In recent years much headway has been made in emphasizing how the Small Catechism is a book for the home. It had been that Luther’s words “As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household” were the most forgotten words of the Small Catechism. Thanks the efforts of many faithful Lutherans, both pastors and laity, these words are starting to make a comeback. The Small Catechism is not just something for pastors to teach junior high children over a two-year period.
The Small Catechism really works best when its contents are imprinted on the heart at home.
We are getting the idea that heads of households should teach the Catechism, but that doesn’t necessarily make the job any easier. For many fathers especially, these words are perhaps more accusatory than enlightening. In order to make this duty more enjoyable and beneficial, this is the beginning of a three-part series for Brothers of John the Steadfast which I will simply call, “How To Catechize Children.” Today we consider Part 1 – “The Method.”
The method of teaching the Small Catechism is quite easy. It is simply question and answer. As Pastor Andrew Richard put it for an article here a few days back, “catechesis” simply means to “echo back.” “Catechesis” is maybe a word which you do not use every day, but it simply means to teach the Catechism through questions and answers. So for example, take the First Commandment. First ask the question to your child, “What is the First Commandment?” He answers, “You shall have no other gods.” Then ask Luther’s famous question, “What does this mean?” He answers again, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” You can discuss the commandment more with your child, for sure, but don’t worry about preaching a sermon here. Remember, question and answer is at the heart of this. You ask the questions. Your child gives the answers.
You can even start this with children before they are able to read. In fact, the earlier you start, the better. As usual, you ask the questions. When it comes time for your child to give the answer, they can repeat after you the answer one word at a time. When you’re dealing with something as simple as the First Commandment, this is very easy. Let me just spell this out for you to make this as clear as possible:
Parent: What is the First Commandment?
If your child’s attention wavers, don’t be afraid to get him back on track. It is never too early for your children to learn this type of discipline. Most children are ripe for this type of instruction by the time they are 3 years old, and you could probably even start sooner. They will learn much very quickly when you do this with them consistently.
Learning the Catechism this way will be beneficial for children as they benefit from the question and answer interaction with you. Often as it stands today, “memory work” is simply a chore which we assign to our junior high aged children. When reciting memory work in our confirmation classes today, children will often say a commandment, say a quick “What does this mean?” and then proceed to give Luther’s explanation. This is not catechesis with its back and forth interaction, but simply thoughtless regurgitation which does not come from the heart. Very little benefit comes from this over the long haul. Often times children may even grow to despise the Small Catechism if this is the way they learned it, by cramming it into their brain as mere memory work which is later forgotten.
The back and forth questions and answers is the heart of Luther’s catechetical method. This is really what it means to catechize your children. Reading your children Bible stories and taking them to church regularly is essential in their Christian upbringing, but this is not catechesis according to the strict meaning of the word. Catechesis is another essential element of proper Christian childrearing. And as you can see, this method is very easy. To catechize your children only two qualifications are really necessary. One, you must be able to speak the questions and answers. If this was something you actually learned as a child and have in your heart already, you wouldn’t even have to know how to read in order to pass this down to your own children. Two, you must love your children. Any man who can speak clear words and loves his children is able to catechize them, and I dare say he will be able to catechize them better than any pastor could. The challenge is doing this task over the long haul, and I will give you more help with that in Part 2.