I had just been talking with Jane. She was excited, because she had plans with her dad that night. They were going to snack on Sprite and bananas and watch the latest episode of Disney's Hannah Montana. Jane was pumped!
Right after that conversation, I came back to my office to write an essay about teaching theology to kids using catechism. As I sat down to write, I couldn't help but feel a little bit out of touch. Are kids today really interested in learning theology? If they are, is a centuries old catechism the best tool for teaching them? That was back in 2010. Hannah Montana hasn't released a new episode since January 2011. She's so four years ago. But last week, one of my own daughters told me, "Dad, you don't have enough Taylor Swift songs on your phone." Yikes! Here I am feeling out of touch again. Can’t I find something more relevant for this generation? After all, wouldn’t I rather watch TV than study an ancient doctrinal statement?
Do kids need to learn theology?
In the church, we all agree kids need to know Jesus. They need to be changed by His love. They need to be welcomed and accepted by a Christian community. But do they really need to learn doctrine? Can’t the dry and boring stuff wait until they’re a little older? Maybe you would never voice that out loud in front of your pastors but at least some of us (including your pastors) have thought it. Then again, have you ever wondered why we think of doctrine as dry and boring? I'd suggest it’s because we’ve failed to really get how the big truths of the faith connect to salvation through Jesus.
Our kids already have theology. They have lots of thoughts about God. They’re thinking about spiritual things all of the time. And they have questions. One Sunday, our children’s ministry studied the story of Jesus' crucifixion from Matthew 27:32-54. One of our teachers taught about how God turned his back on Jesus, because he could not look at our sin. John, a third grader, piped up and asked, “Isn’t Jesus God? How could God turn his back on God?” What a great question! But how many teachers or parents would be prepared to answer it?
How many of us would say, “Well, that’s what it says”?
How many of us would give John a dry explanation of the Trinity? "There is only one true God, but God exists in three persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here the Father turns His back on his Son."
How many of us have eyes to see that John needs to know about the Trinity, because knowing about the Trinity may be the pathway to a relationship with the Trinity? Because God is three in one, Jesus is the perfect God-man. He is the perfect substitute for our sins. That’s not boring. That’s amazing! It’s the gospel. It’s doctrine, and it’s exactly what our kids need to hear.
But why catechism? And what is it anyway?
The word catechism and the practice of catechizing carries with it a lot of baggage. Some will immediately think, “Aren’t catechisms quirky, out-dated, and rigid?” If you are from a Catholic, Presbyterian, or Lutheran background, you may remember studying a catechism in confirmation classes. Others will have never heard of a catechism at all. So, what is it anyway?
The English word catechism comes from the Greek word katācheō, which means to teach or instruct. The word is used in Bible passages like Luke 1:4 and Acts 18:25. It can be used for any kind of teaching or instruction. But very early in church history it came to refer to a specific type of teaching. In the early church, new converts were taught the basics of Christianity by memorizing a series of questions and answers. A catechism is just that—a series of questions and answers used to teach Bible truth.
But the roots of the method go even further back. When God rescued Israel from Egypt, he gave them laws, ceremonies, and sacrifices to help them remember his great rescue. God wanted Israel to pass down their faith to successive generations. So, God kept the kids in mind when he gave the law. We see this in the way God anticipated questions from children. In passages like Exodus 12:26-27, Exodus 13:14-16, and Joshua 4:6-7, we find a pattern like this one: “When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them ...” God knew kids would ask. He made them with curiosity and a sense of wonder. So, when they ask, he wanted Israelite parents to be prepared. In each of these passages, he gave them a simple script for answering their kids’ questions. In Exodus 12:27, it went like this: “It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.” God wanted parents and kids to put this little script to memory, so that they’d always be ready with an answer—one that tied their active faith to His redemption plan.
What does theology have to do with Hannah Montana?
So, catechism has been around since the Exodus. That brings us back to the question of relevance. Can this still be useful? I say yes.
- First, Jesus doesn’t get old. Many churches have come to see that any teaching about right living must be informed and transformed by a more theologically rich message of redemption. Our kids need to understand their faith. The more kids understand their faith the more they will see how the good news about Jesus relates to life.
- Second, Jane’s dad makes it relevant. One of the things that always kept me from teaching my kids catechism was that I thought it was a dead religious exercise. It can be, but connecting theology to a relationship gives it modern day relevance. It is not enough for kids to hide the truths of God in their hearts. They also need to see their moms or dads living out the questions and answers they have internalized. I strongly believe every parent should have a systematic plan both for teaching their kids the basic tenets of their faith and for helping kids apply this doctrine to their everyday life.
Next week, I'll be posting some basic tips on how to use a catechism and I'll point you to some of the best catechism resources I'm aware of. What are your questions about catechism? Leave your questions in the comments below, and I'll try to answer them in an upcoming post.