Catechesis is not just an option you can take or leave. Because someone will catechize your children. Maybe it will be your church. But how much time does your child spend there each week? Maybe it will be their school. You know public schools want to shape your children into a certain kind of person. No matter how hard you may try to shield your children, the world will attempt to catechize them. Children’s books teaching the values of expressive individualism will end up in your house, and you won’t even know how they got there. You won’t be able to block out every Disney movie and every top 40 song. Even if you could, you’d probably have an easier time keeping outside air out of your house than thinking your children won’t be catechized by the world.
Someone will catechize your children. So don’t outsource it in 2021.
When you realize your duty to catechize your children, you’ll soon learn the delight of this privilege. The joy doesn’t come in guaranteeing your children will walk in all the ways of the Lord. It comes in knowing you’ve helped to lay a foundation of biblical truth that will support your family’s faith no matter what may come.
Delight Follows Effort
One of the great advantages of catechizing young children is that they don’t know any better. They don’t know that most families don’t catechize at home. They appreciate routines. They trust their parents. They spend a lot of time at home, especially in a pandemic, and they aren’t yet tugged in many different directions by activities.
Which is not to say it’s easy. We do family worship before bed, and it’s not always convenient if we have a late night and the kids are tired. And that’s with two kids and two parents, with my wife working full-time with the children. It’s much harder still for single parents, for children with disabilities, and for families with a wide age range.
But the delight follows the effort. Since you may not know where to begin, let me share a bit about our routine and the blessing for our family. I did not grow up in catechizing family. Neither did my wife. Her family attended church maybe once every couple of years on Christmas. Mine were fairly regular churchgoers, but talk of God made my parents uncomfortable. So my wife and I didn’t have a model. I had some Sunday school experience, and I had done a confirmation class where we memorized Scripture and the Apostles’ Creed and took tests. But we didn’t do anything at home. My wife and I didn’t have kids until we were older, because we struggled with infertility. Eventually we had two children, about three years apart.
You’d probably have an easier time keeping outside air out of your house than thinking your children won’t be catechized by the world.
Because my children are still young, I’m no expert on every practical tip. I can’t tell you that if you follow my method, your kids are guaranteed to turn out as faithful Christians. That’s not what catechesis promises. A few years ago I talked with a heartbroken mother who had worked through the Westminster Shorter Catechism with her children and watched them all grow up and reject it. Catechesis is not salvation. The venerable 19th-century Princeton theologian Archibald Alexander likened catechesis to firewood in your fireplace. You lay the logs, and then you plead with God to send the Spirit to ignite that wood into flame. Contrary to what many evangelicals today seem to think, you don’t have fire without that fuel. There is no Christianity, no religion, devoid of theological content in what we believe about God. Think about John 4:24—“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”—and imagine the logs as truth, the fire as spirit.
The New City Catechism is the log for our fire in my home. It’s especially useful for younger children, because of the children’s mode that shortens the memorization and comes with word-for-word original songs for all 52 question and answers, one for every week of the year. With the help of the songs, our son could begin memorizing at age 3, through at least two years earlier my son enjoyed listening to the songs. His younger sister sits with us at bedtime and takes it in as she waits to grow into memorization. Sometimes we can memorize one question/answer in a week; sometimes the longer answers require several weeks.
But we don’t only use a catechism in our catechesis. We subscribe to an “all of the above” approach. We start out with a story Bible. Pictures help keep my son’s attention, and we’ve used Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible, Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story, and also David Helm’s The Big Picture Story Bible. By pausing to let your children fill in the blanks during the reading, you can learn how much they’re retaining. My son can also identify where we left off, if we lose our place. And when I ask review questions after the reading, he loves to answer. That helps me know he’s tracking.
At this point I’m not worried about whether he’s always applying what he’s learned, or even comprehending it. That will come with time. These story Bibles advance a general theme that I saw my son identify as soon as he could speak: “God promises,” he’d reply. And that’s a pretty good catechesis takeaway: Who is God? God makes and keeps his promises. It’s covenant theology for young children. I try to reinforce those prayers with Bible memory verses that help mark the story of redemption: Genesis 1:1, Romans 3:23, John 1:1, and Romans 6:23, for example.
Pray and Sing
We also pray together, though I find it’s not especially helpful to ask a young child what to pray for, unless you want a list of everyone he knows and every object he can see at the moment. So it’s best to simply model prayer at this age, and to pray as inspired by the Bible, and not just for circumstances. That’s a way to push back on cultural catechesis that says God is only useful in so far as he meets our needs.
But we get the most delight as a family in singing together. There’s not much more beautiful than overhearing your son and daughter in the next room as they sing to themselves “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Catechesis is not just sitting down and drilling your children on lengthy, complicated theological concepts that neither of you understands. In a home that catechizes, you’re introducing your children to the songs they’ll remember long after you’re gone, maybe even the songs they’ll sing just before they see Jesus face to face.
[Let’s] push back on cultural catechesis that says God is only useful in so far as he meets our needs.
You might be in a church that sings only contemporary songs. But I want to suggest you consider going old school for this component of catechesis. Pull up to the piano, if you can play. We picked up a free one during the pandemic. Or just pull out the hymnal to sing a cappella. We do not worship in a United Methodist church, but we use an old, discarded United Methodist hymnal. First, you can find a lot of the best songs there, especially ones written by the Wesleys. Second, the hymnal communicates to our children that they belong to something much bigger than themselves. They fit in a story. Their ancestors were among the first Calvinistic Methodists in the Welsh revivals of the mid-1700s. This is a privilege to belong to family where they can be taught by parents who love the true God. So I want to reinforce the historical nature of the gospel, of the church, of evangelical theology.
Maybe you have a long history of Christianity and catechesis in your family. Maybe you’re a new convert. Maybe your kids are older, and you’re feeling guilty. Let me tell you, if you didn’t start yesterday, the next best time to start is today, as we prepare for 2021. For older families and churches The Gospel Coalition produced The New City Catechism Devotional and The New City Catechism Curriculum. If your kids won’t go along with these formal efforts, pray that God would open informal opportunities, as you “walk by the way” (Deut. 6:7).
Catechesis [helps] your children escape the tyranny of self and the urgency of now.
Whatever your story, catechesis is an irreplaceable way to help your children escape the tyranny of self and the urgency of now. They must know there is something, Someone, outside the self. And they must learn to doubt the wisdom of this age. Expose them, at the earliest age you can, to the good and perfect, so they will learn to discern all counterfeits. Give them a better story than what they’ll inevitably get from the world. Give them the name of God, and tell him what he’s like.