The first step in “making culture” is Catechesis!

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Andy Crouch, a senior editor at Christianity Today, was at Asbury last week.  What a great blessing he was to our community.  I first encountered Andy Crouch back a few years ago when he published his book, Culture Making.  One of the insights in that book is that it is not enough to simply critique culture, we have to make culture.  Crouch argues that it is important to be able to articulate and identity what features of a particular culture need transformation.  However, he argues we will never turn things around by simply criticizing.  We have to actually create new culture.  We must insert “New Creation” into the present creation.   Amen, Andy!

I am convinced that one of the best ways to create culture is through catechesis.   The word ‘catechesis’ refers to a form of religious instruction, often oral, which allows the essentials of Christianity to be passed down to a new generation.  The word catechesis comes from the word ‘echo’ reminding us that it is our duty to echo the Apostolic message.  One of the great losses in today’s church has been the collapse of catechesis, both in the church as well as in the home.  The faith is not being passed down, so the next generation often does not “echo” it.  We are left with an increasingly domesticated gospel which is far less reproducible than the gospel of the New Testament.

If you look down through the history of the church you will discover many rich traditions of catechesis.  In the New Testament we find catechesis central to the Apostolic message (See 2 Timothy 2:2).  The period after the close of the New Testament, known as the Patristic period, had a rich tradition which put catechesis into two parts.  Part one stretched from Lent to Easter whereby the catechumen was instructed in the basics of the Christian faith.  The instruction culminated in the catechumen’s baptism at Easter.  Part two, known as mystagogy, stretched from Easter to Pentecost.  During this period the newly baptized believer was instructed into the mystery of the church.  Later, we discover the Celtic model of catechesis which was less individualized and more communal.   The monastic tradition became an important model of catechesis.   The Celtic Christians also infused their catechesis with active service of the poor.  The Reformation produced some excellent catechisms which parents used with their children.  They typically focused on several key areas such as the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sermon on the Mount.  They were often set up in Question and Answer format for memorization.  The Westminster Shorter and Longer Catechisms are among the most famous in history.  You may recall the famous first question.  What is the chief end of man?  The answer:  To love God and to enjoy him forever.  And so it continued with nearly 100 additional questions.  Surely, one of the great legacies of the Reformed tradition has been their ability to pass down their doctrinal heritage to the next generation.

When I look back at these catechisms I am impressed how each one provides great insights into the the art of transmitting the faith.  John Wesley was acquainted with all of these traditions, as well as a few others I do not have space to mention.  John Wesley drew from the best of all of these and created one of the best models of catechesis in history.  In an upcoming blog I will share a few more thoughts about Wesleyan catechesis.


  • JD Walt says:

    Excellent post Dr. T. My question- have we lost something of the essential embodiedness of the faith when we reduce to questions and answers to be memorized. Or is it that we have too often stopped with the mere answers? Don’t we need a much richer and fuller and more embodied notion of catechesis?

    To reduce an apostolic movement to stated answers seems inadequate. After all, the Apostles didn’t go to the mat of martyrdom so we could do Q and A in Sunday School.

    I like where you are headed with Wesley. It seems like we must recover at least 3 things in this task. 1. A robust culture of storytelling– one that wraps the people of God in a seamless world from the first day to the present day; Creation to New Creation as you frame it. 2. Issuing from this, a living framework of Doctrine as opposed to static sentences. Doctrine in 3D as you might call it. We must press doctrine into the role of shaping and interpreting Christian experience. (here is where Wesley’s Order of Salvation is so helpful. 3. finally, and you allude to it, we need to re-establish mission as the classroom for catechesis, and free ourselves from chairs and rows and monological instruction.

    Thanks for helping us think about these things.

    Loving this blog!


  • JD is precisely correct. This is the genius of Wesley. He understood catechesis from a dynamic, broad frame. Wesleyan catechesis is,of course, never less than a doctrinal “echo” of the Apostolic faith, but it is so much more than that! Wesley would never go for a Q and A approach to catechesis. So, brothers and sisters, stay tune for the next three blog entries on the distinctives of Wesleyan Catechesis! 🙂

  • Lawson Stone says:

    I appreciate the emphasis on memorizing because memory is the core part of our identity that transcends time, linking the past to the present. But memory is woefully prone to corruption, so a “form of sound words” (Paul’s term) provides a fine structure. Every sports fan I know has stats and such of favorite teams and players committed to memory. I think a memorized catechism, while not fully adequate, is certainly necessary. The doctrinal confusion and drift of contemporary evangelicalism seems to me to move apace with our loss of the disciplines of memory

  • Cassie Kile says:

    I agree with you that one of the greatest losses in the church is the collapse of catechesis. My home church feels this very much. I am a Sunday school teacher and co-youth director. I have observed that the most of the kids in my youth group do not know much Bible. This is one of the things that I have already addressed in my church and will continue to work with when I go home for my internship this summer.

    This is an awesome blog, by the way!


  • Pres. Tennent. Big Amen. “Cathechesis” is a word spoken in due season. We need this word right now.

    J.D.: I agree. Catechesis *must* be more than “mere answers.” It can’t just a series of recitations without deeper connections to the rest of life. E.g. we don’t want catechesis to be like the Captain Walker recitations from MAD MAX (if you don’t get that nerdy reference, see this video ). But I’ve never been to any church that falls into this kind of rote teaching pattern, or anything close to it. The more common mistake I’ve seen is focusing on the emotional/social/experiential and ignoring the cognitive-propositionalist dimension to Christian formation. So I guess I’d say that I think we could do with a little bit more MAD-MAX-style question and answer. Memorization is always loathed in the moment, but enjoyed later on. And I think that a little bit of tedious memorization could have a big experiential benefit for young Christians especially, who could have a more relaxed confidence about their faith, knowing that they can articulately explain it when needed.

    I guess all I’m saying is that I think there’s a time for chairs and rows and boring memorization, and we shouldn’t shy away from a bit of rote learning in the church.