Catechesis and Luther
If you google the definition of “Catechesis,” you will be provided with the answer, “Religious instruction given to a person in preparation for Christian baptism or confirmation, typically using a catechism.” A simple enough definition but not quite how we should understand the word or command associated with it in it’s entirety. Unfortunately, for many Lutherans “Catechesis” holds meaning only insofar as it rings a bell associated with that little blue book they studied in Confirmation class at around 13 years old, Luther’s Small Catechism. Some may even have been gifted a copy of the book which now occupies space on some lone shelf or box in their home. “So!” we decide, “Catechesis is just a fancy word for confirmation! Awesome. Check! I did that, and check! I’m taking my kids to it.” Well. . . yes, confirmation can be considered a part of Catechesis, but the two are not interchangeable terms. One is simply a piece of the other. For a better understanding, it’s helpful to look at how the Small Catechism was written. Feel free to dig out the dusty book and look at how Luther heads each section. Take for example, the Ten Commandments.
“The Ten Commandments:
In a simple way in which the head of a house is to present them to the household,“
You find that sentence at the beginning of each of what’s known as the “Chief Parts” of the catechism. Question: Who is the head of your household? If you answered your Pastor, or DCE (Director of Christian Education) you seem to have an interesting relationship with the church. . . The head of the household that Luther refers to is the father/husband. Scripture also describes fathers this way countless times. This would lead one to assume that Luther wrote the Small Catechism as a guide for fathers teaching not only their children but the entire household the basics of the faith.
If you flip through the pages, you’ll see that the Chief Parts are written in the most simplistic of ways and with a very interesting pattern of questions and answers. The most common questions are “What is this?”, “What does this mean?”, and “How does this happen?” These questions Luther purposefully wrote to reflect the way one of his own children might ask him questions.
We’re all familiar with the endless stream of questions children pour out as soon as they’re able to speak. As they learn to navigate the world around them, children crave knowledge. They’re always curious. Luther understood that it is parents’ responsibility to foster that curiosity, to satiate that hunger for knowledge. And Martin Luther saw no more important teaching than basic Christian instruction given by a child’s parents. The Small Catechism, a brief and simplistic summary of the Christian Faith, he also wrote the Large Catechism which dove more deeply into each part of the Small Catechism. Many are far less familiar with this book even though it’s packed with wonderful insight and explanation of the basic tenants of the faith. Ideally, a father would read and re-read the Large Catechism to better understand how to teach his children. Luther’s preface reads:
“This sermon is designed and undertaken that it might be an instruction for children and the simple-minded. Hence of old it was called in Greek Catechism, i.e., instruction for children, what every Christian must needs know, so that he who does not know this could not be numbered with the Christians nor be admitted to any Sacrament, just as a mechanic who does not understand the rules and customs of his trade is expelled and considered incapable. Therefore we must have the young learn the parts which belong to the Catechism or instruction for children well and fluently and diligently exercise themselves in them and keep them occupied with them. Therefore it is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children and servants at least once a week and to ascertain what they know of it, or are learning, and,if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.”
Properly Understanding the Command (The Law is a Gift)
Boy, that seems intense! Test our children every week? And what’s this about people who don’t know this stuff not being called Christian? Yeah, it is intense. Properly Catechizing all Christians, children included, was something Luther was very serious about. Why? He knew the great comfort that knowing Scripture well provided. His introduction to the Large Catechism reads:
“Nothing is so powerfully effective against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts as to occupy one’s self with God’s Word, to speak about it and meditate upon it, in the way that Psalm 1[:2] calls those blessed who “meditate on God’s law day and night.” Without doubt, you will offer up no more powerful incense or savor against the devil than to speak, sing, or think about them. Indeed, this is the true holy water and sign that drives away the devil and puts him to flight.
For this reason alone you should gladly read, recite, ponder, and practice the catechism, even if the only advantage and benefit you obtain from it is to drive away the devil and evil thoughts. […] If this were not enough to admonish us to read the catechism daily, God’s command should suffice to compel us. For God solemnly enjoins in Deuteronomy 6[:7-8] that we should meditate upon his precepts while sitting, walking, standing, lying down and rising, and should keep them as an ever-present emblem and sign before our eyes and on our hands. God certainly does not require and command this so solemnly without reason. He knows our danger and need; he knows the constant and furious attacks and assaults of the devil.
Therefore, he wishes to warn, equip, and protect us against them with good “armor” against their flaming arrows,” and with a good antidote against their evil infection and poison. O, what mad, senseless fools we are! We must ever live and dwell in the midst of such mighty enemies like the devils, and yet we would despise our weapons and armor, too lazy to examine them or give them a thought!”
(If it seems I’m quoting a lot of Luther, it’s only because God gifted him such a wonderful ability to enunciate truths of Scripture in written word.)
Here, Luther shows the wonderful truth of God’s Laws and Commands. God doesn’t just throw around commands for no reason or simply to have fun watching us try to fulfill them. And He definitely doesn’t give them so that we can try to earn our salvation by fulfilling them. God’s Law is given out of love. We know how terrifying and burdensome this life is. We know how our own sinful flesh works against our own good and the good of those around us. Tragedy strikes out of nowhere and disease, stress, abuse, arguments, etc. steals our joy. But they only steal our joy if we find our joy in earthly things. When we do as Martin Luther suggests and meditate on the Word of God daily, we cling to the promises of God and the hope we have in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As parents, we should want to teach that discipline to our children.
Leading Our Children Where Christ Is
Parents are commanded to catechize their children for the sake of their children: to ensure they understand and treasure the gifts of faith and salvation given to them in their Baptism. This process is just that, a process, continual and never ending. It doesn’t begin or end with confirmation class. It begins the moment your child is born. You catechize your children when you sit them on your lap and read to them about Jesus, when you pray as a family every day, when they hear you discussing your faith with your spouse and with friends and family, when you ask them questions about their own faith, when you bring them regularly to receive Word and Sacrament at church, when they sit next to you in the pew and you explain to them what the Pastor is doing and why; in all these ways, you catechize them.
Children, even well into their teenage years, regardless of how it appears, look to their parents and imitate their values and priorities. When they grow up watching you go to church every Sunday, participate in Bible Study, pray and read your Bible at home, statistically they are more likely to do the same even after they move out on their own. But if they watch you put faith on the back burner because “life is busy and there are other things to do,” they will too. Every time you skip church because of a sporting event or trip or just to sleep in, you not only deny your family the blessings that come from hearing the Word, being in communion with other Christians and receiving the sacrament, you also teach your children something. It doesn’t matter if your words say “faith is important to us!” when your actions teach them it’s only important until something more exciting, fun, or easier comes along.
Yes, sometimes things happen. Every family occasionally misses worship because of illness, emergency, or even the occasional family vacation. But more often than not, for today’s families, these absences are becoming less the exception and more the rule. Many congregations are lucky to see a particular family in worship once or twice a month. Because everything has become an excuse.
Now, don’t get me wrong, proper Catechesis isn’t only contingent on taking your family to church every week. Christ should be the center piece of your family’s daily life. Sunday shouldn’t be the only time you read the Word. And if you rely on your pastor alone to teach your children about Jesus, there is a problem. However, if Christ is central to your daily life and you are teaching your children to follow Him as you yourself model, your faith will naturally lead you to where He promises to be. He promises to be found in the preaching of the Word, since through the Word the Holy Spirit works and in Baptism and Holy Communion. These things are found in the Divine Service every Sunday. So while, no, church attendance isn’t the sole indicator of an active faith life, it certainly is an important one.
Joyfully Overcoming Fear and the “Drop-off Culture”
One of the joys of belonging to a church body is not only sharing in Word and Sacrament every Sunday but in attending Bible Studies to help deepen your understanding of the Word, as well as sharing in other forms of fellowship and service with your brothers and sisters. Most churches offer Bible Studies for all ages, yet many parents are satisfied in only taking their children to Vacation Bible School or to youth group activities, neglecting their own growth.
In Youth Ministry, we talk about something called “the Drop-off Culture.” As a parent, you usually want your child to be a well-rounded individual. In today’s fast paced world, the means putting them in as many extracurricular activities as possible! If you want your son to learn baseball, you drive him to a baseball coach; if you want your daughter to dance, you take her to a dance instructor. Band, debate club, hockey, etc. Most parents can agree that much of their time simply goes to chauffeuring their family from one practice or lesson to the next.
And these activities aren’t bad in and of themselves. God loves to see us take joy in hobbies and interests. There’s also no doubt that many of these activities can teach valuable life skills like teamwork, persistence, and the like. Youth Ministry professionals also know how valuable it is for children and adolescents to have a community of people caring about them which clubs and teams can provide. Yet somehow, faith and church get thrown onto the to-do list as another thing to take the kids to. Just like taking them to a coach or instructor, drop them off at Confirmation or youth bible study and the pastor, DCE, or youth director will take care of it. They after all are more equipped right? Wrong.
No one is more equipped to bring your children up in the faith than you. You, as their parent, know them the best. You spend the most time with them. You are who they look to as a model and for support and guidance. God, unlike a sport, doesn’t tell you to stay on the benches and leave it to the coaches. He doesn’t resign your worth to what you can spend on equipment and gas or how often you volunteer for snack duty. God recognizes that you are irreplaceable and invaluable to your children. He gives you the joyful vocation of helping your children better know their Savior.
Pastors and other church workers are wonderful teachers, but in the lives of your kids, they should be supplementing what you are teaching them at home. The church is a great place for you to come and deepen your own faith and knowledge and to ask for support and resources. Do you know Greek like the pastor? Probably not. But you can learn the basics of the faith and every day learn even more. Catechesis is lifelong, after all, and even you, as an adult, are called to keep learning. And if you don’t feel confident answering your child’s questions on a subject, dive into the Scriptures on it, ask the pastor or DCE for a book on it, take a class about it. In this way, you not only gain a firmer grasp on the subject, you also model for your children what to do when you don’t know the answer.
The culture will tell your kids the best way to answer a question is to Google it. But you can show them that in matters of faith, God has given us better tools to discern truth. There’s no shame in asking for help. I can guarantee any pastor or church worker would be delighted to help!
Catechesis is so much more than dropping off your children at church events. It’s walking in with them to go to your own Bible Study; it’s asking them after they leave what they learned and having meaningful discussion on your own time, and sharing that knowledge with your children and taking joy in it! The vocation of parenthood is a gift of God as Martin Luther passionately preached and wrote about often:
“This duty makes parenthood immensely rich in good works for God has given this estate the care of souls upon whom parents may lavish a great plenty of Christian works. Fathers and mothers are apostles, bishops, and pastors to their children as they raise them in the knowledge of the holy gospels. No greater or nobler power exists on earth than that of parents over children, for it is a power both secular and spiritual.”
I love that quote. You as a parent are more than a chauffeur, cook, nurse, or cheerleader (though parenthood certainly contains all these and more); you are also a caretaker of souls. That sounds crazy right? What a wonderful privilege that God would create a life, a human soul fashioned in love and hand that child of His to you. To not only care for their bodies but their souls until they are united with Him again in eternity. To some, reading this may draw great wonder and joy, to others a deep uneasiness similar to when you held your first child and realized this person would rely on you for everything for the foreseeable future. When given a responsibility so great, many of us will shake our heads and look back on all the times we’ve failed in the past.
Every day, parents worry they aren’t doing things right or will fail their children. And this worry is healthy. It acknowledges us as sinful humans with limitations and a propensity for screwing up. But this is also where faith is so important. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Sometimes what we see is our failures and shortcomings, but we have assurance that Christ promised we wouldn’t be alone in any aspect of life, including parenthood:
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:15-17 & 25-27)
These words were spoken by Christ to the disciples when they too were fearful and doubting, when the shortcomings of their human minds and sinful hearts were preventing them from understanding. Christ promised them that after He died, rose, and ascended they would not be alone but would have the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit gave them the power to convert thousands and baptize them in the name of the Trinity; it gave them the courage to stand before hostile religious and political authorities and proclaim Christ crucified; it urged them to travel to what at that time was the ends of the earth and preach about the Great Redeemer, giving them the words to speak, and it even gave them the courage and peace to stand tall in the face of death, most of them dying as Martyrs.
This same Spirit is given to you and me and your children. It was given to us in our Baptisms and continues to strengthen and preserve us through God’s Word and Christ’s Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. Just as Christ didn’t leave the disciples alone, neither did he leave you alone in the struggles of parenthood. The key is to draw close to the Word and Sacrament, having faith that while you are the most important human faith educators in your children’s lives, you are not the one who has the power to create and sustain their faith. The Holy Spirit does that. Pray for your children. Pray that the Holy Spirit would continue working through your life and example to help nurture their faith. When you fail, repent and ask forgiveness drawing closer to Christ and His promises. Let your children see you handle your failures in this way, so that when they fail in life they will rest in Christ’s forgiveness.
Parenthood is so tough. Catechizing your children isn’t always easy, and there will always be a million things pulling your attention in another direction. You have to pick up something for dinner, put in laundry, and where IS that helmet? Life is crazy. Until it’s not. One day you’ll see your Savior face-to-face because of the faith you had in Him and God-willing, so will your children after a life of faith and joyful service. Catechesis, you see, is about so much more than memorized bits of knowledge. It’s a matter of faith, the most precious gift we all could receive. As parents, we get to help nourish that faith in our children. Out of all the vocations we have, this is the most wonderful. Praise be to God!