Catechetical Preaching: Teaching the Basics

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How many Christians hold a relatively simplistic view of the content of the Christian faith? For many, their faith could be summed up in a series of happy platitudes found on bumper stickers. Here are a few of my favorites: “God is my co-pilot.” Really? So, God is taking orders from you? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? ”Be an organ donor. Give Jesus your heart.” Does Jesus really want your heart? Isn’t he more interested in a whole-self commitment? “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” This one particularly sticks in my Wesleyan craw. Surely we are more than feckless sinners, forgiven, but not transformed.

How well can typical parishioners articulate the content of the faith? How well do they understand core Christian doctrines? We preachers try to do a good job of communicating the basics of Christian theology in confirmation classes, but how much energy and effort do we put into building upon that knowledge into adulthood?

A vital Christian life requires a far more profound understanding of doctrine than is represented by bumper sticker theology. We preachers need to help our congregations develop a fully-formed and informed faith. People need teaching with meat. The writer of Hebrews, admonishing his congregation, says, “Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ…” (Hebrews 6:1 NRSV). Catechetical preaching can help our congregants wrestle with deeper Christian thought and move them on toward perfection.

Preaching can be a great tool for teaching if we will take the time to preach it in an engaging manner. Our people need to understand developing a better grasp on doctrine will scratch an itch that they have. In other words, our teaching needs to address their felt needs. Unless I’m a naturally theologically curious person, a catechetical sermon series will lose my interest pretty fast so, if you want to hold their attention in order for good theology to sink in, you have to make avoid making it boring. Someone once said making the Bible boring is a sin. Doctrine and theology, because it tends to come in absolute statements instead of narrative, can be made to sound boring fairly simply. Helping your hearers grow in their realization of their need for a richer, fuller, more theologically grounded faith, can be a challenge.

Catechism, as it is utilized today, has a distinctively educational purpose and is generally utilized in a classroom setting. However, the need for catechesis is not confined to Confirmation and Sunday School. As preachers, we can help people develop the ability to think theologically and comprehend the fundamental doctrines that make up the content of the Christian faith.

A Series on Wesley’s Ordo Salutis

The preacher can take several approaches in particularly Wesleyan ways. I have developed a series of messages that follow the Wesleyan Ordo Salutis. The series is simply titled “Grace.” The message on prevenient grace is called “Grace Woos.” The message on justifying grace is titled “Grace Redeems.” The sermon on sin is titled “Grace Blocked.” The means of grace message is titled “Grace Flows.” The message on sanctifying grace is called “Grace Empowers.” This series follows the fundamental structure of the five grace talks on an Emmaus Walk, but treats the subject matter with more theological meat.

A Sermon Series on the Apostles’ Creed

A series I preached on the Apostles’ Creed is titled “Ancient Creed – Living Faith.” This series was relatively short, considering the content of the creed, itself. It could easily be expanded into a much longer series. The Apostles’ Creed is especially appropriate for a catechetical series due to the fact that the church used the earliest versions of the Apostles’ Creed for catechetical purposes and faith formation prior to baptism. Here’s how I broke down the series: 

1. “I Believe in the Relator God”

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”

This message focuses in on the concept of God as Heavenly Father, understanding the act of creating to be an extension of the love that exists between the Trinitarian Persons. God is a Person who relates to other persons, the two other persons of the Trinity and he desires a relationship with all persons he created.

2. “I Believe in the Messiah”

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.”
This sermon could be expanded significantly to explicate each phrase of the creed. However, in this series, I chose to focus on the concept of Jesus as Messiah, the one who took on and fulfilled the mission of Israel, the people of God.

3. “I Believe the the Victory of God”

“On the third day he rose again, he ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
Focusing on the resurrection of Jesus, this sermon explicates the reality that in the Risen Jesus we have a victorious Lord, a righteous judge, and a returning King.

4. “I Believe in the Presence of God”

“I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

This sermon explains the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who woos us into relationship with God, serves as our constant companion, and empowers us to live a life of wholeness and holiness.

5. “I Believe This Involves Me”

“I believe in… the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

The gathering of the called out faithful, the ekklesia, the Church, serves as the focal point of this sermon.

As I mentioned above, this series could be expanded to address every phrase of the Creed. Depending on the time of year and how many weeks you want to take up with a catechetical approach, you could adjust it to your needs.

Another good idea is to offer a small-group for even more in-depth study and give and take on the theology involved. Leading a study the week following the sermon has the potential to impact your congregants on an even deeper level.

A creative approach to catechetical preaching might just be the way to increase your congregants’ theological and doctrinal understanding, helping them to grow in their faith development and appreciation for the rich traditions of Christian thought.

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Dr. Chris Howlett serves as the Senior Pastor of Lebanon United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Ky. He and his wife, Roz, are the parents of Chloe, Josiah, and Lydia. Chris loves soccer, coaching goalkeepers at the high school level. He coaches clergy and laity to discover and utilize their God-given talents and strengths for ministry. Catch up with him at www.chrishowlett.me.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Good article. I have preached in this way for years. It is amazing how theologically minded people can become (almost without knowing it.) Over time they become very able to distinguish truth from error. God’s truth is a beautiful thing!

  2. I am glad to hear there are pastors that understand the need for this. After a lifetime of being a good Methodist/United Methodist, I reached a point in my adult life that I realized that I really did not understand what I was saying I believed when I recited the Apostle’s Creed. A series of events forced me to distance myself from all things church and put me on a quest for “something” which turned out to be the Heidelberg Catechism and three very modern books about it. A significant part of the catechism expands the Apostle’s Creed in the most astonishing way. My favorite of the three books about the catechism is “Body & Soul” by M. Craig Barnes; his further expansion of the Creed absolutely blew my mind; I still wish somebody had taught me these things a long time ago. It was clear teaching in very modern verbiage packed with a huge WOW factor that gave me an understanding of the triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun that I never thought possible.The Heidelberg has its roots in Germany in the 1660’s; I was stunned at the amount of knowledge the rank and file Christian was given compared to the gibberish I had been dealing with. My analogy of my experience of walking through the Heidelberg and Barnes’ book about it was that I had been staring at something in bad lighting and all of a sudden somebody started turning on a series of high intensity lights; all the random pieces of the puzzle of Christianity that I had been collecting over a lifetime finally had a home in this most amazing understanding that folded me into God’s story. The Methodist/United Methodist Church was a positive aspect to my life and I do not regret my association with her; but do I ever wish that I had not had to wander away from church to discover a God worth worshiping; a God I could get excited about. In another one of his books that was extremely helpful, Barnes makes this statement about mainline Protestant churches here in America; the words in brackets are my personalization of his statement:

    “…Essentially, the Pharisees’ problem, and ours, is in understanding the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. We easily confuse the two. One implies information, while the other is a vital relationship…Typically Protestant churches are better at helping people know [some] things about God than we are at helping them know God as people who live with him. It should come as no surprise that when Christians really need their faith, if [some] knowledge is all they have, they will soon wander away in search of a God worth worshiping. [The church version will no longer “do”].”–M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life in Unwanted Change

    Another one of the books about the Heidelberg is “The Good News We Almost Forgot” by Kevin DeYoung. In his intro DeYoung hits the nail on the head as to where The United Methodist Church has lost its way;:

    “No doubt, the church in the west has many new things to learn. But for the most part, everything we need to learn is what we’ve already forgotten. The chief theological task now facing the Western church is not to reinvent or to be relevant but to remember. We must remember the old, old story. We must remember the faith once delivered to the saints. We must remember the truths that spark reformation, revival, and regeneration…In a church age confused about the essential elements of the Christian faith—and whether Christianity has any doctrinal center at all—the Heidelberg Catechism offers a relentless reminder of the one doctrine that matters most: We are great sinners and Christ is a greater Savior. “

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