By Brad Winstead. In every issue of Equip for Ministry we see a list of children who have successfully recited the Shorter or Children’s Catechisms. We might smile and think, “that’s nice and quaint, but our children really don’t have time for such an anachronistic method of learning about Christianity. After all, as long as they believe Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord, this should be all the doctrine our children need.” Maybe that is why, for a denomination the size of the PCA, we see such a short list of covenant children who have demonstrated this knowledge. If we added up the children in each Equip issue (usually only a few from the same churches) at the end of the year we would have less than one fifth of one percent of our covenant children recognized which is pretty weak. Why is it that when we hear about catechizing our children we recoil? For many of us who never grew up learning the Children’s or Shorter Catechism the whole idea seems archaic and distinctly Roman Catholic. For others it brings up a nightmare of stumbling over recently crammed questions and dryly reciting answers to a stern-faced elder. Or maybe it is the work involved, all of those questions-when would anyone have the time? Sadly, perhaps we have forgotten why such a method of learning is so practical and needed today. Let me tell you a true story about a Presbyterian pastor who asked a priest why so many lapsed Catholics come back to the church when they are older. The Catholic priest’s answer was immediate. “We catechize our little children and it is part of them. Therefore, when they are seeking again the answers to life, their memorized catechism questions come back to them, and they return again to the source of that learning.” I like to use a metaphor that we are wiring the house of the child’s mind and are waiting for the Holy Spirit to flick the switch translating the head knowledge to heart knowledge.
For those familiar with the classical approach to education, the idea of beginning with the basics as a foundation is not novel. The catechism is the “grammar” of the faith. Catechism is the foundation upon our understanding of Christianity. In George Barna’s recent book, Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions, he mentions four cornerstones on which our children’s Christian belief system must be anchored: 1. Cornerstone #1 – The child’s view of the Bible as a credible source of information and wisdom on how to think and live. 2. Cornerstone #2 – The child’s actual knowledge of the Bible. Most people say that the Bible is inspired by God, but know little of its contents. 3. Cornerstone #3 – A framework that is logical and comprehensive that makes sense to the child, and that provides practical counsel. 4. Cornerstone #4 – A burning desire to obey God. Our children should demonstrate a commitment to godly principles and standards.
It is in the third cornerstone that we as reformed Presbyterians have a tool that others do not-the Children’s (or Shorter) Catechism. We can be thankful as biblically committed Presbyterians that such a systematic way to learn the basics of the Christian faith exists and has been used for generations. The Westminster divines (theologians) drew up the Shorter Catechism version of the Confession of Faith in the 1640s. Later, Joseph Engels (a Presbyterian Sunday School teacher in the mid-1800s) simplified the Shorter Catechism for children. Yet many of us still ask, “Why bother? There’s lots of good stuff out there for our children to learn.”
Let’s look at the word “catechism.” It comes from two Greek prefixes: “cat” or down (catacombs comes from this group of letters), and “echeo” or to sound from (echo comes from this prefix). So catechism is to “sound down” expecting an echo. The teacher asks a question and the student answers it. Some would say, “Why, this is just the Socratic method of asking questions in learning.” Yes, but it is a whole lot more, because the answers have to do with eternal life or destruction. Throughout Scripture we see warnings that “when our children ask us what do these things mean” we must be ready to answer (Exodus 12:26, Deut 6:20, Joshua 4:21, Proverbs 1-4, Psalm 78:3-4). Here’s a brief summary of what the children’s catechism teaches on: Creation (Who made you? Why did God make you and all things?), the attributes of God (His knowledge, power and transcendence), the Bible, eternal life, covenants and promises of Scripture, evil and the devil, justification, adoption and sanctification, Christ as our Prophet, Priest and King, the moral law (the Ten Commandments), the Lord’s Prayer, the Lord’s Supper and baptism and the second coming of Jesus Christ. The Shorter Catechism summarizes the questions and answers by saying, “What man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man” (questions #4 and #39 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism). The children’s catechism works systematically, building on one theme after another. It stays with the basics. It is God-centered. And, it does it all in a question-and-answer format. It’s like a road map. If I wanted to travel between Atlanta and Knoxville by car I could take a roundabout journey visiting an expanding square of towns until I eventually reached Knoxville several weeks later. I could also drive with a good map for four hours, directly and expeditiously.
So it is with the catechism. We could read from Genesis to Revelation to find out about God, and we would eventually obtain a long list of who He is. Of course that may take several weeks or even months. Or we could get the succinct, biblical answer in the Shorter Catechism, question #4, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” Maybe a more important question is, “Why should we catechize our children?” In Deut 6:6-10, after God has told how important His commandments are, He states that we are to have them upon our hearts and to “press” them on our children, to talk about them when we sit at home, when we walk along the road, when we lie down and get up, tying them as symbols on our hands and foreheads, and writing them on our doorframes of our homes. The catechism gives us the structure to do this. Yet, we still might say, “Why?” In the next few verses of Deuteronomy 6, God tells us that we are a forgetful people, that we need to fear the Lord and not to follow after other gods. Isn’t it interesting that if we don’t know the true God (and His attributes and commands) our nature is to build our own gods? Plus, we see the questioning nature of children, again in verse 20, “and in the future when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees, and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?'” Our children are always asking yet too often we don’t have the answers. Maybe by this point you agree that the Children’s or Shorter Catechism are important, but aren’t sure how we can “eat this elephant.” The answer is always the same–one bite (or question) at a time. There are lots of helpful resources available. For example Kids’ Quest, published by Great Commission Publications, can be fully instituted in a kids’ club type atmosphere in your church.
Along with the catechism there are exciting songs and colorful personal illustrations. Children’s Ministry International (CMI) will take you into each question, if you desire, using visuals through the flannel board visual depictions of each question with accompanying Bible verse, Bible lesson, songs and crafts. Or if you want the Westminster Shorter Catechism version, G.I. Williamson has written an excellent summary. There are several other resources that can be used in family worship. Starr Meade’s Shorter Catechism book takes you through a week for each question. CMI’s Daily Family Devotions Guide in three booklets is a comprehensive catechism guide along with hymns, prayers, and Bible stories. You can use it to go through the Shorter Catechism at your own pace with your family. CMI also has a nine-booklet Shorter Catechism instruction aimed at “Tens through Teens” for the classroom. All of these resources are available through the PCA Christian Education and Publication bookstore. These materials have been used in PCA churches for years. Well, what other excuses do you have for not catechizing your children? We have our covenant children for such a short time. Why not lay a permanent foundation of truth that will never leave them? Recently, a lady from a PCA church on the Georgia coast was very interested in starting a catechism program for her church. We set up a seminar and during that event, I found out firsthand why she thought it was so vital. I’ll close with her testimony of God’s grace in her life using the means of the catechism.
“When I was a young girl we went to a Presbyterian church where there was an active catechism program. I managed to memorize the shorter catechism by age eight through the hard work of many teachers there. When I was eight, my mother and father divorced, and I lived with my mother. We began attending one type of church after another as my mother took a journey searching for an elusive truth of who God was. We went through a smorgasbord of beliefs from Mormonism to Jehovah’s Witnesses, to liberal churches to Pentecostal denominations. What sustained me time and again were the answers that I learned as a child in the catechism. I knew there was a God that did not have a body but was a spirit, who existed in three persons same in substance equal in power and glory, that God had spoken the complete truth in His word, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and on and on, soundly refuting the error that was trying to be placed upon her at each turn. When I was a teenager, my mother relented and allowed me to go back into a Bible believing Presbyterian Church where I took up where I left off.” What a great testimony. Let’s do a similar work with our covenant children.