Catechizing Kids: What do you think?

Dear Reader,

A few years back we were visiting family and attended a small church from our denomination that was in search of a new pastor. The week we were there they had a possible candidate as the guest preacher and after service had a meal and a time to get to know the candidate and his family. We stayed for lunch and got to hear the discussion. The only thing I remember from that conversation is one church member asking the candidate in a somewhat eager tone how he felt about catechizing his children. The candidate responded that he was all for it and that he and his wife did catechize their children. I will admit I was a little flummoxed. I guess you had to be there to see what I mean but the attitude of the questioner was just so intense. There was clearly more going on here that a simple question about how one chooses to train one’s children. I rather think from the tone of the whole thing that if the answer had been anything other than “we catechize our kids” that the candidate would have been rejected right then and there.

Since my husband is not a candidate for anything I will now confess that we have not ever catechized our children. Or maybe we have. It all depends on how you define it. If you’ll allow me to be ramble-y for a minute — It seems to be that “catechizing” one’s kids is a bit like “classical” education. In the contemporary homeschool world, when we speak of classical education we are really most often talking of a certain version of the classical philosophy of education which was reignited by Dorothy Sayers’ famous article. When one asks in this context if Charlotte Mason was a classical educator, the answer is no; I don’t think she would have bought into what now passes for classical education (and which I try to refer to in this blog as modern classical education — talk about an oxymoron!). But on another level, before the term was hijacked, classical education meant something different and others have written better than I can on how Charlotte Mason was indeed classical in the, well, classical sense.

All of which is to say that just as whether or not one is classical depends on one’s definition, so too whether or not we catechize our children depends on one’s definition of that term. I am afraid that catechizing has often come to mean something very diluted, something that I personally find unattractive and rather useless. But in a more classical sense, yes, catechizing is wonderful. In fact, it is so utterly basic I don’t know how one could not do it (though I am sure many don’t).

So what does it mean to catechize one’s children? I am indebted to this article by John Murray in clarifying my thoughts on this issue. These days catechizing seems to refer to a rote memorization of questions and answers. This sort of exercise repels me. While there may be some benefit to it for some children as they grow and the words they have learned come back to them, I think there is little true, guaranteed and immediate benefit. Nor does this approach fit with my philosophy of education. It does not take into account the individuality of the student; it does not therefore respect them as persons (as Charlotte Mason would say).  Murray tells us that this sort of approach would have been condemned by the early reformers:

‘It is clear that blind memorizing of a catechism was in the eyes of the Reformers and Puritans an evil to be guarded against. The fear of the divines who compiled the Westminster Catechisms was, as one of them expressed it, that “people will come to learn things by rote and can answer as a parrot, but not understand the thing.”’ (“Catechizing: A Forgotten Practice” by John Murray, Banner of Truth)

What, then, should catechizing be? Let me quote Murray again:

The reason why many people regard catechizing as a slight and trifling exercise is that they confuse the practice with the mere rote-work of asking and answering of question in a catechism. But there is a vast difference between catechizing and the mere rote acquaintance with a catechism. It is almost certain that the early Church did not have catechisms constructed on the method of question and answer. Their great concern was catechizing. The early Fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans were at one in maintaining that true catechizing is a very different matter from learning the mere letter of the catechism.”

I grew up in the Roman Catholic church and we used the term catechumen which I have not heard in other contexts (until Murray’s article). In the Catholic church the catechumens were those adults who chose to join the church. They were required to take classes to find out what the church believed and then were baptized at Easter. Turns out that that is exactly the right idea. To catechize, in the original definition, is simply to teach what one believes. This was originally done orally and using a question and answer format because of the limitations of the time (few books available) and the practices of the time (question and answer format in education). The catechisms as we have them were created much later to aid in catechizing, but they are not the origin of catechizing. That is to say, we have catechisms so that we may better catechize; we do not catechize because we have catechisms.

Why catechize at all? For the Reformers teaching what one believes was a big deal because they came right out of the Medieval Catholic church. It was important that people know and understand what they believed because of the hostile religious environment in which they lived. The Catholic church of the time did just the opposite — they essentially said “listen to us; no need to think for yourselves.” And in a time of persecution, how could people be expected to stand strong if they didn’t really understand what they were standing up for?  Lastly, as Murray points out, people are a lot more likely to stick with right doctrine if they know and understand what they believe. When theological knowledge slips, people begin to slowly fall away and ultimately heresy easily slips in.

All these reasons are still good reasons for us to catechize our children today (and our adults, of course). By this definition, catechizing is simply teaching theology, teaching what we believe and why. And why wouldn’t you do that?

One last word on the how of catechizing: I can’t pass up this quote from Murray’s article:

“[Augustine] insists that each pupil be treated according to his individual needs and that to this end the catechist should examine him by preliminary questioning as to his motives and as to his attainments with a view to making the pupil’s error or lack the starting point of his particular instruction. Similarly, all the way along the pupil must be watched and questioned, and carefully dealt with individually so that he may be cause to know rather than merely be caused to hear the truth which is the substance of the catechetical instruction. This certainly puts catechizing on a different level from the mere use of a catechism.”

I love the emphasis on the individual approach here. It sounds very CM, doesn’t it? To end up where we started, rote memorization such as I have often seen which says, for instance, that every kid in the Sunday school class is memorizing question 10 this week and must recite it in class, often with no explanation of what question 10 means, is not going to produce kids who know what they believe and why. It is going to produce kids who commit a few words to short-term memory for a week in order to get a piece of candy and then quickly move on.

So do we catechize our kids? Absolutely! It is very important to us that they know what they believe and why. Have we ever made them memorize questions and answers? No.


One response to this post.

  1. Growing up, I was catechized in the Heidelberg, and later the Westminster. This was combined with daily Bible reading, many conversations, catechism classes, and sermons (our church was one with the tradition of a second service to teach the catechism). Through all of this, there was always an emphasis on the fact that mere head-knowledge can never be enough without true, personal “heart-knowledge.” Indeed, this perspective is built into the Heidelberg.

    “True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” (Q & A 21).

    So I guess I’m saying that learning the questions and answers by heart does not necessarily have to be “rote.” I completely agree with your point, though, that understanding is more important than rote memory, and that we can teach our children what we believe without using formal questions and answers. And I definitely am with you on not making it a legalistic requirement!

    I now have children of my own, and I’ve been feeling guilty that I haven’t been as diligent as I feel I ought to be (as my own parents were…) in teaching them the catechism. I appreciate that you made me think about this. I am teaching them, even though I haven’t been using catechisms (yet).

    I do believe that catechisms are a valuable tool as we teach our children. They intentionally contain a precision of thought and expression. On our own, and in our little congregations and denominations, we can become a little unbalanced. For example, I’ve seen some that define themselves by what they are against rather than what they are for. We all have blind spots that we pass on to our children. I appreciate that the Westminster in particular was the work of many minds, and as such has a certain comprehensiveness and balance. Yes, it is a product of its time, and we must recognize that, but it was a time that was much more historically aware than our own time. The precision of their words reflected the lessons they had learned from the past, particularly the Reformation.

    I think that even if one does not use the catechisms for memory-work (and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be), they are still highly worthy of being consulted as we teach our children. What did they cover? What emphases are there? What am I missing in my own teaching?


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