Rev. Larry A. Peters, Senior Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church of Clarksville, Tennessee, kindly gives his permission to republish this article from his blog, Pastoral Meanderings. The original posting may be found here.
When children are in their early elementary school years, their minds are actually at the peak time for easy rote memorization. This statement is but one of the topics discussed by a book on catechetical and confirmation practice in the LCMS, called Teaching the Faith at Home. The point is well made. On the one hand, pastors and others teaching those classes enjoy the ability to count on the cognitive skills and development of reason and the mind to be able to deal with abstract concepts yet when this occurs is well past the time when memorization comes easy to the student learning the faith. Believe me, I wrestle back and forth on this very issue. On the one hand effective instruction in the faith benefits greatly from the internalization of the formative material of the Small Catechism accompanied by the regular routine of liturgy and hymnody. On the other hand, it is often difficult to speak conceptually to those same youth.
The book suggests that there is a solution and that is the recovery of the home as the first place where children learn the catechism and, I might add, the use of the Sunday school to encourage the memorization of the most basic confessional document and catechetical resource of Lutheranism. This was not always such a radical statement. At one time the bulk of the catechesis was done at home and the role of the pastor and parish was to examine the catechuman and judge the faithful work of father and mother in fulfilling the most basic parental responsibility of teaching the faith to their children. That is not ordinarily the case today. Today it is more common for pastor (or other catechetical instructor) to find that the student has little awareness of and familiarity with Luther’s Small Catechism (much less any other Lutheran confessional document). In addition the Sunday school has become preoccupied with teaching the major stories of the Bible and introducing children and youth to the Jesus whom the Scriptures proclaim. While I certainly do not want to suggest that either of these tasks are not important or are in any way less important, I do believe that there is still cause and benefit for including memorization of the Small Catechism in the Sunday school as well.
The truth is that we live at a time when many adult Lutherans have but passing familiarity with the Small Catechism and parents feel ill-equipped to teach the Catechism to their children. New member instruction often is spent more on issues related to the Apostles’ Creed and basic functional information on the denomination, the parish, and the specifics of local organization and ministry. Children and youth have been experimented upon from time to time from those who seek to form Christian character as much as or even more so than teaching the faith by teaching the Catechism. We are so enamored by the idea of some new program or curriculum or published resource that we have tended to shrug our shoulders at the Catechism as something old-fashioned or even outdated.
In effect, there are Lutheran pastors and Lutheran parishes in which the Catechism is affirmed in theory but absent from the practice of catechesis for either children or adults. The faith is taught but the Catechism is seen as merely one of many possible tools to accomplish the larger purpose. This has caused great harm to the faith and to the unity of the faith within Lutheran denominations such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. It is a regular occurrence for a Lutheran pastor to find that Lutherans moving from another parish and youth moving into your area who have not yet finished their instruction prior to confirmation have no real awareness of nor familiarity with the Small Catechism. The adults did not encounter it in their adult instruction and youth did not use it in their youth catechism classes.
Yet we ask new members: Do you hold all the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God and the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from them and confessed in the Small Catechism, to be faithful and true? and we ask of youth at their confirmation: Do you confess the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from the Scriptures, as you have learned to know it from the Small Catechism, to be faithful and true?
In essence, the most common red thread to connect those who became Lutherans later in life with youth and those who were confirmed somewhere around the 8th grade or so is their familiarity with the Small Catechism. Remove the Small Catechism from this and Lutheran identity will not only suffer, it will die.