Sunday, September 19, 2010

Some Thoughts About Catechetical Instruction

When I was the youth sitting on the metal folding chair in the church basement from 9-11 on Saturday afternoons for two years learning the catechism, I noticed that an abundance of time was spent on the commandments.  Maybe it was because I was particularly immoral at that time and the law hit me fairly hard or perhaps my Pastor felt that our class needed to hear instruction in the commandments more than the other chief parts of the catechism.  Actually, I believe it is because it is easier to teach the commandments than some of the other six chief parts.  It may be easier but I wonder if we do  not spend too much time on this and too little time on other parts?

If you look at the prepared curriculum for catechism instruction, you find a preponderance of time spent upon the Law, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer.  These seem to be the big three of the six chief parts.  I do not think that you can spend too much time on any of them but, given the realities of the time allotted, I suggest that we spend far too little on Baptism, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar.  Let me tell you why...

The Law needs to explained not for what it says but for what it means and here the real task of this part of the catechetical instruction is to teach the student, in a rudimentary way, to distinguish Law and Gospel.  Here the big issue is not what does it mean to kill but rather why has God given us the Law, what does it do and what does it not do, and how does it apply in daily life (instead of merely a rule book to govern in bounds and out of bounds behavior or surely we are preparing Pharisees).

The Creed needs to explained not what it says but for what it expresses -- the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the work of this Triune God on our behalf, and the faith/trust which meets the mystery but does not break it down into chewable chunks (lest we be preparing Calvinists who will explain and tie up every loose end of God).  We are Lutherans.  We live in the paradox of what reason says cannot be and what God says it is (like the Incarnation) and it will do no long term good to make God into propositional truth.

The Lord's Prayer needs to be taught not for what it says but for how to pray.  If our people are to pray, they must be taught.  The Lord's Prayer is not some magical prayer to be learned to be used when needed but the invitation to believe and pray throughout our lives that God loves and cares for us, surrounds us with His grace sufficient for the day, and gives us what is beneficial for us even if it is not at all what we desire.  Otherwise we risk setting our people loose in the bookstores of the world and looking at prayer as the Sacrament of getting what you want from an unwilling God or the means to unfolding a higher plane of existence (so we risk creating pentecostals or gnostics).

But in all of this we forget that the three arenas in which our identities as Christians and our life of worship take place are the next three components.  Here we fail our people miserably if we teach them a bit about baptism but fail to instruct them on how their baptism into Christ shapes and molds who they are as people, what they do, and how they live.  We can teach the doctrine of baptism and fail because we do not teach our baptismal vocation.  In the end, without fully investing in this part of the Catechism, we risk losing our people to the believers baptism folks because they fail to see who is acting in baptism and what is happening there or, on the other hand, we teach them that baptism is simply something in your past that has little to do with who you are today (an understanding too often shaped by the Law) and so we fail here, too.

The reason our people do not avail themselves of the gift of absolution is that they have not been taught private confession.  We skip over a couple of pages here as if this were an anecdotal nod to Roman Catholic roots which, thank the Lord, we have ditched like the excess baggage it is.  Instead, we could offer our children a means to keeping in good conscience the gift of God by the regular private confession and absolution that confronts the sinner with personal forgiveness and aids the guilty conscience so prone to damage us (youth and adults).  It might also teach them something about practicing this in reconciliation with others.

Finally, the reason that so very many parishes do not have a weekly Eucharist and so many Lutheran Christians do not see this Eucharist as central and pivotal to their spiritual lives and devotion, is because we gloss over the meal that Christ gave us as if it were an occasional snack instead of THE regular encounter with the crucified and risen Lord in which by eating His flesh and drinking His blood He dwells in us and we in Him.  Until we give the Sacrament of the Altar its due, our people will have a largely non-sacramental piety that is too prone to manipulation by the generic spiritualists (Oprah and Osteen) or the evangelical/pentecostals who spiritize the unspiritual and then ignore that which is Spirit and truth as ground and pattern for daily life in Christ.  If our people are not knocking on the doors to the Pastor's study demanding more frequent communion, then we are doing something wrong in this area of the six chief parts.

Well, now I feel better.... do you?


DRG said...

Good thoughts.

I read your blog regulary and am amazed how often your thoughts "meander" in the same direction as mine. Thank you for giving a voice to your thoughts.
It is encouraging to read them.

Anonymous said...

I agree in principle. I totally agree that most catechism books spend WAY too much on the 10 davarim as compared to the rest (one that doesn't is bender's Lutheran Catechesis, BTW). Another reason for the overemphasis on the 10 is that there are 10 of them. There are only 3 articles, the petitions are easy to treat two at a time, but the 10 commandments seem to need their own exposition.

I think of the catechism as "what it means to be a christian." However much information there is, I think of it as proclamation for one's whole life. We need to hear the law. We need to hear what God has done (in creation, salvation, etc.). We need to hear how we can talk with God.

But you're right on the money that we also need to hear how God has blessed and will bless us in the sacraments.

I came to a church using Faith Inkubators... never mind its overall good or bad qualities, it struck me extremely hard that there's no section which explicitly talks about Confession! For 3 whole years, 30 lessons per year -- not one explicitly about confession. Not that it can't be worked in, and not that there aren't a couple weeks where it fits nicely. But even then -- 90 lessons, only 2 on confession?

Anyhow, thanks for posting. The catechism is a great blessing to us.

Unknown said...

One thing that I have come to realize is that we are not teaching the Catechism...we are teaching the Bible...if one sees it from that view then the concerns expressed in this entry take on a different perspective...

Clint Hoff & Family said...

If you look at "Exploring Luther's Small Catechism" by Robert C. Sauer, you can see how much time is spent on the commandments and how little on the sacraments and confession. I think we need an update to Sauer's work.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Rev. Peters, I do. Thank you for a very thoughtful posting.

There is no question in my mind that God has used Martin Luther’s Small Catechism as a tool to bring untold millions to faith. But it continues to amaze me that there are people who know the Small Catechism by heart, including the “what does this mean” segments, and really do not have a clue what they really mean. For all of my adult life, it has been my conviction that the reason for that is that we fail to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom clearly.

We are not overwhelmed by the cosmic miracle of an infant emerging as a child of God from the waters of Baptism, because we are not taught very clearly what has happened. The Catechism speaks of “regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit”, but it does not tell us clearly that the Holy Spirit has come to live in us to the end of our days on earth. We are not taught what the consequences of that are throughout our lives.

Even though I yearn for the Eucharist on those days on which it is not celebrated in our congregation (LCMS), I remain convinced that the proper proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom is essential to obtain the full benefits of this Sacrament. Without it, we run the risk of having it viewed as “ex opere operato”.

Finally, Luther’s explanation of what “Thy Kingdom Come” means could use some improvement. But once we decide to be “quia” confessors, we are no longer allowed to think that something may be amiss, and so we memorize something that really is not what it should be.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Ted Badje said...

We need to train seminarians how to teach the Catechism practically to confirmation students, often the 5th-8th graders. They need to review what the DCEs or others are teaching the confirmands. I am meeting too many ex-Lutherans in my day-to-day activities. I believe this all begins because they are not receiving the correct emphases in confirmation. I am in favor of an incorporated approach with the Catechism.