THE AREA OF SUPERVISION
In the light of the data cited previously, we are now ready to turn our attention more directly to the duties of a consistory with respect to catechetical instruction.
Perhaps it is thought by some that a consistory actually has little to do with catechetical instruction and that much of what a consistory must do is so extremely routine that it requires little attention. There are, however, several important areas in which the consistory’s supervision is required and also fruitful. If there are times when this supervision seems to be rather routine, perhaps that is a good sign, a sign that the labor of catechetical instruction is running smoothly, being well-performed and well-received. This certainly is not a reason to remove or to relax the supervision; it is, in fact, a reason to continue it carefully and faithfully, routine though it may seem to be. For without such faithful supervision that favorable situation cannot long continue. But if that supervision becomes routine in the sense that it becomes meaningless, becomes a “wax nose,” becomes rather careless and is viewed simply as one of those annoying official duties which must be performed but which could as well be dispensed with; or if in its duty of supervision the consistory becomes a kind of “rubber stamp” for the pastor,—then there is danger. Routine labors must never be allowed to become routine in that sense. Then they may as well not be performed. Elders whose labors become routine in that bad sense are not functioning as faithful watchmen. It is well, therefore, that we call attention to several distinct areas in which the consistory must exercise supervision, in order that catechetical instruction may be properly and faithfully and fruitfully conducted.
In the first place, there is the area of instructional materials. In this connection it should be noted that we not only have various catechism books which have been synodically prepared and approved; but we have an entire system of instructional materials for the catechism classes in our churches. This system is so arranged that when it is followed, our catechumens are thoroughly instructed according to a plan that is adapted to their ages and adapted to the task and purpose of catechetical instruction as described earlier in our discussion.
Let me outline this system.
For children of the ages of 6 to 8 years old, we have “Bible Stories For Beginners.” There are three such books: two devoted to the Old Testament and one to the New Testament. For children of these ages the purpose is that they be taught simple Biblical stories, without much attention to time and place and historical connection; and the memory work of these three books is designed to serve the purpose of such instruction. There are twenty-five lessons in each of these books; and these lessons, together with five reviews, call for a catechism season of thirty weeks for each book.
For the ages of 9 and 10, we have two books of Sacred History for Juniors: one based on the Old Testament and one on the New Testament. With these books the catechumens are also required to use workbooks for written work. The latter material is designed to supplement the memory work. In these two courses the emphasis is on consecutive Biblical historical narratives, with emphasis on time and place and historical connection of events and on division into periods. The books are obviously designed, therefore, to acquaint the catechumens as thoroughly as possible with the facts of Biblical history in their connection. We may also note that in these two courses there is emphasis on Bible, memory work,—something, by the way, on which there is not easily too much emphasis in our day, and something which bears great rewards in later life.
For children of the ages of 11 and 12 years old, there are two courses in Sacred History for Seniors, again one based on the Old Testament and one on the New. And again, these two question books are accompanied by two companion workbooks for written work. The purpose of these courses is to provide our catechumens with an interpretive treatment of Biblical history and to emphasize the deeper meaning of this history as revelation and with respect to the realization of God’s covenant and kingdom.
At this point in the system emphasis begins to be laid upon doctrinal instruction. We are a confessional church, and the covenant seed must be instructed to confess the truth with us; they must therefore learn to speak the language of our confessions intelligently.
For the ages of 13 and 14 there should be instruction in the knowledge of simple Biblical doctrines, and this instruction should be connected as much as possible with Bible history. At these ages also there must be strong emphasis on memory work. For this purpose we use the “Heidelberg Catechism for Junior Catechumens.” This is a little book containing thirty’ lessons, based upon our Heidelberg Catechism. If all thirty lessons are to be taught in one year, and if, on the average, there is a review, or test, at the end of every five lessons, this would require a catechism season of thirty-six weeks. If, however, two weeks are devoted to each lesson,—something which is not at all impossible, and which I have found to be successful,—then fifteen lessons would be taught in thirty weeks, plus, possibly, three reviews. A total of thirty-three weeks would be required. In the former case, the entire book would be covered for two consecutive years; and naturally these years should not be mere repetition. In the latter case, the pace would be more leisurely, more attention would be devoted to each lesson, and the entire book would be treated “in depth” over the span of two catechism seasons. We may also note that there is no prepared manual of written work for this course; the assignment of such written work is left to local discretion, as is the preparation of notes and outlines on the lessons. There is room for both kinds of supplementary material in this course.
For catechumens of the ages of 15 and 16, there is provided doctrinal instruction with a deeper and broader explanation of the various doctrines in their connection with one another, as well as with application to the reality of life. For this purpose the objective, or dogmatic, order is followed, along the lines of our Belgic Confession. The book provided for this course is the “Essentials of Reformed Doctrine.” Also in this course there are memory work lessons; and each lesson is accompanied by various study and discussion questions; and again, there is no written work manual provided, this being left to the instructor’s discretion. There are thirty lessons in this book; and the choice of plans could be followed, such as is suggested above for the earlier doctrinal class. Especially in connection with these lessons, however, I personally found it very difficult to completely treat one lesson per week; and I believe two class sessions can better be devoted to each lesson.
Finally, although this is not an integral part of our system of instruction, we also have provided a little book entitled, “Doctrinal Review,” which is, as its name suggests, a refresher or review course in doctrine, in preparation for the doctrinal examination conducted by the consistory at the occasion of confession of faith.
Now there are certain rather obvious elements in connection with the above system which belong to the consistory’s duty of supervision. We may mention those of a formal nature, in the first place.
First of all, it should be plain that for successful catechetical instruction a consistory must see to it that the above course is followed completely and consecutively. These books are part of a system; and they must not be used on a hit-and-miss basis. If they are not followed consecutively, and if they are not followed a cording to the age-groups for which they have been designed, then it is perfectly obvious that some catechumens are going to miss something somewhere along the line in the course of their catechetical instruction. Not only that, but it is evident also that it simply will not do to mix the various age-groups: for example, to put the juniors and the seniors together, or the beginners and the juniors. The courses of instruction for these groups are distinct; and it is simply impossible, especially in the brief span of a 45-minute or 1-hour period, to treat the lessons properly and according to the specific design of the courses for two or more age-groups at once. Nor is it educationally sound. It may seem convenient and time-saving, either to minister or to parents. It may be very tempting, especially if the classes are small, as is sometimes the case in a smaller congregation. But it is not proper; it is not good catechetics. And to see that the course of instruction is properly adhered to is the consistory’s responsibility, and may not and should not be left to the minister’s discretion.
In the second place, it is evident that the completion of each of the above courses requires a certain number of class periods. The books for catechumens through the age of 12 require a catechism season of 30 weeks; and the books for the older catechumens require slightly more than 30 weeks. The controlling nicer in spring, or whether minister or catechumens are getting “spring fever,” The question is not whether the minister would like to have a little more free time, for whatever may be the reason. The controlling question is this: has the course of instruction been completed? And it is well for a consistory to fix the catechism season in advance. If 30 class periods are needed, then let the consistory determine in advance when the season shall begin and when there shall be a vacation and when the season shall end, in such a way that each class will be able to finish its work.
It must also be remembered that the instructional materials themselves are under the jurisdiction of the consistory. It is up to them to determine which instructional materials shall be used; and it is their responsibility to see that there are good, sound, Reformed instructional materials. This is not a matter of synodical determination and imposition. It is certainly true that a consistory will not lightly reject the materials which have been prepared for catechetical instruction by our churches in common through synodical action. It nevertheless remains true that it is the responsibility of the local consistory to supervise the instruction in its own congregation; and it is the consistory’s responsibility and jurisdiction to decide which materials shall be used.
Another area for consistorial supervision is that of the catechumens themselves. Are they faithful in attending their proper classes? Are they faithful in the learning of their lessons and in study and preparation of assignments. Frequently matters like this are left solely to the minister, probably until some instance of chronic or gross delinquency appears and the minister feels obligated to report the matter to the consistory. We must remember, however, that matters of this kind lie in the jurisdiction of the elders. The elders must oversee the flock, also the lambs and the young sheep. And the elders must act to encourage faithfulness of parents and children with respect to catechetical instruction. They, and not the minister alone, are responsible.
Another area for consistorial supervision is that of the quality of the instruction. First of all, there is the question whether the instruction is doctrinally pure and sound. Usually this is taken for granted; and I suppose that sometimes it is thought that just because we have good and sound catechism books, synodically approved, it is also to be taken for granted that the instruction will be of high quality. Nevertheless, it is wrong merely to take a matter of this kind for granted. Even as the preaching of the Word must be under consistorial supervision, and even as the elders are called to take the oversight of the Word and doctrine as far as the preaching is concerned, so it is their calling with respect to catechetical instruction. They are responsible to see that the catechetical instruction of the covenant seed is specifically Reformed, that is, Protestant Reformed, in order that the children and youth of the church may be trained and prepared to assume their proper place in the midst of the congregation.