The Lost Art of Catechesis

Eighty-three-year-old theologian J.I. Packer recently spoke at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Dallas. There, Packer, one of Time Magazine's 25 "most influential evangelicals," said, "We are drifting back into paganism."

Packer's latest book, written with Gary Parrett, underscores what he thinks is missing. The book, entitled Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, explores the church's need to make catechesis an important part of its life once again.

For those unfamiliar with the term, catechesis is, according to Packer and Parrett, "the church's ministry of grounding and growing God's people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty and delight."

There is generally need for three distinct forms of catechetical ministry. They say it's protocatechesis, which refers to teaching what many today would call "seekers" or what the ancients called "inquirers"; catechesis proper, which refers to the formal work of preparing children or adult converts for baptism or confirmation; and ongoing catechesis, which is the never-ending teaching and formation of believers.

Packer and Parrett point out the fact that catechism has always been an important part of transferring the faith. The authors look at Old Testament precursors to catechism, New Testament examples, and then the use it in light of the early church. Although the practice was largely neglected in the Middle Ages, the Reformers emphasized the need for its revival.

Writing in 1548 to the Lord Protector of England, John Calvin emphatically stated, "Believe me, Monseigneur, the Church of God will never be preserved without catechesis." In the years which followed, both Catholics and Protestants revived the practice and saw it as one of the most obvious and basic duties of the church.

Sadly, today, in most parts of the church, the practice has been abandoned. Many even view the word "catechesis" with suspicion, like it is some alien practice. The authors write, however, "We are persuaded that Calvin had it right and that we are already seeing the sad, even tragic, consequences of allowing the church to continue uncatechized in any significant sense...[T]he recovery of significant catechesis [is] a nonnegotiable practice in specifically evangelical churches."

While the authors make it clear that churches need to re-discover catechesis, they don't leave us hanging without a plan to help them do it. They discuss what topics churches should cover in catechesis, and they describe how people can champion the cause of catechism in their congregations. In other words, Packer and Parrett give us the tools and the blueprint we need to move forward.

Especially nowadays, when young believers are likely to pick and choose which aspects of the faith they find most convenient or cool-much like they'd pick and choose a download for their iPod-we desperately need to teach a holistic understanding of the faith, from Genesis to Revelation.

Packer is right on. Passing the baton of faith to the next generation may depend on our heeding his message.