Friday, June 21, 2013

A Faith We Need to Teach

 On June 8, Thom Rainer (President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Publications) considered a burning question about his denomination the Southern Baptist Convention.  Prior to their national  meeting, he asked the question of "Where have all the Baptisms Gone?"  While the article was addressed to those in his denomination, he didn't mind if the rest of us listened in on his conversation.  I found the blog article very worthwhile.
     He posed the dilemma as being one where there are many people on the rolls (16 million) but 6 million of those are missing in action.  In his post, he listed five theses to consider.  First, membership rolls have swollen with missing members or people who are showing no fruit in their lives.  Second, he felt the denomination was baptizing unregenerate members.  Third, numbers have become an end instead of a means.  He says:  "When the focus is on the numbers rather than the One who gives life to the people behind the numbers, we have lost our focus."  Fourth, his denomination focuses too much on incantation evangelism meaning that those who want to see increased numbers of decisions get people to say a "few magic words" to be saved rather than taking time to explain repentance and faith. Finally, he writes that his denomination has assigned glory to numbers rather than to God. (to read the complete article go to: .
     Dr. Rainer's article was compelling but as I read it, I thought this is not just a Southern Baptist problem.  It is a problem in many denominations across our land today.  Numbers are down in many churches and in some cases, as many are leaving through the back door as are coming in the front door.  Why is this happening and what can be done to build solid faith?
     During our vacation last week, I had chosen a book to take with me to read.  The book is entitled "A Faith Worth Teaching, The Heidelberg Catechism's Enduring Heritage".  There are twelve contributors to this work, and I found it fascinating.  Being in a Reformed church, I am familiar with the Westminster Catechism (both long and short) but had not had much exposure to the Heidelberg Catechism.  What made the book an even more interesting find was the fact that both my husband and I had been in Heidelberg and even walked in The Church of the Holy Ghost which is referenced in this work.  After reading Dr. Rainer's concern for his denomination, it occurred to me that one of the weaknesses we  face in the Christian church is a lack of solid discipleship training.  If we wish to retain those who come into the faith, we need to make certain they do understand the the key essentials of doctrine as revealed in Scripture.  One source for sound teaching is found in the great catechisms of the faith which serve to summarize the major doctrines as well as provide biblical support for each statement.  Neither the Heidelberg nor Westminster Catechisms replace the Bible.  On the contrary, they serve as summaries of our faith.  Only God's Word is the final authority.
     John Calvin saw a great need for a sound catechism and in writing to Edward Seymour he indicated that a common canon of doctrine was necessary:  "...a formula of instruction for little children and for ignorant persons, serving to make them familiar with sound doctrine, so that they may be able to discern the difference between it and the falsehood and corruptions which may be brought forward in opposition to it.  Believe me, Monseigneur, the Church of God will never preserve itself without a Catechism."  Calvin's Institutes were written with the idea in mind that Christians could be instructed in the faith.  Likewise the later catechisms were designed to bring cohesion of belief in the church.
     When the Heidelberg Catechism was commissioned by the Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate (in Germany), he foresaw the need to make certain that young people grew up in the fear and knowledge of the Lord.  In many of the churches in his realm, this was not the case.  In his preface to the Catechism, he wrote three reasons for its creation:  1) He saw it is a means of teaching children and young people (the first youth group tool for spiritual growth) 2) A preaching guide for the instruction of the laity and 3) A form of unity for the various factions in the protestant churches of his realm.
     Today, the value of using a catechism is still profitable to three groups of people.  First, children need to be instructed in the faith from the time they are very young through their teenage years.  If we never convey the essential beliefs of our faith to them, they will have, as Calvin rightly said, little to fight the enemy with when it comes to falsehood and false teaching.  Secondly, the catechism is valuable when it comes to new believers.  We have created many books over the years on how to disciple someone new to the faith.  What is wrong with going back to the early catechisms of the faith?  They serve as excellent summaries of what we believe along with scripture proof texts.  Finally, the catechism is important to instruct those who have come from other backgrounds.  An example of this was given in the book.  During the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, there was a great deal of difference between Protestant beliefs and those of the Roman Catholic Church.  Therefore, those coming out of Catholicism needed to understand those differences in doctrine.  This is no less true today.  Every denomination has its particular view on certain critical issues.  If someone joins a fellowship, they need to be instructed in what that church believes and adheres to otherwise conflicts, misunderstandings and disagreements can result.
     In our own church, we are asked as new members, before the congregation, if we are willing to submit not only to leadership but to the precepts of our faith as outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Longer and Shorter Catechisms.  I often wonder as I watch new people join if they really know what they are affirming.  How many have really been exposed to these documents or understand the faith which we hold?
     According to one of the contributors to the book I am reading, the Heidelberg Catechism was regularly preached in the early years of its existence from 1562 till around the mid 19th century.  I never had heard this.  Usually the pastor did this instruction during a second sermon on a Sunday.  It was not mere question and answer repetition but actual scriptural instruction in the doctrines of the faith.  Some churches (Reformed Church in America and a few others) still practice this to a certain extent today.
     Whether a church utilizes a catechism or a new member class, it seems that there is a great need today to build a deeper understanding for the foundational doctrine of our faith in Christ.  Dr. Rainer was correct in saying that a focus on numbers rather than a focus on God is misdirected.
     There are excellent catechism books for the youngest child to an older adult which would help them come to understand the Christian faith.  We do not need to look at these catechisms as some stuffy, dusty old documents, but as well written, summaries of our faith along with Scripture proofs.  Certainly nothing replaces the Bible, but we could grow much deeper when we meditate on doctrinal truth guided by the catechisms.
     My prayer is for all churches and Christians to grow deep in the faith.  It is time for us to find ways in which to bring to maturity those who enter our doors.  This is not just the pastor's job but also that of church leaders and Sunday School teachers.  Jesus commissioned us to go out and make disciples of all nations.  We can do this more effectively if we would use the tools which the Lord has graciously provided for us through men of faith and in His Word.  Selah!

How does your church instruct new believers, children and teens?  I welcome your thoughts and insights.

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