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A Baptist Pastor Reflects Upon The New City Catechism

Tue. Apr. 11, 2017By: Paul Carter

This past week at the TGC National Conference in Indianapolis the conference organizers went to great lengths to promote and distribute a new resource produced by Tim Keller, the recently retired pastor Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Catechism is making a comeback, in large part due to the staggering ignorance of today’s Millennial Christians raised under the entertainment model of youth ministry in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. A recent Pew Research study indicates that North American Evangelical teenagers are shockingly ignorant of even the most basic aspects of the Christian faith.  Evangelical teens actually finished behind atheists, agnostics and Jews when asked general questions about religion.  When the questions were specifically on the content of the Bible, Evangelical teens scored well behind Mormons.  Sociologist Christian Smith in a similar study stated that Christian teenagers raised in the Evangelical church are “stunningly inarticulate” concerning the actual content of the Christian faith.  The simple fact is that our decision to entertain rather than to educate our young people has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. 

Enter the New City Catechism.

The word ‘catechism’ means “instruction” and it refers to a method of teaching that is built around a simple question and answer approach. Parents or pastors ask questions to which there is a required answer. The goal is for children (or adult converts) to learn the basic teachings of the Bible in summary fashion.

Because this method of teaching is new to many parents and because it feels even newer and potentially foreign to people from my particular background, I thought it might helpful to share my reflections on the New City Catechism with folks who are picking up this resource and wondering what to do with it. In no particular order here are a few of the questions I imagine you might be asking:

1.         Aren’t catechisms just for Presbyterians, Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed?

Many Evangelicals grew up in traditions that did not emphasize catechesis. I grew up in an independent baptistic church that had no formal process for Christian education. I now pastor in a more formal Baptist denomination and have found that most of my people had a similar experience. However, as Keller pointed out in his introduction at the conference, Protestant pastors of all sorts used to understand writing a catechism as part of their job description. Martin Luther did it. John Calvin did it. John Owen did it. Benjamin Keech did it. In case you are a little rusty on your church history, that means that a Lutheran did it, a Presbyterian did it, a Congregationalist did it and a Baptist did it too.

We still have 1 or 2 people in our church who are old enough to remember using “The Baptist Catechism” but the practice had mostly fallen out of favour among our people by the early 20th century.  Baptists may have abandoned catechesis first among all their Protestant cousins, but they are coming back to it with a vengeance having experienced the worst effects of our adopted alternatives.

2.         What about the sections on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Won’t those have to be changed?

To be clear, Keller did not write The New City Catechism to let pastors off the hook in the task of writing their own. He wrote it in order to guide them in the process. I would encourage pastors to use The New City Catechism as the basis of an adult small group and to discuss with their people how the sections on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper might be altered and adapted to a Baptist context.

That being said, I found those particular sections to have been carefully crafted in The New City Catechism. Consider Question 44: What is baptism?

Answer: Baptism is the washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; it signifies and seals our adoption into Christ, our cleansing from sin, and our commitment to belong to the Lord and to his church.

That is a very useful answer, if perhaps less specific than most Baptist pastors would prefer. Compare that to the question and answer in our catechism (the catechism I wrote for our church). In our section on the sacraments or ordinances we ask the following questions:

10. What does baptism represent?
Our being cleansed from sin and our union with Christ.
Romans 6:3 

11. In whose name are we baptised?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 28:19 

12. Who should be baptized?
Believers only. 
Acts 2:38-41 

13. What are the duties of those who are baptized?
To join a local church and to walk blamelessly in all the commandments of the Lord.
Romans 6:4 

As you can see, we cover most of the same ground that Keller covers while adding some specificity reflective of Baptist concerns.

His section on the Lord’s Supper is also very strong. Question 46 asks: What is the Lord’s Supper?

Answer: Christ commanded all Christians to eat bread and to drink from the cup in thankful remembrance of him and his death. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the presence of God in our midst; bringing us into communion with God and with one another; feeding and nourishing our souls. It also anticipates the day when we will eat and drink with Christ in his Father’s kingdom.

Again, that is very similar to what I wrote, as a convictional Baptist, in the catechism I prepared for my church:

4.Why did Christ appoint these sacraments?
To distinguish His disciples from the world and to comfort and strengthen them.
Matthew 28:18-19/ 1Corinthians 11:23,26 

5. What is the Lord's Supper?
The eating of the bread and the drinking of the cup in remembrance of the sufferings and death of Christ.
Luke 22:19-20 

6. What does the bread represent?
The body of Christ, broken for our sins.
Luke 22:19-20 

7. What does the cup represent?
The blood of Christ, shed for our salvation.
Luke 22:19-20 

8. Who should partake of the Lord's Supper?
Only those who repent of their sins, believe in Christ for salvation and are baptized.
1Corinthians 11:28-29 

A Baptist pastor could easily use Keller’s section on the ordinances to craft his own answers, tailoring them to reflect the specific concerns of the Statement of Faith in use at his church.

3.         What is good about The New City Catechism?

Aside from my enthusiasm for catechesis in general, I appreciate a great many things about The New City Catechism in particular. First of all I appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the booklet. Truth and beauty should always go together and they do in this delightful little volume. The colour scheme, the layout, the graphics – all of it reflects artistry and intelligent design. This is a book that can be put in the hands of unbelievers as an invitation to discuss Christian doctrine. It looks professional, winsome and accessible.

I also like how they lay out the answers in short and long form so that it can be used with children or adult converts. Consider the answer quoted above regarding The Lord’s Supper:

Answer: Christ commanded all Christians to eat bread and to drink from the cup in thankful remembrance of him and his death. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the presence of God in our midst; bringing us into communion with God and with one another; feeding and nourishing our souls. It also anticipates the day when we will eat and drink with Christ in his Father’s kingdom.

That is the full, long form answer. That is the answer you would require of an adult student but there is also a short form answer for children. The short form answer is as follows:

Answer: Christ commanded all Christians to eat bread and to drink from the cup in thankful remembrance of him

The fact that the short form answer is contained within the longer form answer is absolutely brilliant! Many churches have a “shorter catechism” for children that uses different words from the long form catechism, meaning that as you grow from child to adult you have to learn new language to describe biblical doctrine. This can be very difficult! In Keller’s booklet, short answers can be lengthened as people move towards adulthood. This is an excellent innovation! 

4.         How should I use this booklet in my church?

I would recommend using this book in three ways. First of all, I would use this book as a small group curriculum for adults. In essence, a catechism is an introduction to what the Bible says about God, people, sin, salvation, Christian ethics and future things. It would provide a perfect resource for an introductory class for adult believers and inquirers.

Secondly, I would use this book to catechize children. Whether around the dinner table, as the curriculum for a Jr. High Sunday School class or as a specific group, the shorter answers in this booklet provide you most of what you need to get started. As mentioned above, Baptist pastors may want to slightly revise and expand the sections on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Thirdly, I would use this resource as an evangelistic tool with my unbelieving friends. In my experience, unbelievers in our culture tend to ask the same questions about the Christian faith. Many evangelists feel concerned with their ability to answer those questions in a biblical and faithful way. This booklet can help with that concern. Use it to walk a friend through the central teachings of the Christian faith. Many of their questions will be echoed in the questions of the catechism. The answers are provided for you in the text.

5.         What do you think will be the long-term benefit of this book?

My hope is that it will inspire many pastors to follow Keller’s example. I’m not sure that this is the best catechism I’ve ever read, but it is very good and it will likely reawaken the interest of a whole new generation to the benefits of formal catechesis. I think the greatest benefit will be the mass of younger pastors who will sit down and attempt to summarize the great doctrines of the Christian tradition as their churches understand and teach them. This will be good for the pastors. This will be good for parents and this will be good for children and for new believers.

May God make it so!

SDG 

Pastor Paul Carter

 

To learn more about The New City Catechism see here.

To see the catechism I wrote for our church see here.

To read my article “Why I Still Teach Catechism Class” see here.

To read The Baptist Catechism by Benjamin Keach see here.

Category: General


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