Catechesis Miscellanies

In my final post on catechesis, I'd like to add a few final thoughts on the New City Catechism

First, it is important to understand the purpose of NCC—its goal is to introduce the almost-lost pedagogical method of catechesis to a new generation, and to direct and motivate far more people to study and learn the longer and historic catechisms than are doing so now. There are three features of NCC that we hope will accomplish this. One is its form as a free app. It means that people will be able to study and memorize the catechism within the fabric of their current, overly busy daily lives. It means that pastors and leaders who want to take a group or class or church through it will not need to make any purchases at all, but will only need to work out ways to use the catechism within their church's pathways of discipleship and training. A second feature is the language. We carefully sought to use modern but not colloquial language, seeking to be accessible but also graceful in style, but also harking back and using the style and language of the historic catechisms where possible.

The other crucial feature of NCC is its brevity. It is an intermediate catechism. It distills older catechisms but, by necessity, leaves a great deal out. While some might find it disconcerting that there is not more information about various subjects, to have a longer catechism would undermine its very purpose. NCC exists to draw in the masses of people who would never taste the richness of the catechism if they didn't have one that is far more economical in words and style. Having tasted NCC, we trust many will go on to at least read and study the historic catechisms. In part because of its brevity, NCC is less detailed than older catechisms and therefore can be used in a variety of churches.

Second, to appreciate NCC it will be critical to remember that catechisms are primarily instructional instruments, not creedal standards. So it shows no more disrespect to theWestminster Catechisms to write a new catechism than, for example, to write a new Sunday school curriculum. In the centuries after the Reformation in Britain hundreds and hundreds of catechisms were produced. While the Heidelberg and Westminster catechisms were intentionally written to be confessional documents, binding doctrinal standards, the vast majority of catechisms were designed to do Christian formation.

The formative, educational genius of catechesis is largely lost today. Learning a catechism is sometimes seen as "mechanical," as "rote learning" that some would say belongs to an earlier era. However, those who use catechesis have come to see the enormous benefits. Catechesis teaches basic mental discipline. Mastering and memorizing a body of content is usually not immediately rewarding. That in itself is a way of practicing the reality that God's truth is true whether it is personally fulfilling at the moment or not. Also, catechism teaches a lost art—the art of meditation and slow reflection. Memorization requires you to pay attention to every word, even every comma. The slow turning over of every word leads to depths of new insight.

Another powerful feature of catechesis is that it teaches us not only the right answers but also, more fundamentally, the right questions. Thomas Torrance observes that the less conversant we are with a body of knowledge, the less we even know what questions to ask. Knowing enough to ask the right questions then moves us down into the truth more swiftly and surely. Here is where catechesis excels.

[T]he Catechism . . . is an invaluable method in instructing the young learner, for it not only trains him to ask the right questions, but trains him to allow himself to be questioned by the Truth, and so to have questions put into his mouth which he could not think up on his own, and which therefore call into questions his own preconceptions. In other words it is an event of real impartation of the Truth.
—Thomas Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed ChurchWipf and Stock: 1996,xxvi.

Last, it would be helpful to understand that NCC is written with a view to 17th-century British pastor Richard Baxter's vision for the role of catechesis—as not something only for the ambitious few or for children but as a normal feature of Christian life. In Reformation Pastors: Richard Baxter and the Ideal of the Reformed Pastor (Paternoster, 2004), J. William Black tells how Baxter and the Worcestershire association of pastors had put into place a program of vigorous expository preaching, only to be disappointed with the results in people's lives. Baxter wrote, "We finde by sad experience, that the people understand not our publike teaching, though we study to speak as plain as we can, and that after many years preaching, even of these same fundamentals, too many can scarce tell anything that we said" (Black, 174). Baxter began his famous program in which every family in the church participated in catechesis under regular pastoral care, discipleship, and visitation.

Black shows that Baxter's success was not reproduced elsewhere, because no one other pastor could pull off the Herculean feat of effectively, personally catechizing 16 families a week, year after year (188-189). But while the details of Baxter's system need not be reproduced, his basic idea is sound—catechesis should be used as broadly as possible in the congregation as a foundational way to instruct and form people. New City Catechism is designed to help churches realize this way of instructing people in the way of Christ.

New City Catechism is a joint project between The Gospel Coalition and Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It is available for iPad and online, and is an excellent way to fill the time during a hurricane.