What Is Catechesis, and Why Does It Matter?

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Catechesis is a Greek word that means, simply, instruction, or teaching. Though we don’t know exactly how early Christians instructed those who were entering the faith – was it before or after baptism? – we know they did so, and extensively. Doctrinal and moral instruction were standard expectations for those entering the church. Some even suggest certain passages of New Testament books, like Colossians 3 or 1 Peter, reflect early catechetical materials.

We know a formal process called the catechumenate developed at least as early as the second century in Rome. As people began to seek entry into the faith by the waters of baptism, “catechumens” would undergo a period of preparation. Since baptism would take place on Easter, those who prepared for baptism would take the forty days before to practice abstinence, fasting, charity, and prayer. It was not uncommon for this period of time to be lengthy. Three years was a common period for preparation. And after baptism at Easter, it was common to receive further instruction on the mysteries that new believers now experienced: baptism and the Lord’s supper. They called this “mystagogy.”

Many of our greatest theological texts of the first five centuries of Christian history are the catechetical and mystagogical sermons and texts produced by early Christian leaders.

The catechumenate was in decline by the sixth century. Adult baptism declined as Christians were increasingly gained by birth and baptized as infants. Modern catechesis was a product of the Reformation. As the church splintered in the sixteenth century, it became more and more important to understand just what it meant to follow Luther or Calvin or Zwingli. Catechesis became a form of instruction on the basic tenets of varied Christian traditions. Its design, with memorization of Scripture attached to key doctrinal teachings, summarized in question and answer format, served to clarify and preserve distinctive teachings of various Protestant bodies.

As is evident, Christian catechesis is an ancient practice. It also has a varied history. But one thing has remained constant. At her strongest, the church has taken the task of building strong foundations for the faith very seriously. The church is a people on pilgrimage to our home in heaven. We are resident aliens. Preparation for this sojourn must be careful and thorough. Early Christians, like Christians in regions like North Korea today, knew taking on the faith can come with significant personal costs.

Our situation is distinct from both early and reformation Christianity. We have often assumed Christianity will be absorbed simply by participation in American culture. As a result, it should not surprise us that a serious, disciplined approach to instruction in the foundations of the faith has been sparse and occasional. This will no longer do. The Christian traditions that will thrive in twenty-first century America will be those who take seriously their responsibility to instruct believers in the faith. Roman Catholics have been pioneering in their publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Anglicans stepped to the plate recently with To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, as have other Reformed and evangelical groups.

It’s time for Wesleyans to take seriously their heritage, and to set about systematic instruction to its members on how to think and live as a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition. We wrote The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way, in part, in the hopes that it would serve pastors and church leaders in this labor of instructing the faithful in the basics of the faith. It won’t be the last word. More work, more resources will need to be produced. But in setting our sights on the basics of the Wesleyan vision of Christianity, on setting it out in plain, straightforward, yet substantive expression, we pray that we have pushed our tradition forward in the great and delightful task of teaching the faith in the twenty-first century. We hope you will join us.

The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way is a 12-session study packed with dynamic illustrations and compelling analogies that explore the key elements of the Wesleyan movement. The lessons work through three primary sections: John Wesley’s life, his core theological message, and the legacy of Wesley’s leadership on the Methodist church. Like its predecessor, The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith, this book can be studied individually, but is designed for group use. The accompanying videos are perfect for new member or confirmation classes, and for small-group or youth group settings. Order your copy from our store here.

Perfect for:

  • Confirmation classes
  • Newcomer classes
  • Families
  • New Christians

In these pages you’ll:

  • Find a robust catechesis presented perfectly for a modern audience
  • Discover difficult biblical concepts explained simply and visually
  • Be equipping new Christians and younger audiences with a language with which to explore, discuss, and ask questions about how the big story of Scripture connects to everyday life

Rich in both history and faith-building, this study walks readers of all ages through a fundamental understanding of the value of scripture, prayer, communion, spiritual relationships, and the power of salvation, as evidenced in the life and teachings of John Wesley. As readers grow in their personal knowledge and understanding of God’s truths, this book gives them the perfect tools to carry their faith into the future.

Get it from our store here!

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Philip Tallon is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, where he is the chair of the Department of Apologetics, and a faculty member of the Honors College. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil:Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy and co-editor of The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes (with David Baggett). He also has a new book coming out from Seedbed, The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. You can find him on Twitter: @philiptallon.

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