Catechism & Bible Memory in the Life of the Church
Why Use a Catechism or Memorize Scripture?
There’s a story told about the evangelist Dwight Moody who, while visiting a Scottish school, was surprised to see hundreds of children’s hands spring up in response to his rhetorical question: “What is prayer?” His amazement must have only grown when he pointed to a young boy, who jumped to his feet and confidently stated: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.” Moody then replied to the young lad, “Be thankful, son, that you were born in Scotland!” Thankful—because that answer, from Question 98 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, had been drilled into this boy and his classmates by parents and church in a culture that saw the value of catechesis: a systematic way of learning the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith through memorization of a set of theological questions and their answers.
Last year, in a Q&A at our mother church, Calvary Grace, Dr. Voddie Baucham said that, in his view, a pressing need in our churches and families today is catechesis. That’s a sentiment that we at Grace Church of Cochrane share with Dr. Baucham and with our brothers and sisters at Calvary Grace. Catechism isn’t just something for little children; it can benefit everyone no matter their age. And when combined with systematic Bible memorization, which Scripture itself tells us is one of God’s appointed ways of making his people holy (Ps. 119:11), catechesis is an extremely valuable grounding for Christian discipleship.
Here at Grace, our hope and prayer is to see the disciplines of catechism and Bible memory integrated into the life of our church. One of the challenges for any church seeking to implement systematic biblical and catechetical memorization is to choose which verses or Bible memory plan, and which catechism, to follow. Churches in the Reformed Baptist tradition, in particular, have a wealth of such resources available. Looking just at catechisms alone, from the outstanding Heidelberg Catechism favoured by our Dutch Reformed brethren to the Presbyterians' famous Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, the various adaptations of each by Baptists seeking to “edit” references to infant baptism, and assorted simpler versions of many for smaller children, it can be daunting for a church lacking a culture or tradition of catechesis to know where to start.
For our purposes in Cochrane, therefore, we’ve chosen to use the New City Catechism. There’s five reasons we chose this catechism in particular. First, its language is modern, making it more accessible to the average reader than some of the older catechisms that contain archaic language (though, it must be noted, modern-language updates of many of those are available). Second, this Catechism is arranged into 52 questions and answers, each of which explains an important teaching of the Christian faith—meaning there’s one for each week of the year. This permits us, as a church, to go through the entire catechism on an annual basis. Third, the questions are written in a way that provides either a short or a long answer, meaning younger children are able to learn alongside older saints. Fourth, and even better, each of the 52 questions of the New City Catechism has a supporting Scripture passage. This gives us the opportunity to learn a “Memory Verse of the Week” as a congregation, as well! And finally, the New City Catechism comes with many helpful associated resources you can access—including a free smartphone app and songs for children—at http://newcitycatechism.com.
Getting the Whole Church on the Same (Catechism) Page
We’d love to see everyone in the church studying and memorizing the catechism together, individually, as families, and as a congregation. We’re challenging our congregants: “Just imagine how we would grow in knowledge and holiness if we all stored up these truths in our hearts weekly, and encouraged one another regularly in this work!”
What are some of the ways we’re integrating catechesis and Bible memorization into the life of our church? The first need is to establish what question and verse is being memorized on any given week. Again, with a 52-question catechism, it’s actually very simple—whatever week of the year we’re in—the first, the twenty-first, the fifty-first—that’s the question we’re doing.
A church hoping to implement the use of a catechism as a weekly focus will also have to establish the day on which each week starts, a question that is actually more challenging than it sounds. When you’re reciting a question on Sunday—whether in the main service as part of the liturgy or in a children’s catechism class—are you introducing a question for everyone to work on the following week? Or are you reviewing a question that’s been studied in homes and personal devotions leading up to the service? At Calvary Grace Church, we ran a catechism class for very young children on Sunday mornings, and the teachers found it helpful to be reviewing a question that families had already been working on; therefore, we decided that the “catechism week” would be Monday to Sunday. Even though we don’t yet have such a Sunday morning class for kids in Cochrane, we’ve continued that practice. Different churches might have a good reason to start on Sunday instead, but the main thing is to be consistent.
It becomes vital to remind the congregation, each week, which question and answer and what memory verse is being learned. Following the pattern set at our mother church, every week since we started meeting in Cochrane we have been printing questions and answers from the New City Catechism in our bulletins. Calvary Grace will put the “question of the week” in its weekly electronic newsletter. Just this past Sunday, we began reviewing the “Question of the Week” and the “Memory Verse of the Week” in our main service. Starting this week, we’ll be putting a weekly reminder out on social media and in a church-wide message on Church Community Builder, our internal network.
We’ve also, in our Youth ministry, turned catechism into a fun challenge. We divided our Youth group into teams, and every time they gather for a study, names are drawn—and the Youth who is thus providentially selected has an opportunity to recite the catechism or Bible passage of the week and thus earn points for his or her team. (And if they can’t—we allow the other team to try to “steal” the point!). As mentioned earlier, at Calvary Grace Church there is a catechism class for children aged 3-5 years old, where the teachers review the question and answer of the week and using fun activities to illustrate and reinforce the point. Our plan at Grace Church is to use pastoral visitation as an opportunity to encourage our people about catechism use in personal and family devotions, as well.
Tips to Help Memorization
There are several simple ways to make memorization easier:
- Simply take a few minutes every day—your devotional or quiet time is great for this—and devote them to the catechism and Bible memory. Try first thing in the morning and just before bed!
- Say the catechism question, the catechism answer, and the Bible passage out loud, several times.
- Then try saying the question and repeating it without looking at the page, a few times. (Repeat for the answer and the memory verse)
- Try walking around while repeating it, or writing it on a piece of paper without looking. Combining physical activity and speech helps retention.
- If you are married/if you have children—why not review the question and answer in your family devotions? I can testify from experience that these questions and answers will often provoke very valuable discussions with children.
May God store up these truths in our hearts!