Jesus the Catechist

Many Christians react to the use of a catechism for teaching Christian doctrine. (I reacted myself until I was already a young pastor around thirty years of age!) I remember a lady in my church, speaking up in a congregational meeting, saying that she opposed all use of catechisms for instruction because they taught people “rote” answers. This was bad she argued. She has a point, albeit a weak one.

The word catechism actually refers to a way of learning that involves questions and answers. You ask a question and seek an answer. Socrates, the wisest of the Greek teachers, used this method. So did our Lord Jesus Christ. He used the “catechetical method” by asking thought provoking questions that awakened the mind and stimulated a search for truth. More often then not Jesus was the answer, or at least he gave (or pointed to) the answer.

So catechetical instruction has been used by the Christian church from the beginning. We see rudimentary elements of it in the New Testament, both in Jesus and the epistles. A catechism is simply a summary or exposition of doctrine, or Christian teaching. It has been traditionally used in Christian discipleship from New Testament times to the present. Of this there can be no serious dispute.

But what about the statement my church member made about this becoming “rote” learning? I looked up the idea of “rote learning” and found this definition: “Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition.” The basic idea is that the learner will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it. Rote learning is extremely useful for beginners in any learning process. Even moderns understand this much. But there are alternatives ways to learn that are useful for deeper methods of discovery. These include, but are not limited to, associative learning and active learning. I believe the church should use all of these forms, not just the standard forms of catechesis. I would argue, however, that catechetical learning is well suited to an age in which so many young Christians do not have a basic grasp of the most important Christian truths. Interest in this method will depend on active participation, at least to some extent. A good catechist will do more than “force” people to memorize. A good catechist will learn and teach, along with the student, so that the process can be extremely meaningful if questions and answers are learned and then earnestly discussed in helpful ways.

Was Jesus a catechist? You bet. He did not provide “rote” answers, as such, but he did asks questions and sought answers. And he did employ this method to great effect. Let us go and do likewise. The church needs it today more than ever.

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