When my mother was growing up, a part of the Confirmation program was memorizing Luther’s “Small Catechism.” Whenever they had committed a section to memory, they would make an appointment with the pastor to recite the chosen passage. The finale was the Sunday when each student was publicly examined by a member of the Church Council. Being a kind fellow, the pastor would let the students know which portion of the Catechism they would be asked about.
As a confirmand, I was thankful that my pastor did not require us to memorize the catechism. As a pastor, I couldn’t imagine demanding such rote learning from my students. And yet I wonder. What did I miss by not learning the Catechism by heart? I know bits and pieces. “I cannot by my own strength or understanding come to believe in Jesus Christ my Lord.” “It is not the water but the word of God that does these things.” “…whoever believes these words has what they declare and state, namely ‘forgiveness of sin.’”
Those biblical and theological ideas are foundational to who I am as a Christian. They are a central part of the toolkit that I have shared with students for more than twenty years. They are a platform on which to stand; a set of beliefs that can be publicly declared. I am not proposing that we return to the Twentieth century model of learning the catechism by rote, but what would it look like to so immerse ourselves in the language and theology of the catechism, that we couldn’t help but remember those passages we find particularly significant?
One key to this immersion would be an intentionality on the part of the congregational leadership to find ways to lift up the content of the catechism in as many ways possible without degrading the integrity of the work. A second important factor would be the enthusiastic engagement of the pastor and church leaders. If you’re not passionate about teaching fifth graders about the benefits of Holy Communion, you are selling them short. If the kindergartners don’t know that it is just plain old water in the font and that it is the Word that makes baptism powerful, then get to it! If adults still feel that there is no good news in the Ten Commandments, then why bother discussing them at all?
Luther’s Small Catechism is one of the best tools we have to offer people. It is succinct, poetic, theologically astute and deeply biblical. To not raise it up again and again in parish life, is a mistake. To share it without passion or integrity is a waste.