It is a moving experience for a church and especially for parents to witness children make public profession of their faith. This is one of our goals at WRC, to see every one of our children confess the gospel of Christ with their own mouths and thereafter begin receiving the Lord’s Supper as a “professing” Christian. God’s covenant promises are outwardly signified and sealed to them in their baptism, but they must grow to embrace those promises for themselves, just like those children in God’s Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant communities were required to confess the faith with their own lips.
Often, our children grow in faith gradually, as they observe their parents, participate in worship, and develop the natural faculties for a mature faith. A helpful ingredient in their covenant nurture is catechesis, which simply means “instruction,” in the contents of the faith. This is a hallmark of the Reformed tradition, and it occurs in our church through the use of the Heidelberg Catechism, named after the city that produced it in the 16th century – Heidelberg, Germany (pictured above). What follows is an overview of this practice, which has, to our detriment, fallen on hard times in recent years. If you already feel intimidated or leery, please, read on. We proceed at a pace that’s appropriate for each child, and we ensure that the children never put their faith in the Catechism but in the Bible.
God’s Calling for Parents
From the very beginning of creation, Adam and Eve were called to have children in order that the earth might be filled and subdued. With this great privilege came great responsibility. Not only was Adam given commands to protect the sanctity of the Garden and refrain from eating of the forbidden tree, but it is also implied that he needed to instruct his wife and future children in these God-given commands.
When Israel received the teaching of Genesis, they were supposed to note Adam’s failure and avoid his negligence. As they entered the Eden-like land of Canaan, they needed to pass along God’s word to their children with diligence. A very prominent text in Deuteronomy reads thus:
Now this is the commandment, the statues and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deut. 6:1-9)
The instruction that parents needed to provide was thorough, encompassing God’s works of salvation (foreshadowing the Gospel) and His commands (the Law). When a child asked the reason behind keeping God’s commands, parents were to tell them of the Passover and exodus from Egypt (Deut. 6:20-25). The Jews even sung of this great responsibility in Psalm 78, which recounts the exodus, the wilderness wandering and rebellion, the conquest of Canaan, their rebellion at Shiloh, and God’s covenant with David.
We will not hide [the old teaching] from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments. (Ps. 78:4-7)
When Gentiles were “brought near” (Eph. 2:11-18), they joined believing Jews within the People of God and became recipients of the heritage of Israel. Gentiles are now grafted into the olive tree as wild branches (Rom. 11:17) and receive the charge that was given to the Jews, instructing their children in both Law and Gospel. In other words, all Christians, both Jew and Gentile, must teach their children of the works of God, especially as they have culminated in Christ (Gospel), and of the obedience (Law) that Christ requires of His redeemed People. Paul addresses this:
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)
Recent generations of American Christians have come to expect that Sunday school teachers, youth workers, and pastors will take the full responsibility for raising their children in the faith. While there may be a place for outside input, especially that from the pastor and elders, it is a responsibility that is especially given to parents.
Rest assured, however, WRC is ready to equip and support parents in this task. And it’s important to recognize that parents are in the perfect position to fulfill this calling. They are with their children every day, loving, instructing, and caring for them. God has also given believing parents the assurance that He welcomes their children into His covenant, which is signified in their being baptized. Day-by-day, covenant children watch their parents live the Christian life. When they confess their sins, their children take notice. When they open their Bible and pray, they learn. And, most importantly, God empowers parents through the Person of the Spirit with the grace to fulfill this calling.
How does Catechesis fit in?
Education has often been described with these three terms: “grammar, logic, and rhetoric.” If you can imagine learning a new language, then you understand something of how children and adults learn new things. “Grammar” is the foundation of a language, its building blocks. If we don’t know what words mean and how to construct phrases, then we can’t string them together into a meaningful sentence and express truth with our own words (“Logic”). As this new knowledge is explained, a person begins to discuss, debate, and question it (“Rhetoric”).
Catechesis is especially concerned with laying a foundation (“grammar”). By memorizing definitions through Questions and Answers from the Heidelberg Catechism, building blocks are put in place that will facilitate a child’s understanding. Over time, children will be able to explain their beliefs in their own words (“logic”). Alongside this newly developed logic, children develop the ability to engage with incorrect views and defend the truth (“rhetoric”).
Many who object to catechesis will say, “We don’t just want them to repeat an answer they don’t understand!” And we say, “Absolutely! That’s exactly why we need to catechize them!” Children always begin their learning process by repeating. (Parents will attest that, at times, their children repeat phrases they shouldn’t have learned!) For example, children must memorize the alphabet before they can learn to read for themselves. And they must memorize how to count from one to ten before they can learn to add or subtract. Without repetition and memorization, our children will find it very difficult to speak about the Christian faith with their own words.
Sadly, many who object to catechesis are themselves unable to accurately discuss cardinal truths of the faith, like justification by faith alone and the doctrine of the Trinity. Had they been catechized, they might be able to both articulate these doctrines accurately and also with their own words. Is it any wonder that, in an era when catechesis is at such a great low, children are leaving the Church at an unprecedented rate?! Let us recover this time-tested practice in order that our children develop the convictions that can withstand the spiritual challenges that await them.
At WRC, we recognize that catechizing our children is a long-term task, so we have no illusions that they will learn the entire Heidelberg Catechism in the course of a year. It will be slow-going, and some seasons will be more successful than others. Parents also need time to figure out practices and patterns that will suit their own lifestyles and the personalities of their own children.
While there’s no magical, one-size-fits-all approach, it’s good to have a place to start. At WRC, we envision a program that integrates family instruction with the help of the elders and pastor. We provide flash cards to children, so they can learn the Catechism both visually and audibly. We anticipate the release of some apps in the coming years for tablets and smartphones. We also provide families with audio files of some commonly-sung Psalms, since some parents may find it difficult to lead singing, and we encourage the memorization of the Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer.
If you’re a parent, it’s important to have very simple goals. Perhaps, you could ask your children to spend five to ten minutes per day with you in “family worship.” In this time, you read & recite particular Catechism Q&As. Then, you say a brief prayer, possibly just the Lord’s Prayer. Finally, you load up the website and finish with a Psalm. In order to encourage your children that this is important, their full-attention is demanded and a small prize may be given them afterward. Perhaps, you could give them a star for every time they participate in this time of worship, and, then, take them out for ice cream after they accrue ten. This helps them recognize the importance of learning the faith while making it enjoyable, as well. In five-to-ten focused minutes each day, you begin laying a foundation for their Christian discipleship.