Catechesis is an ancient form of disciple-making. Though the term may seem strange to many Evangelicals, it has deep roots in church history and the Bible. J.I. Packer has teamed up with Gary A. Parrett (a Professor of Christian Education at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) in writing about catechesis in Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, Baker Books, 2010. What is catechesis? Packer and Parrett define it as:
Catechesis is the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight. (Packer and Parrett, p.28)
We are probably more familiar with the term catechism which is also sometimes used as a catchall term but more often associated with the content of instruction in printed form. Packer and Parrett prefer to use the term catechesis to describe the overall process.
The authors demonstrate that catechesis is rooted in the Bible and became the standard form of disciple-making very early in church history. In the introduction they write:
Historically, the church’s ministry of grounding new believers in the rudiments of Christianity has been known as catechesis. It is a ministry that has waxed and waned through the centuries. It flourished between the second and fifth centuries in the ancient church. Those who became Christians often moved into the faith from radically different backgrounds and worldviews. The churches rightly took such conversions very seriously and sought to ensure that those life-revolutions were processed carefully, prayerfully, and intentionally, with thorough understanding at each stage. (p.22)
Many of our converts today come from ‘radically different backgrounds and worldviews.’ We too, like the ancient church, need to seriously seek to provide biblical understanding of the Gospel and its implications.
Many Evangelicals will associate catechism with a question and answer format that is memorized. This is certainly a core feature of historic catechisms, yet the practice has always included an explanation to aid understanding. The authors are open to other formats but insist on the importance of sound doctrine. I have read in contemporary missiological literature of “preaching the Gospel not doctrine.” I confess that this seems an impossibility for the Gospel is doctrine. Historically catechesis highlights the facts of the Gospel and its implications for life and godliness.
Packer and Parrett do not insist on using the terminology of catechesis. They write:
In some contexts, insisting on retaining the term catechesis may actually prevent us from fulfilling the task of catechesis. If the term itself is to be such a stumbling block – because of personal or community-wide sensibilities – we really can manage quite well without it. We can simply call our task of grounding and growing believers in the faith by some other name: “faithful formation,” “maturity teaching,” “going for growth.” “the truth and wisdom project,” or something similar. (p.30)
The book includes ten chapters: (1) Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, (2) Catechesis is a (Very!) Biblical Idea, (3) The Waxing and Waning of Catechesis, (4) Sources and Resources for Catechetical Ministry, (5) The Gospel as of First Importance, (6) Three Facets of Faith, (7) Forward in the Faith of the Gospel, (8) Drawing Lines and Choosing Sides, (9) Moving In and Moving On, and (10) Championing Catechesis in Contemporary Congregations.
In the chapter, “Moving In and Moving On.” the authors “outline a model for configuring and implementing ministries of catechesis in evangelical churches today” (p. 165). Their overview involves:
- three facets of faith: the truth, the way, and the life;
- three phases of the journey: first glimpses of the Gospel, formal grounding in the Gospel, further growth in the Gospel; and
- three forms of education: formal, non-formal, and informal.
The three facets of faith were explored at length in chapter 6 showing how they flow out of the Gospel. The authors summarize the three facets of the Gospel:
The Truth concerns the sound doctrine that accords with the Gospel. The Way concerns the manner of conduct that conforms to the sound doctrine. The Life concerns the life-giving power inherent in the Gospel that liberates us from the bondage to sin and enables us to begin walking in the way. (p.166)
Grounded in the Gospel is a great resource for the renewed emphasis on disciple-making in Evangelical missions today. The authors’ proposal gives core guidelines that can be fleshed out in a variety of cultural contexts. Catechesis is worth exploring in our disciple-making today for it will not only connect us with brothers and sisters around the world but also connect us with the ancient church. In 2012 the Gospel Coalition and Redeemer Presbyterian Church developed “the New City Catechism” based on some Reformation Catechisms. Check it out at http://newcitycatechism.com.