Barrett L. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
Catechism instruction is part of the official ministry of the Church of Christ.
That means that catechism is different from the instruction of children in Sunday School or Young People’s Societies, which are part of the organic lifeof the church. Sunday School and Young People’s I Society are not official functions of the church. That is, they are not aspects of the ministry of the church directly under the consistory. Parents decide whether or not they want to have a Sunday School for their children; the young people decide to have a Young People’s Society; just as men or women with Men’s Society or Ladies’ Aid and couples with a Mr. & Mrs. Society. This is not to say that Young People’s Society or Men’s Society are not good for, or even necessary in, the church. It says only that they are not part of the official ministry of the church.
Positively, this means that catechism is the official ministry of the gospel, the work of the church institute, the means of grace for our children. It is preaching adapted to the age and needs of the children in each particular grade level. For many years Reformed churches have considered catechism for the children her official ministry. (For reasons and texts, see last article, December 15, 1986 “Why Catechism?”)
That it is the official ministry of the Word of God says a lot about catechism.
First of all the pastor is called to teach the catechism, since he is a teaching elder in the church (I Timothy 5:17, II Timothy 2:24). If, for some reason, the minister cannot teach, it is the duty of no one else but the elders to take over. As ambassadors of Jesus Christ in the church of Christ, the ministers (or elders) have the calling to bring Christ’s Word to Christ’s children. Through the election of the congregation, Christ has called them to that teaching office.
There is the temptation to let just any “qualified’ person teach the catechism classes for the children. In more and more churches, this is being done. But the women of the church or men without office are not called. It is the duty of the minister and elders.
Qualification to teach is not the question here. It may be that a school teacher has greater ability to teach catechism than an elder. The question comes down to whom Christ has called to be his ambassador in the official work of the church. As in the pulpit, we allow only ministers or elders officially called by the church to bring the Word, so in catechism.
This does say something about the qualifications of elders and ministers. For that reason pastors and elders must not only be sober, of good behavior, and patient, but “apt to teach” (I Timothy 3:2; II Timothy 2:24). It would be a worthy effort sometime to see a consistory sponsor instruction for their elders in the principles of teaching.
If catechism is official ministry, and if it is the preaching of the gospel, the means of grace for our children, we as teachers need to be reminded that the same diligent care needs to go into catechism teaching as the preaching of the Word. Thinking that children might detect lack of preparation less quickly than the adults, the minister might find it easy to be less prepared in the catechism room. We ministers might ask ourselves the question, “Do we love ‘the praise of men more than the praise of God?’ ” (John 12:43) But for the number of people, why should the preacher think so much more of Sunday worship than catechism?
One way, generally, to insure proper preparation on the part of the preacher is to have the elders supervise the teaching. If preaching falls under elder supervision, catechism teaching does also.
Most members of the church, usually seeing no further than the minister’s work in teaching the classes, probably are not aware of the consistory’s involvement in supervision. Once per year careful questions are asked consistories by church visitors. Three of the questions to the full consistory are: “Does the consistory see to it that catechism classes are regularly conducted? Does the consistory determine the material for instruction? And does it (the consistory) see to it that the classes are regularly attended?” And second only to a question about elder’s attendance in worship and consistory meetings are these questions asked about elders (in their absence): “Do they (the elders) at set times attend the catechism classes to see how they are conducted and attended; and do they (the elders) assist the minister when the need requires it in catechizing?” (Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, pages 96ff).
The minister who realizes the backing of the consistory, who hears the elders’ concern about catechism, who receives help from the elders at times in teaching, is thankful for the involvement of the elders in catechism instruction.
In the minds of our fathers, high on the list of priorities for elders was supervising the catechism instruction. Why? Only because it is part of the official ministry of the Word of God.
That catechism is the official ministry of the church means that:
From churches that have always called the children to worship with them (as soon as they could keep quiet) and have never had separate services for children, this statement might sound a bit strange. The truth is that in catechism instruction we have “children’s sermons” for all ages of the youth.
A number of churches today have special worship services for the children. Either the children are called out of the service at an interval during worship, or the children come to the front during the church for a mini-sermon (which, in some cases, has been given by the minister’s wife). The idea behind these special services is that the children are not mature enough for the worship, so ought not be subjected to much they cannot understand.
Why is this not our practice? First, we ought not assume that young children are not mature enough for the preaching. Children do understand (“receive”) a great deal from the worship services. We parents ought to train our children to listen to the sermon by asking them questions to and from church about the sermon. If this were done, it might be a little easier for the children, after becoming adults, to have an intelligent conversation at “Grampa and Gramma’s house” about the sermon, instead of gravitating to the mundane things with which it is easy to pass the time.
Besides, pastors can address the children at different points in the sermon (applying it to them, or rephrasing a truth in simple language) to let the children know that the preaching on Sunday IS for them. In this way the children learn that they can receive the Word in church and gradually learn to receive greater blessing in the worship.
But most important, special children’s sermons are not needed because we direct the Word of God to the specific need and age of each child in catechism. There the truth of the Scripture is brought at a simple level, depending on the age, and applied to that same age. On Sunday, preachers are called to apply the Word “as well in general as in particular, to the edification of the hearers; instructing, comforting, and reproving, according to everyone’s need; preaching repentance towards God and reconciliation with him through faith in Christ” (Form for Ordination of Ministers). No less must this be true in the catechism room. In fact, the Form for Ordination makes no distinction between bringing the Word in catechism and bringing it in formal worship on the Sabbath.
Reformed churches have maintained catechism teaching for children from first grade to confession of faith, and beyond. When this practice is discontinued, there is a void in children’s instruction and special services have come to fill the void. Let us not fall into that practice.
Again, if it is true that catechism teaching is official ministry of God’s Word,
Just as no person can worship well on the Lord’s Day without proper preparation, no child can learn well in catechism without good preparation. Thus children should come with good attitudes and dress befitting the occasion.
No doubt that is not easy. Just having come from school for six hours makes children tired (and possible filthy). Having supper after a busy afternoon of piano lessons or ball practice makes coming to evening catechism properly prepared difficult for the best disciplined family, especially when the family is large. But if catechism is what we believe it is—a vital part of the ministry of the church, and the groundwork for the spiritual training of our children—then we seek God’s help to bring our children to Gods house in a disposition both physically and spiritually fertile for worship.
It naturally follows from our main proposition (that catechism is the official ministry of the church) that catechism, in a certain sense, is worship. We come to catechism not simply to give and receive a lecture on theology and Biblical history, aiming only at the student’s intellect. We aim at the heart. Our classes must be a time of worship, in which the entire atmosphere is reverent and our children brought to the knowledge that they stand before a great God Who loves His people through Jesus Christ.
Although parents can do much to prepare their children for this worship by promoting proper study, dress, and attitude, it is the minister’s burden to create the proper atmosphere in the catechism room to make the children realize they are worshiping God. In part this is done when the class is begun with prayer, singing, and offering—three basic elements in worship. The other (basic) element of proper worship is the presentation of the gospel of Christ as the heart of the catechism class. Especially this the Lord will bless to bring covenant children to spiritual maturity, for His glory, and the good of His Church on earth.
Next time, if God wills: “What is taught in catechism?”