It is that time of the year again. By the time this appears in print, some of our churches will have already resumed catechism classes, and the rest will be at the point of doing so.
In this connection, I wish to make a few suggestions, based both on observation and experience. Perhaps from a negative point of view these suggestions could all be subsumed under the caution: do not minimize catechetical instruction!
These suggestions I direct to the various parties concerned in this important aspect of the primary means of grace, the preaching of the Word. For catechetical instruction, we should not forget, falls in this category.
CONSISTORIES AND PASTORS
It is not my purpose to review in this connection all the principles and correct practices of catechetics. This is both unnecessary and uncalled for; it is a helpful process, however, for any minister occasionally to review his seminary catechetics course and to do a little self-criticism.
My suggestions, both to the consistories who supervise and to the pastors who do the actual instructing, are of a more practical nature.
The first is this. At the beginning of the season, let the consistory determine definitely the length of the catechism term and the course of instruction-for each class. Our catechism books are set up for a very definite course. If that course is not completed, the catechumen will never again have the opportunity to complete it. Thus, for example, there are three books for beginners of 6 to 8 years old. These books should be used in rotation, so that in three years every child of 6 to 8 years of age will have gone through those three books. Change that rotation, and there will be one age bracket which misses one of those books. We have two sacred history books for “juniors” of the ages of 9 and 10. In those two years the juniors must cover Old and New Testament history from the viewpoint of those books, or “they will never cover it again. The same is true of the two books for “seniors” of the ages of 11 and 12 years old. The value of sticking to-this system is self-evident.
Moreover, all our catechism books are so written that a minimum season of 30 weeks is required. If in the season reviews or tests are to be added, then some books require 35 or 36 weeks. But the point is that if the course is to be completed, either with or without reviews, it requires a minimum of 30 weeks. Consistories should therefore set a definite time for the beginning and the end of the catechism season which will allow for completion of the course. Do not let this matter drift along until some time in April, when the pastor perhaps is longing for a bit more free time and the pupils are pressing to be free too. For the result will be an unfinished course, This also implies, of course, that the consistory makes definite arrangements for a substitute teacher in case the pastor is unable to meet a class; for otherwise that class will nevertheless be a week or two short.
My second suggestion is this. Do not make your classes too short. Forty-five minutes for a class is, to my mind, too brief; but it is certainly a bare minimum. A full hour for recitation and for discussion of the lesson, especially for older pupils and for larger classes, is to be preferred. A thirty-week season of forty-five minute sessions results in only twenty-two and one-half hours of catechism instruction per year! This is hardly adequate!
My third suggestion is this. Do not group classes. Both from a psychological point of view and from the point of view of the lesson material, it is impossible to teach beginners and juniors or juniors and seniors in the same class. It is true that they might be covering the same ground in Bible history; but it is definitely not true that they are covering it at the same age level and from the same viewpoint. Hence, while it might be tempting to group small classes for convenience, this temptation should not be yielded to. A small class,—even one of two or three pupils in a small congregation,—should rather be looked upon as advantageous. It offers the opportunity for personal tutoring.
My fourth suggestion is this. Do not expect too little work from your catechumens. Memorization of the lesson, memorization of any attached memory text, and the performance of the work-book assignment is the bare minimum. Any pupil can accomplish this without much extra effort, provided the teacher insists on it and the parents cooperate and assist. And especially for older pupils extra study and even extra written assignments should be expected. Moreover, such “extras” should not be grudgingly accomplished by our covenant children; on the contrary, they should be schooled to be ashamed not to do their utmost.
These are just a few suggestions for the improvement of catechism by pastors and consistories. Perhaps some or all of these are followed. Experience has taught me that in some cases they are not always adhered to. It is well for our pastors and elders to take stock.
THE PART OF THE PARENTS
The part of the parents, as any pastor knows, is of the utmost importance. If little Johnny does not know his lesson, you may depend on it that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the fault does not lie with little Johnny’s memory but with little Johnny’s father or mother. And if teenager Mary is unprepared in catechism, you may well look first at her parents and her parental training, not at Mary, to discover the reason.
In other words, the attitudes of parents toward catechetical training, as well as the practices of parents in regard to catechism, are extremely important. If parents take a haphazard attitude toward catechism, children may be expected to ape that example. If father and mother think little of allowing their child to skip catechism for some flimsy excuse or other, they may expect this attitude to be carried through in their child’s attitude toward the importance of catechism. If mother does not give a care whether the lesson is memorized and whether the written work has been correctly done, how can the child be expected to care? And what is worse, how can John or Mary teenager be expected to care when they grow older and when gradually they should be expected to assume these obligations “on their own?” And how can they be expected to place more importance on catechism and on the things of God’s Word and God’s kingdom in general than upon that crucial basketball game or the fun of the bowling alley or the roller rink?
Hence,—and these also are based on experience,—just a few simple suggestions to parents: 1) Never by your attitude, your words, or your actions minimize catechism to your children; but always stress its importance. All other things being equal, your children will follow the example you furnish them. 2) From beginners’ class on, never leave preparation for catechism classes to the last minute or to the night before. Not only is this last minute work inadequate, but it encourages a slipshod attitude in your covenant child. Let preparation for next week’s lesson begin the day after this week’s lesson. 3) Never let your child leave for catechism without being thoroughly prepared. This holds both for memory work and written assignments. The lesson should be memorized so thoroughly that no child need take his catechism book along for a “quick review” or “cramming” before class; that catechism book should stay home! And the written” work should be checked over by the parents for correctness, for completeness, and for neatness before the catechumen leaves home. Early training in this regard will bring the benefit that when the little one presently becomes a teenager, these things will become a matter of good habit. Nevertheless, let no parent labor under the illusion that a teenage catechumen needs no supervision. 4) Never be “too busy” to assist your little child in the memorization work or the written work. Nor ever be too busy to assist your teenage child in his preparation and study for classes in doctrine. Always consider it an opportunity when your children seek your help, and especially when your teenagers come to you with their questions.
THE PART OF THE CATECHUMEN
In the hope that our young people also read these -columns, or that at least their parents will call this to their attention, I also have a few words about the part of the catechumen himself, especially the older catechumen, who as he grows up may also be expected to assume the initiative in regard to his own catechetical training.
My first suggestion is probably old and stereotyped in the minds of some. It is this: when your mind is young and pliable, and when your ability to memorize is strong, and when there is abundant opportunity for you to become thoroughly versed in the Scriptures and well-founded in the truth of the Reformed faith,—in the years when all this is true, don’t pass by the opportunity for instruction which catechism offers you. In later years you will surely regret it a thousand times.
My second suggestion follows from the first. Do not be satisfied to get away with a minimum of preparation. You are actually “getting away with” nothing,—surely, not on God; usually not on your pastor; and certainly not on yourself. Putting the maximum into preparation, rather than the minimum, yields dividends in interest, in understanding what your pastor is discussing, and in your becoming thoroughly indoctrinated.
And the third suggestion is closely related: pay attention, and take an active part in class. The educational process is not to be compared to the process of pouring water from a pitcher into an empty glass. The catechumen must pay attention, must strive to understand, to remember, and to digest.
And above all, the catechumen should keep the spiritual goal in view. Catechism is designed to prepare you ultimately to assume your part of the covenant of grace and to profess your faith in the midst of the congregation. Certainly, profession of faith has a rather hollow ring when it is profession of a contentless faith. But to the degree that catechism is neglected, to that same degree your profession will be lacking in content. Hence, redeem the time!
THE PART OF THE CATECHISM BOOK COMMITTEE
Not only the above committee, but also our pastors and consistories could well give some thought to the possibility of improving and filling out our system of instruction.
At present I have in mind particularly two aspects of that instruction which do not, in the ordinary course of catechetical instruction, receive sufficient emphasis. One aspect is that of the origin and history of our churches. The other is that of the Canons of Dordrecht: Prior to confession of faith, the above two subjects do not receive any separate and detailed study; perhaps in some of our churches a post-confession class takes care of this lack. Perhaps some of our ministers have through experience become aware of other lacks in our present system. At any rate, we should not take the attitude that we have arrived, but should strive for improvement in this respect also. And the synodical committee for this purpose could give this special study and perhaps present some recommendations at the synodical level.
I conclude by expressing the wish that the Lord may bless our pastors and their catechumens in our various congregations in the coming season.