, God gave the Israelite parents a script for answering their kids’ questions. In Exodus 12:27, it went like this: “It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.” God wanted parents and kids to put this little script to memory, so that they’d always be ready with an answer—an answer that tied their active faith to His redemption plan.
How does it work? I hope that it’s clear that we don’t believe in catechism for the sake of catechism. But, we do think that catechism is a great tool for pointing our kids to Jesus. Here are some pointers for using this tool with your ministry and your family.
* Choose a catechism that majors on gospel basics, simply unpacking God’s story and our response to it in faith and love. The Heidelberg Catechism (1576) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1642-47), the two most famous and widely accepted Protestant catechisms, follow this pattern. They begin by unpacking God’s story (creation, rebellion, redemption) and the Apostle’s Creed; then, conclude with our response by teaching the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
* Choose a catechism that is age-appropriate. There are catechisms out there for everyone. A Catechism for Boys and Girls (1969), which we both recommend for families in our churches, is simple enough to begin with a toddler. The Heidelberg Catechism was designed for new adult believers.
* Be sensitive about your community context. You might come from a traditional church that embraces catechism; to that I say, “good.” Start today. My friend Sam Luce comes from a very traditional Catholic area so the word catechism has a good amount of baggage with it. Should they still use a systematic way to teach their kids biblical truth? Yes, they just call it Questions and Answers.
* Don’t make the catechism the main thing. Neither one of our churches actually teach a catechism curriculum. Instead, we use catechism questions to supplement the main Bible lesson. When we teach on Adam and Eve from Genesis 3, our toddler leaders rehearse, “What is sin? Sin is saying, “No to God” with the kids. That little Q & A from A Catechism for Boys and Girls helps us to highlight one of the main points of the Bible lesson. Catechism curriculum isn’t necessarily wrong, but using the catechism as a supplement helps ensure that memorizing doesn’t become the main thing.
* Use it as a tool to equip families for faith training at home. Both of our churches provide catechisms as part of family resource guides and take home sheets. In these guides, questions and answers are accompanied by Scripture references that support the answer given. It is helpful for kids to memorize the verses along with the questions and answers. This is another way of ensuring that catechism remains a gospel tool we use to point kids back to Jesus and His redemptive story told in the Bible.
* Teach it “when you sit down,” and “along the road.” Memorization will require some formal work or at least a lot of singing the questions over and over in the minivan. (Can we get a little help from Jason Houser?) But truth is best learned in the context of a relationship. So, parents should always be alert for teachable moments—opportunities to talk about how the doctrine learned in the catechism applies to everyday life. In this way, the catechism simply becomes a reference point, a sort of script that parents and children have put to memory that is explained and applied through informal conversations.
What does theology have to do with Hannah Montana?
That brings us back to the question of relevance. First, Jesus doesn’t get old. I think that many churches have come to see that any teaching about right living must be informed and transformed by a more theologically rich message of redemption. Our kids need to understand their faith. The more kids understand their faith the more they will see how the good news about Jesus relates to life.
The second answer is Jane’s dad. One of the things that always kept me from teaching my kids catechism was that I thought it was a dead religious exercise. It can be, but connecting theology to a relationship gives it modern day relevance. It is not enough for kids to hide the truths of God in their hearts. They also need to see their moms or dads living out the questions and answers they have internalized. I strongly believe that every parent should have a systematic plan both for teaching their kids the basic tenets of their faith and for helping kids apply this doctrine to their everyday life.
Give it a try! Are you sold? Or are you skeptical? Take the next two weeks to memorize these two questions and answers from two famous catechisms.
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.
(Psalm 73:25-28; Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 10:31)
Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 1
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
(Matthew 10:29, 31; John 6:39; 8:34-36; 10:28; Luke 21:18; Romans 8:14, 16, 28; 14:7-8; 1 Corinthians 3:23; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 1:20-22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 2:14; 1 Peter 1:5, 18-19; 1 John 1:7; 2:2, 12; 3:3, 8)
Heidelberg Catechism, question 1
Then, read and meditate on the Scripture passages that accompany them, and talk about it with your family. After you are done, let us know what you think. Join the conversation and find more resources for learning catechism at samluce.com/?page_id=4535, samluce.com/?p=3983
A Catechism for Boys and Girls, (Evangelical Press USA, 1969, 2005)
Big Truths for Little Kids: Teaching Your Children to Live for God by Susan and Richie Hunt, (Crossway, 1999)
Daily Family Devotions based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, (Children’s Ministry International, 2004)
First Catechism: Teaching Children Bible Truths, (Great Commission Publications, 2003)
The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism by Kevin DeYoung, (Moody Press, 2010)
My First Book of Questions and Answers by Carine McKenzie, (Christian Focus, 2001)
Truth and Grace Memory Books, books 1-3, ed. Thomas K. Ascol (Founders Press, 2000)