By Walter Fenton
July 30, 2021
“Pastor, when those Jehovah’s Witness people come to my door, I pretend not to be home,” said Barb, a church member at a church I served. “But it’s not just that I don’t want to talk to them; I’m embarrassed that I can’t explain my faith as well they can theirs.” What an honest and humble confession. Of course, she is not alone; many of us struggle to articulate our faith to others.
When I was boy, I was frustrated my Roman Catholic neighbors were not swayed by my case for switching sides and joining the Protestant team. They seemed to have answers for every point I made. Answers they said they learned in catechism. I had no idea what they were talking about, but it was painfully obvious to me – “in catechism” – they were learning the basics of their faith and, as importantly, how to articulate it to others and defend it.
Later I learned what catechism meant and what my friends were learning there. The word comes from the Greek verb “katēcheō,” which means “to teach, instruct, or inform.” In one form or another, it is used several times in the New Testament. For example, when Luke writes to Theophilus at the beginning of his gospel, he does so in order that Theophilus might, “know the certainty of the things [he has] been (katēchēthēs) taught.” Catechism was where my friends were being taught the Christian faith according to the Roman Catholic Church. In one way or another, catechesis has been going on in the church since Peter stood up to first share the faith at Pentecost.
Over the centuries, catechisms have aimed to communicate the core beliefs of the Christian faith to the people of the church. They are often based on great statements like the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, or confessions denominations have developed to guide their adherents in the basics of their faith (e.g., the Augsburg Confession for Lutheran churches).
However, the intent of a catechism is not just to convey information; it is meant to help us reflect on the meaning of the Christian faith in our daily lives. What does it mean to confess that God is Triune, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? What difference does it make, here and now, to believe in the resurrection of the body? Why is it important and how is it meaningful to confess that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father” and “of one Being with [Him]?” And beyond the faith’s meaning in our daily lives, a catechism aims to enable us to compellingly share it with others and, when necessary, defend it.
As theologically conservative Methodists prepare for the formation of the Global Methodist Church, laity, clergy, and academics are united in the need for intentional faith formation. Late last year the Wesleyan Covenant Association created a task force to develop a catechism for the new church. Led by the Rev. Dr. Jason Vickers, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, the group is charged with determining what should be included in it, and how it should be presented to children, teens, and adults. The goal is to create a catechism that helps Global Methodist members understand and articulate the basics of what they believe, and then feel confident about sharing their beliefs with others.
“Some people are resistant to catechesis because they have a concern regarding what they don’t know about the faith and the Bible,” said Lisa Buffum, the Director of Online Education at BeADisciple.com and a member of the task force. “They’re intimidated by some of the academic languages Christians use when speaking about core doctrine; they fear they won’t understand. This can apply equally to faithful life-long church attenders and brand-new believers. It’s incredibly important to me that a catechesis for the new church be clear and understandable to all.”
Many theologically conservative United Methodists maintain poor catechesis is actually what has driven the church to the brink of separation. In an effort to be a “big tent church,” they claim the denomination championed theological pluralism, an approach that eschewed the importance of teaching core doctrines or placed more emphasis on a diversity of opinions regarding its central confessions. Consequently, church leaders and clergy sometimes taught divergent views on essential doctrines like the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, and Jesus’ sacrificial and atoning death on the cross. According to theological conservatives, this has harmed the unity of the church.
However, there is a legitimate concern that an emphasis on teaching the faith can become an end in itself. Information gets shared, but one’s heart is not moved. The great genius of John Wesley, and so the Methodist movement, was his emphasis on the head and the heart, indeed, the whole body’s engagement with the great teachings of the Christian faith. Wesley had the audacity to believe that whether laity or clergy, once a person’s heart is set on fire by the gospel, they are called to bring their hearts and minds to the task of learning about what they believe and how it should shape the way they live their lives. From its very beginning, the Methodist movement has emphasized that clergy and laity together are called to go deeper in the faith so they can share it with others in word and deed.
It is interesting to note that the call for basic instructional resources for teaching the faith is coming from laity and clergy in their 30s and 40s. Young theologians and clergy like Dr. Philip Tallon (Assistant Professor at Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas), the Rev. Stephanie Greenwald (Associate Pastor at St. Andrew’s Community UM Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), and the Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson (Associate Pastor of Discipleship at Waco First UM Church in Waco, Texas) are at the forefront of creating catechetical resources and helping Methodists become better acquainted with the faith they proclaim. Given our increasingly post-Christian culture they believe it is more important than ever that Methodists become steeped in Christianity’s core confessions.
“I am convinced catechesis will be vitally important to a new, theologically conservative Methodist church,” said Greenwald. “We must be intentional about discipleship and pave the way for the future.”
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.