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Not Your Grandfather’s Catechism

Should a doctrinal statement that’s nearly four-and-a-half centuries old be used to teach today’s high school students the basics of the Reformed faith?

A good many folks still answer, “Yes, of course!” In these churches nearly 7,000 teens work their way through a two-year study of the Heidelberg Catechism, according to figures from Faith Alive Christian Resources. Other churches, however, have shelved the Heidelberger for a variety of reasons. Somehow the notion persists that doctrine is, by definition, dull, dreary stuff—especially when taught to teens raised in a media-saturated culture.

I respectfully disagree with that notion.

While it’s true that even the best catechism teachers sometimes have sessions they’d like to forget, doctrine needn’t be deadly. In my view, the Heidelberg Catechism remains the single best way to teach our teens what it means to be a Reformed Christian in the world today. Here’s why:

1. It’s best on the basics. According to Time magazine (Nov. 6, 2006), many churches are recognizing that too many kids know too little about their faith. These churches are abandoning approaches that “water down content and boast entertainment,” in favor of “instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrine of their denomination.” In our postmodern world, with its vast tolerance of any belief so long as it is sincere, teens need the clarity and certainty of Q&A 2: “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort? Three things. . . .” The catechism summarizes the central teachings of Scripture, as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. These teachings are the “muscles” that make faith strong and put it to work.

2. It has heart. Listen to Q&A 1: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” It’s almost as if the catechism were written with today’s searching adolescents in mind. Want to know who you are? “I am not my own, but belong . . . to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Want to know how important you are to God? “Not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven.” Most of the catechism’s remaining 128 questions are addressed to “you,” with answers written in “I/me/mine” language. You cannot read the catechism without knowing that it is a warm, living, personal confession of faith.

3. It calls teens to action. Our teens rightly want their faith to make a difference in their own lives and in the world at large. The catechism won’t let them down—already in Q&A l, it contains a practical emphasis: “Christ . . . makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” And you cannot read the catechism’s treatment of the second table of the law without knowing that we need to do “whatever [we] can for [our] neighbor’s good”(Q&A 111).

4. It links teens to their Reformed heritage. Thousands of Reformed Christians have known the comfort of belonging to Christ (Q&A 1), the joy of trusting in God so much “that we do not doubt he will provide for whatever [we] need” (Q&A 26), and the wonderful sense of being a “living member” of the church Christ is gathering (Q&A 54). I want my kids and grandkids to share in these things that have meant so much to so many from our faith tradition.

5. But it’s not your grandfather’s catechism. While the catechism itself remains basically unchanged, gone are the days of lectures and endless memorization, replaced by interactive learning that respects both students and the catechism. Check out either of two Faith Alive catechism courses—Questions Worth Asking and HC and Me—to see what I mean (www.FaithAliveResources.org).

Of course, none of this is to suggest that the catechism is perfect or complete—without good teachers who care about kids, it won’t make much of an impression. And we certainly need the freshness of contemporary materials such as “Our World Belongs to God.” Down the road, we’ll also need new catechism courses to meet the needs of tomorrow’s students. But meanwhile, let’s continue to make good and discerning use of a gift given to us back in Heidelberg, Germany, all those years ago.


For Disscusion
  1. What did your religious formation consist of? Are you well informed about the teachings and doctrine of the CRC?
  2. What was lacking in your instruction?
  3. Bob Rozema says that teaching the Heidelberg to young folks is the “single best way to teach our teens what it means to be a Reformed Christian in the world today.” Do you agree? Disagree? Why?
  4. What are the young people that you know searching for? How does the Heidelberg apply?
  5. What is the best thing you or your church can do for your young people to prepare them to live the Christian life in the world?



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