Discipleship and Catechesis
Perhaps you’ve heard complaints about “the lack of discipleship,” “the need for better discipleship,” or even “the discipleship crisis.” I’m happy to be on the discipleship train, calling for and working towards better discipleship. After all, discipleship isn’t a trend; it’s the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19–20).
“Discipleship,” however, is a big word. It includes the whole Christian life and everything that the church does to make and form believers: church membership, church discipline, preaching, administering the sacraments, and so on. My grandma once asked me, “What’s this ‘discipleship’ that I keep hearing about?” When I explained it to her, she said, “Oh! We did that back in the day, we just didn’t call it that.”
What most people are actually concerned about is one key aspect of discipleship: catechesis.
In my experience, most people’s concern about “discipleship” is actually more narrow than what I explained to my grandma. The concern is that many Christians have major gaps in their understanding of topics like the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, sin, the church, the sacraments, justification by faith, and sanctification. They’ve been walking with the Lord for decades, but they still feel confused and anxious about foundational truths. That’s why the call for better discipleship is often coupled with a call for discipleship resources, especially curriculum and classes. What most people don’t realize is that they’re actually concerned about one key aspect of discipleship, traditionally called catechesis.
John Wesley on Catechetical Instruction
Catechesis is orderly instruction in the Christian faith, often by use of a catechism. My passion for catechesis goes back to the beginning of my faith journey. The Westminster Shorter Catechism was one of only a few books that I had access to as a seeker after God in public high school. The scope of its theology and the beauty of its language captured my affections and set me on a lifelong quest to glorify and enjoy God. It also impressed deeply on my heart and mind the importance of catechesis and the value of catechisms as tools for Christian discipleship.
Even in his day, John Wesley lamented that Methodist preachers neglected catechesis.
John Wesley likewise had a high view of the Shorter Catechism and of catechetical instruction in general. Wesley included a Revision of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in his Christian Library. In his preface to a 1906 reprint of Wesley’s revision, James Macdonald includes this excerpt from Wesley’s journal:
I met about a hundred children, who are catechized publicly twice a week. Thomas Walsh began this some months ago, and the fruit of it appears already. What a pity that all our preachers in every place have not the zeal and wisdom to follow his example! (Dublin, Sunday, the 11th April 1756)
Even in his day, John Wesley lamented that Methodist preachers neglected catechesis. What a pity, indeed, that so many preachers today neglect the church’s historic practice of catechizing children, those preparing for baptism (traditionally called catechumens), and every believer throughout their Christian lives. Catechesis is part of our Christian and Methodist inheritance.
Biblical Foundations for Catechesis
The word catechesis comes from the Greek word katēcheō, translated as instruction or teaching throughout the New Testament. Apollos was catechized in the way of the Lord (Acts 18:25). Paul’s desire was to intelligibly catechize others (1 Cor. 14:19). The one who is catechized is to share all good things with the one who catechizes (Gal. 6:6). And since the Great Commission calls us to catechize disciples in everything that Christ commanded (a tall order!), the church has seen fit to approach catechesis in an orderly and systematic way through catechetical sermons, discourses, and books.
The Great Commission calls us to catechize disciples in everything that Christ commanded—a tall order!
When Acts 2 says that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), it’s likely that “the apostles’ teaching” referred to a fixed body of teaching delivered to the church by the apostles. We see evidence of this in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul says that he delivered to the church a number of first-order truths. Paul told the Ephesians, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). The church throughout history has produced catechisms, orderly accounts of the Christian faith, usually in question-and-answer format, as tools for declaring the apostolic faith and whole counsel of God.
The Content and Goal of Catechesis
In the first few centuries of the church, the apostles’ body of teaching developed into the Apostles’ Creed, which Ben Myers calls the church’s “ancient catechism.” Most historical catechisms expound the Creed, either phrase by phrase or in its substantial teachings, along with the Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer. “In these three parts,” wrote Martin Luther, “everything that we have in the Scriptures is comprehended in short, plain, and simple terms.” Most catechisms also expound the sacraments, as does Luther in his Small Catechism.
From my study of historical catechisms, I’ve found that most follow the same general outline (or their questions could be organized into this outline):
- The Creed, Article 1: The Father and Creation
- The Creed, Article 2: The Son and Salvation
- The Creed, Article 3: The Spirit and Sanctification
- The Ten Commandments, Commandments 1–4: Loving God
- The Ten Commandments, Commandments 5–10: Loving Our Neighbor
- The Lord’s Prayer, Petitions 1–3: Praying for God’s Glory
- The Lord’s Prayer, Petitions 4–7: Praying for Our Good
- The Sacrament of Baptism: Initiation into the Church
- The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper: Communion with the Church
Some catechisms start with the Ten Commandments since the law brings conviction of sin and leads to the gospel in the Creed. This is helpful when you’re unsure if the person you’re catechizing is truly regenerate. Other catechisms expound the Ten Commandments after the gospel since the law shows Christians how to love God and neighbor, and since faith in the gospel produces a life of obedience. There are pros and cons to both approaches.
Catechisms are not about mere information transfer, but holistic transformation: reaching the will and affections through the intellect.
Note that a large portion of catechetical instruction is spent on moral formation and the means of grace. Catechisms are not about mere information transfer, but holistic transformation: reaching the will and affections through the intellect. This becomes clear as you read the church’s catechisms. They are far from dry or boring; they are weighty yet warm, beautiful, practical, and comforting in their presentation of the gospel and call to a holy life. Their goal is to form disciples who love God with their whole heart, mind, body, and soul, and their neighbors as themselves. As Methodists, whose tradition is marked by a methodical approach to discipleship and the pursuit of holiness, better catechesis should be central to our plan for better discipleship.
From the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Q. 100. What does the preface of the Lord’s Prayer teach us?
A. The preface of the Lord’s Prayer, which is, “Our Father who is in heaven,” teaches us to draw near to God with all holy reverence and confidence, as children to a father able and ready to help us; and that we should pray with and for others.
From the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. 1. 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.
Q. 52. How does Christ’s return “to judge the living and the dead” comfort you?
A. In all distress and persecution, with uplifted head, I confidently await the very judge who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me. Christ will cast all his enemies and mine into everlasting condemnation, but will take me and all his chosen ones to himself into the joy and glory of heaven.
From Luther’s Small Catechism:
Q. How is God’s name kept holy?
A. God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!
- Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching. According to John Behr, it is “the earliest summary of Christian teaching, presented in a non-polemical or apologetic manner, that we now have. … It was described as a ‘catechetical treatise,’ outlining Christianity as it was then expounded by a bishop to his flock.”
- Augustine, “A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed.”
- Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Discourse. Ignatius Green explains, “The Catechetical Discourse is a handbook for catechists, written with a practical aim.” See also “The Great Catechism” at newadvent.org.
- Westminster Shorter Catechism. Reformed. See also the Longer Catechism.
- Heidelberg Catechism. Reformed.
- Luther’s Small Catechism. Lutheran. See also here. See also Luther’s Large Catechism (also called The German Catechism).
- Richard Baxter, A Puritan Catechism for Families. Reformed/Puritan.
- Thirty Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith by Timothy Tennent (2012). Methodist.
- John Wesley’s Revision of the Shorter Catechism (reprinted by Seedbed in 2016). Reformed/Methodist. A new revision for Methodists (e.g., with the omission of inherited guilt and the restoration of the question on adoption) can be found here.
- To Be A Christian (2019). Anglican. In my opinion, this is the best catechism produced in the last decade.
- The Catechism, or Anglican Faith in Outline (1979 BCP). Anglican. See also here.
- The New City Catechism (2017). Reformed. Based on the Heidelberg. See also the website and mobile apps.
- The New City Catechism for Kids (2018). Reformed.
- The Apostles’ Creed: For All God’s Children (A FatCat Book) (2022) by Ben Myers. “By far the most beautifully illustrated and theologically simple-but-sublime catechism for children” (Michael F. Bird).
- Christian Essential Series from Lexham Press. While not a catechism per se, these books on the Apostles’ Creed, Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, etc. provide a model for catechetical instruction. I recommend these books constantly and use them for local church discipleship.
- “A Patristic Catechism” by Alex Fogleman at the Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). Roman Catholic. There is much here to agree with and benefit from. See also Ratzinger’s Compendiun of the Catechism.
Catechetical Resources on Holy Joys
- The Westminster Shorter Catechism: Revised for Methodists. The several omissions and revisions are in keeping with the spirit of John Wesley’s Revision of the Shorter Catechism.
- A Catechism for Young Children: 52 Questions and Answers. A print version illustrated by Brent Vernon has been fully funded and is in progress.
- The Probationer’s Catechism: Q&As for Potential Church Members. A 19th-century Methodist catechism.
- Augustine’s Teaching on the Apostles’ Creed (Part 1). Augustine’s comments on the Creed from his “On Faith and the Creed” and “A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed” provide a model for catechetical instruction using the Creed.
- Augustine’s Teaching on the Apostles’ Creed (Part 2).
- The Holy Joys Catechism (in progress).
- More to come, especially on catechetical instruction in the Methodist tradition. Stay tuned.
- Jonathan D. Watson, In the Name of Our Lord: Four Models of the Relationship Between Baptism, Catechesis, and Communion (Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology).
- A wealth of resources is available at the Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis.
Key Terms with Examples
- Catechesis — instruction or teaching, especially in a systematic or orderly manner, often by use of a catechism. E.g., “We’re developing a plan for better catechesis at our church.”
- Catechetical — adjective form. E.g., “I’m preparing a series of catechetical sermons.”
- Catechize — verb form. E.g., “I’m catechizing some new believers on Sunday mornings before church.”
- Catechism — an orderly or systematic account of the Christian faith, often expounding the Creed, Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, and sacraments. E.g., “We’re writing a catechism for our church that draws on several historical catechisms.”
- Catechumen — someone receiving instruction, especially in preparation for baptism and reception into the church’s membership. E.g., “He’s not a member yet; he’ll be a catechumen until he’s baptized.”
- Catechumenate — either (a) the body of catechumens or (b) the process undergone by catechumens. E.g., (a) “The catechumenate is gathering for instruction today”; (b) “Our catechumenate lasts six months.”
- Catechist — the person who provides instruction. E.g., “Our elders take turns being catechists to the incoming members.”