The Pastor’s Role in Catechizing the
Faithful in his Congregation
Pr. Rolf Preus
Lutheran Concerns Association Meeting
Ft. Wayne, Indiana
January 15, 2018
At the head of each of the six chief parts of Christian doctrine in the Catechism the catechist is identified as the head of the family. The Christian father’s duty is to teach the Catechism to his children. The pastor’s duty is to teach the Christian fathers their duty.
We could close all of the parochial schools and Sunday schools, cancel all of the Vacation Bible schools, get rid of all the youth groups, and do a better job of catechizing the children of our congregations if every Christian father would take the time to require his children to memorize and recite to him the six chief parts of Christian doctrine and their simple explanations in the Small Catechism. The family has been in decline and the church has watched. Like a cow staring at a new gate, she has watched without understanding what she was seeing. What she was seeing was the elimination of the chief catechist in the rearing of Christian children, and with his elimination, the severance of the domestic estate from the ecclesiastical estate.
The parochial school and the Sunday school were established to assist parents in catechizing their children and in providing them with a Christian education. The Missouri Synod didn’t immediately and universally accept the Sunday school. She had her parochial schools. From the beginning, she connected the office of Christian day schoolteacher to the pastoral office, inasmuch as the schoolteacher assumed pastoral duties to catechize children. Walther defined the schoolteacher’s office as an assisting office to the pastoral office.
It would be better to define the schoolteacher’s office as an extension of the parental office, deriving its authority, not from the pastoral office or any public church office, but from the fathers and mothers of the children. It is true that the pastor’s duty is to teach children as well as adults. But those primarily responsible for the religious instruction of the children are their fathers, as both Moses and St Paul teach. Moses writes:
St. Paul writes:
Martin Luther joins the office of schoolteacher to the office of father in the Large Catechism, under the Fourth Commandment, where he writes:
The slow, subtle, and apparently irrevocable movement of the family out from under the father’s oversight and authority has wreaked havoc in a number of areas, the most crucial being catechizing the children in the Christian faith. Consider what has happened to the family during the past couple of generations. The invention of the birth control pill ended the baby boom with a bang. With fewer children to care for, it appeared to be more feasible for mothers to enter the job market. Fathers and mothers farmed out the care of their children to harassed grandmothers and day care centers. A curious concept called “quality time” served as balm on the consciences of men and women who felt guilty for neglecting their children in pursuit of more money. In order to assuage their guilt a bit more, they began to spend their money on a plethora of extra-curricular activities for their children, each of which demanded and received more time from the children than either father or mother gave them. During this time, “family planning” became the default position of church-going Lutherans. What have we learned about family planning? We have learned that we are poor family planners. No Christian in his right mind would have planned the widespread apostasy of millennials from the Christian religion, but this is what we have witnessed as thousands upon thousands of parents born in the post-World War II baby boom are reaching old age and wondering why their children don’t go to church.
I hope you won’t mind if I talk just a bit about my own upbringing. My father spent the first ten years of his ministry in the parish and left the parish the summer I turned four. We moved to St. Louis where he taught theology at Concordia Seminary. Our family attended Bethel Lutheran Church in University City. I attended Bethel Lutheran School. During my childhood, I attended a Lutheran school, September through May, Monday through Friday. I attended a Lutheran church and Sunday school every Sunday. My father led family devotions after dinner every evening. Dad would read a story out of the Bible and ask the children, starting with the youngest up to the oldest, questions about what he read. We would recite the Ten Commandment. We would sing Lutheran hymns. We would sing the Lord’s Prayer. I learned more about God at home than I learned in school or in church. More than that, I learned that the catechism is not a textbook for kids to use at school. It forms the faith of the family at home.
The fact that my father was a doctor of theology preparing seminarians for the public ministry of the word is beside the point. I do not bring up the example of my father because he was a professor of theology. I bring it up because he was a father who did what God gives fathers to do. It is every pastor’s duty, in catechizing the faithful in the congregations he serves, to remind the fathers of the children what their duties are. If a child must leave home to learn the catechism he will learn that the catechism does not belong in the home. It is something extra. It is something for children as they grow up. It is not the possession of all the faithful to be used and relied upon by all Christians from childhood to old age. But that’s what it is.
I have mentioned fathers. There are families without fathers. If there is no father the mother takes over. Indeed, the mother doesn’t need her husband’s permission to teach the children God’s word at any time of the day. Parental authority isn’t strictly divided between fathers and mothers. It is shared. If there is a father, he is the head of the home. A Christian mother who has no husband is the head of her home. The home is where catechesis should be taking place.
How does the pastor catechize his congregation, besides encouraging parents to do what God has given them to do? Let me point to three areas: preaching, liturgy and hymns, and teaching the catechism.
We Lutherans love to argue about who has the power in the church. Is it the people? Is it the preachers? It is a board of some kind? Who gets to decide? If we were to keep in mind that the church lives by and under the word of God, it would be simple enough to conclude that God’s word has the final authority in the church and what it says is binding on preachers and hearers alike.
What does this mean? It means that the confessional paragraph of the congregation governs the preaching of the preacher. The church is over her ministers. This means that the minister may not get up in the pulpit to say whatever he wants to say. Whatever he says must be in accordance with the Confessions to which he and the congregations he serves are solemnly bound.
It is good to include Luther’s Small Catechism and the Augsburg Confession in the hymnal. These are written, authoritative, normative, Bible-based confessions that set before the minister what he is to preach and to the hearers what they should demand from their pastors. We should not have to insist on catechetical preaching. It should be a given that catechetical preaching is the only legitimate kind of preaching. When the purpose of the sermon is to teach the doctrine of the Bible, the doctrine summarized in Luther’s Small Catechism, the Augsburg Confession, and the other Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the sermon serves the purpose established by Christ when he gave the so called Great Commission. In Matthew’s Gospel it reads:
To make disciples is to teach. The means by which this teaching takes place is by baptizing and by teaching the baptized to hold onto, that is, to guard everything that Jesus commanded his disciples to teach. Jesus is our teacher. His teaching is what we Lutherans call a means of grace. The catechetical task is not simply conveying information. Catechesis saves.
The catechesis that saves is the doctrine of the gospel. When the Augsburg Confession speaks of the public preaching office – what we call the pastoral office – it does so by identifying its functions. The gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered so that we may obtain the faith through which we are justified. This gospel preaching is, by the very nature of the gospel itself, catechetical, that is, doctrinal. The preacher who doesn’t teach doesn’t preach the gospel. The gospel is not a way of doing something. It is not a mood, an attitude, a propensity, or an aptitude. The gospel is a proclamation. It is a proclamation of divine teaching concerning a divine person, Jesus Christ. The gospel teaches us who Jesus is. It teaches us what he has done and is doing for us. It teaches us that God forgives us our sins and rescues us from death and hell on account of Christ and his redemptive work. The faithful preacher, before entering the pulpit, will take to heart the words of St. Paul, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16)
The gospel is not taught in a vacuum. The Ten Commandments teach us our need for the gospel. The Creed teaches the gospel within the Trinitarian framework. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us how prayer is the life of faith of the faithful. Baptism, Keys and Confession, and the Lord’s Supper teach us what we are to believe about God forgiving us and saving us by his means of grace. They teach us to rely on God’s grace specifically where God has promised to bestow it, so that we may not, as the Country Western song puts it, be “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.” The summary of Christian doctrine that we have in the Catechism is a summary of what the preacher is called to preach. They are the same.
We call our confessions symbols. A flag is a symbol. The stars and stripes is a symbol of our nation. Soldiers fight and die under it. It identifies us as Americans. It is a sign of national unity. To express disrespect for the flag is to show disrespect to America. It is inherently divisive. While the explicit display of disrespect for the flag may be a matter of free speech, if it is, it is speech to incite, not to illuminate.
The Catechism is a symbol. It is our flag. It identifies us as Christians. We fight under this flag. The faith for which we contend and in which we fight against the evil forces of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh is summarized in the Catechism. By claiming the Catechism we claim our identity. Pastors who neglect catechetical preaching demonstrate disrespect for our flag. I can respect and honor the republic for which the American flag stands without ever reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I can be a patriotic American without flying the American flag. But I cannot, as a preacher, respect the pattern of sound words summarized for us in the six chief parts of Christian doctrine, if I do not preach what these words say. When we pastors set aside the Catechism and wander off into some other direction, we rob God’s people of their identity.
This past summer, the Concordia Catechetical Academy of Peace Lutheran Church in Sussex, Wisconsin published a volume of fifty six of my sermons on the Catechism. The sermons on the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer were written specifically on the Catechism. The sermons on the Creed, Holy Baptism, the Keys and Confession, the Lord’s Supper, and the Table of Duties are based mostly on texts in the historic lectionary. Nine of my sons helped to compile and edit these sermons and Pastor Peter Bender brought this volume to publication, for which I am very grateful. Preaching is catechesis.
But not all catechesis is preaching. This brings us to the second way the pastor can catechize the faithful in his congregation. This is by means of the liturgy and hymns the congregation will be singing from Sunday to Sunday.
There are right and wrong arguments for retaining the historic liturgy of the church. To argue from the authority of the church risks presenting a gospel gift as if it is a legal imposition. To argue for using a synodically produced and approved hymnbook out of loyalty to a synod and the desire to display visible conformity smacks of a sectarian spirit, as if we must show support for the home team. There is a better reason for advocating the use of the liturgy we used to call page 15 and today refer to as Divine Service Setting Three (or page 184). It is, in my judgment, the best diet of solid spiritual food available for the week by week feeding of the church of God, which he has purchased with his own blood.
We don’t have the time to examine the entire Divine Service this afternoon, so let us consider just one of the Ordinary. The Gloria in Excelsis is a creedal, theological, doxological, and poetic masterpiece. To know this hymn is to know the Christian faith. Singing, week after week, year after year, (except during Advent and Lent) this ancient Christian hymn will implant into our hearts and minds the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the person and saving work of Christ, the central topic of our religion: the forgiveness of sins, and the ongoing intercessory work of Christ. Talk about catechesis! The Gloria in Excelsis teaches the faith. It beautifully indoctrinates us as children of God need to be indoctrinated.
Repetition is the mother of learning. Consider the Ordinary of the liturgy. We sing or say this every Sunday. Those who attend church services faithfully will inevitably memorize the Ordinary, unless, of course, their congregation alternates from one liturgy to another, never settling on one as the standard to follow week after week, in which case the Ordinary of the service is no longer ordinary and has lost a key catechetical function. The Ordinary should be memorized and it will be. When the Ordinary is memorized, it serves as the foundation from which to understand the propers of the Divine Service. When we stay with the historic one year lectionary, we also learn the propers, if not by heart, nearly so, as we hear year after year the same texts, the same words, the same word of God. I don’t know how much study went into our adoption of the three year lectionary. I know that for many the decision was made for them when they adopted Lutheran Worship as a hymnal. Many of us who have given it much thought have decided to return to the historic one year lectionary. One reason is catechetical. Repetition is indeed the mother of learning. After years of once a year you can remember. After years of once every three years you probably won’t.
We have become more aware of the catechetical benefit of the liturgy in recent years in the wake of the inroads of theologically vacuous contemporary worship in our congregations. Traditionalists have sought to provide sound theological arguments for holding onto our traditional forms of worship. The liturgical movement of the sixties was given new life and direction by the confessional revival of the seventies. Accused by conservatives of aping papists and Episcopalians, the liturgical movement was out of the mainstream of conservative Lutheranism in America. The confessional renewal in Missouri that began in the seventies reinvigorated the liturgical movement by providing needed doctrinal substance. Today, while we conservative/confessional Lutherans may bicker with one another about liturgical matters, there is a general consensus among us that the historic liturgy is good food for the soul. Contending for sound spiritual nourishment provided by the liturgy is to contend for sound catechesis, which is the sine qua non of feeding the sheep of the Good Shepherd.
But as we fight to retain the liturgy, we must in all humility admit that, long before the battle for the liturgy began, we had already lost the battle to retain sound Lutheran hymnody. We lost the battle because we didn’t know it was going on. We lost the battle because we forgot what hymns are and what they are for.
I was ordained on July 1, 1979, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Clear Lake, Minnesota. The Lutheran Hymnal was the hymnal used throughout the Missouri Synod. Next to The Lutheran Hymnal in the pew racks of the church was a hymnbook called “Great Hymns of Faith.” Many, if not most, of the hymns the congregation had been singing were taken from that book. Their favorite was “Blessed Assurance.” If you are not familiar with it, let me share with you a stanza from that hymn:
Perfect submission, perfect delight
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
The congregation was unfamiliar with most of the hymns in The Lutheran Hymnal written by Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, Johann Heermann, Philip Nicolai, Thomas Kingo, Martin Schalling, Magnus Landstad, Johann Franck, Nikolaus Selnecker, Paul Eber, and other great Lutheran hymnists. They were more familiar with the hymns written by Ray Palmer, Frances Havergal, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, everyone’s favorite Unitarian, Sarah Adams, and, of course, T. R. Taylor, who, in his four stanza hymn, “I’m But a Stranger Here,” managed to say, “Heaven is my home” twelve times without saying a word about sin, Christ’s vicarious atonement, the forgiveness of sins, or the resurrection of the body. We sing, “Heaven is My Home” twelve times without even a hint about how a sinner who deserves to go to hell can find his way to heaven. What is going on here? What was this hymn doing in our hymnal? Why was it preferred over the far superior, far more comforting, far more Christian and didactic, “I Fall Asleep in Jesus’ Wounds,” by Paul Eber, which was excluded from Lutheran Worship and the Lutheran Service Book, likely on account of its general unpopularity?
I would suggest to you that the reason we have lost and are losing the great hymns of our Lutheran tradition is very simple. Our pastors don’t know what a hymn is for. They don’t know how vital good hymns are in the catechetical task.
To illustrate the catechetical purpose of hymns, consider the Psaltery, the hymnal of the Old Testament church. The Explanation of the Small Catechism, recently published by CPH, has an index of biblical references near the end of the book. There are more citations from the Psalms than from any other book of the Bible. The Psalms illustrate for us the purpose of Christian hymns. The doxological and the didactic are joined together in an inseparable bond. The Psalmist does not offer praise to God apart from a clear articulation of the reason such praise is offered. There is no praise without a predicate. Praise must be grounded in facts that accurately describe and rightly identify the God to whom the praise is offered. Facts. Not just a narrative or a story from which we can derive a particularly striking metaphor. Praise recites fact about God. Doxology – giving glory to God – assumes a particular form. The form is instruction about God. In this way God is glorified for who he is, what he does, and how he keeps his word to us. As we sing praises to him we confess the truth he has revealed about himself. Doxology and catechesis are blended together.
Choose a hymn about Christ’s crucifixion. Choose between “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” and “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth.” Choose a hymn with God’s grace as its theme. Choose between “Amazing Grace” and “Salvation Unto Us Has Come.” What may not be clear to the average parishioner should be obvious to the pastor of the congregation. The first choice, the more popular choice, the allegedly more singable choice is the choice that teaches nothing. The pastor must consider what God sent him there to do. What is his job? His job is to catechize the congregation under his care.
Discretion is the better part of valor. There is nothing wrong with singing “Beautiful Savior” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” In fact, when the pastor is introducing a Lutheran chorale that is likely unfamiliar to most of the congregation, it would be wise for him to include as well a popular hymn that he knows the people will like. But he must always strive to elevate the quality of the hymns sung in the congregation committed to his care. He must never forget that faithful catechesis requires featuring hymns that teach the faith to the faithful.
We lost a significant part of our Lutheran heritage here in America when we replaced the great chorales of Lutheranism with the theologically inferior hymns that were popular in America a hundred years ago. Part of the reason we introduced these hymns is that they were in English. Many of the great Lutheran chorales had not yet been translated into English. But when these new hymns became the regular spiritual fare offered up on a Sunday morning, it was at the expense of the sound catechetical instruction that the Lutheran hymns provided. The new hymns (which nowadays are referred to as the good old hymns) reflected a different understanding of hymnody than what we Lutherans historically believed. It was a view that discarded the bond between the doxological and the didactic. It did not view hymns as means of teaching the faith, but as means of expressing the religious feelings of the people. Lutherans, who had grounded their faith in their doctrine, were being taught one thing from the pulpit and in the liturgy and something else in the hymns they sang.
When the Missouri Synod produced Lutheran Worship and the Lutheran Service Book, many excellent Lutheran hymns were removed, apparently because they were not widely used. That’s a shame. Instead of accommodating ourselves to a tragic loss, we need to reclaim what we have lost. When I quit smoking cigarettes in 1998 I put on a good sixty pounds. I joined Weight Watchers and lost the weight I had gained. What I learned from my experience is that the food to which I had been addicted, that I thought was so good, wasn’t really so good. It was inferior to the food I began to eat. As my diet changed, so did my body, my vitality, and my physical health. So it is spiritually. People like corny, sentimental, theologically shallow hymns with schmaltzy melodies that celebrate unfocused feelings of piety. Pastors are people pleasers. But if we take the time, the effort, and the patience to introduce to our brothers and sisters a better diet, a healthier diet of doctrinally nutritious hymns, they will benefit. Their children will benefit. Hymns matter. As Dr. Eggold used to tell us, the hymnal is the dogmatics of the laity. We should give them what belongs to them.
Pastors who have tried to elevate the appreciation of their parishioners for sound Lutheran hymns and have met with resistance and even resentment should take courage and not give up. Persist in the task. Do so cheerfully and confidently, knowing that this is a work of love that is well worth doing.
This brings us to the third area of catechesis in which the pastor must be engaged, and that is the teaching of Luther’s Small Catechism to the children and adults in the congregation.
I recall a conversation of about twenty five years ago with my father who shared with me something he had recently heard that troubled him. It was that most parish pastors disliked the task of catechizing the children. Dad was saddened by that. He said that teaching the catechism to children had been one of his favorite pastoral duties. I agreed with him. Next to preaching, teaching the catechism to children and adults is my favorite pastoral duty.
But what do you do when the children won’t do their memory work? You make a stab at it, and when they don’t respond, you reduce what is required and then whine and complain about how parents are doing a rotten job of raising kids these days. Right?
I have a better idea. You decide that you are going to see to it that the children memorize the six chief parts of Christian doctrine, along with the explanations written by Martin Luther, and that they are going to do so every year. How is this done? You cannot do this without securing the help of their parents. Visit with the parents in the home when their child comes into your catechism class. Visit with them and show them what it says at the top of each of the six chief parts. Point out to them that it is your great privilege to teach their children the catechism and that you are doing so, not just as their pastor, but also as their representative. Secure the parents’ agreement to listen to their children recite their memory work to them every week. If, for some reason there will be no class in a given week, as for example if the pastor is in Ft. Wayne Indiana talking to a group of concerned Lutherans, the children still recite their memory work to their parents at home.
If the Ordinary of the Divine Service is the foundation from which to understand the propers for the day, the words of Luther’s Small Catechism are the foundation from which to understand the substance of the Christian religion we are teaching. There is no good catechetical substitute for Luther’s Small Catechism.
The Augsburg Confession is a wonderful confession with which every Lutheran ought to be familiar. It sets forth the Christian doctrine in a systematic fashion, with each article following gracefully from the previous article. This does not make it a suitable substitute for the catechism. It isn’t. The catechism is arranged in such a way as to bring the learner through the chief topics of the faith to appreciate the substance and the purpose of each chief part.
The only necessary texts for teaching the catechism are the catechism, the Bible, and the hymnal. Other books may or may not be valuable to use, but it is vital to retain the structure and order set forth in the catechism.
Pastor Peter Bender has had much to offer in this regard. At one of his catechetical seminars that I attended, he told us of a woman who had attended his catechism class, which naturally began with the Ten Commandments, and proceeded from there to the Creed. After a couple of sessions the lady, somewhat embarrassed about what she was about to say, said to Pastor Bender, “No offense Pastor, but I just don’t feel good after these classes.” She obviously thought that Pastor Bender had missed the mark and she wanted kindly to let him know. He replied, “Good. You’re not supposed to feel good. God’s law doesn’t make you feel good.”
The word of God does things. Her experience with God’s word, as uncomfortable as it was for her, was necessary. Faithful catechesis cannot conform to the demands of the therapeutic spirituality of our day that regards one’s self-esteem as a greater good than to be taught by God. When God teaches us, his teaching roots out, pulls down, destroys, throws down, builds, and plants. (Jeremiah 1:10)
This is why we do not regard the catechism as a textbook. We do not refer to adult instruction classes in the catechism as adult information classes, as if catechesis is the mere imparting of information. Doctrine is inherently powerful because it is God’s word. God’s word that goes forth from his mouth will not return to him empty, but it will accomplish the purpose for which he sends it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
The reason we choose gospel filled doctrinally substantive hymns for congregational singing on Sunday morning is the same reason we teach these hymns to the children. First, teach a hymn to the children. After they know it, have them sing it at a Sunday service. Then feature it as a hymn for congregational singing. Instead of creating childish ghettos in which to teach trite songs that allegedly make worship more exciting and relevant, teach the children what belongs to the whole church so that they will be comfortable in church and see it as their home.
Catechesis is lifelong. It shapes our lives. It continues after we are dead and gone. The teaching isn’t ours. It’s God’s. He entrusts it to us. No one is worthy of this trust except by God’s grace. Catechetical success is hidden from our eyes, but God does give us the joy of hearing a beautiful confession of faith from a brother or sister we have taught. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than that. The catechetical task is never done in vain. And it is never done, not until Christ returns to take his church home.
Here are a couple of papers I gave some years ago, arguing in favor of featuring the traditional liturgies of the church: “Why Go to Church?” at http://christforus.org/Papers/Content/why_go_to_church.html “Lutheran Worship Wars” at http://christforus.org/Papers/Content/LutheranWorshipWars.html
Rolf D. Preus