Do evangelical churches have a problem with catechesis?

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His article appears in Atlantic, so maybe only we Evangelical “elites” the notice. But I hope all kinds of evangelicals take seriously evangelical writer Peter Wehner’s warning that “many [American] Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and politics “- to the point that” Jesus must now be claimed from his Church, to those who claim to speak most authoritatively on his behalf. “

A senior researcher at the Conservative Center for Ethics and Public Policy, Wehner served in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Experts met by Wehner (including Kristin Du Mez) identified multiple causes of the evangelical part of this problem. But a recurring theme was that of an educational crisis in evangelical churches, where Professor Baylor Alan Jacobs warned that the little teaching that exists can hardly compete with the formative influence of our increasingly politicized media.

“What we are seeing is a massive failure of discipleship caused by a massive failure of catechesis,” agreed James Ernest, editor at Eerdmans (editor of my most recent book). “The Evangelical Church in the United States over the past five decades has failed to discipline its adherents. There is therefore a great void. To bring about the implosion that we have seen, all that was needed was a sufficiently provocative stimulus. And the stimulus has come.

Ernest has done us all the great favor of develop your comments in an article on his blog. I think he is largely right… but I want to add that historians have a role to play in solving the problem of evangelical catechesis.

Fresco of the Great Commission of Cortona, Italy – CC BY-SA 3.0 (Ignazio Lucibello)

From a Greek word for “teach,” catechesis itself is not necessarily familiar to many evangelicals. Ernest defined it in terms of how the church fulfills the Great Commission of Jesus: “to make disciples, teach them to observe all that I have commanded you ”(Mt 28). Such teaching

is indoctrination, although we are wary of this word because we often see it used in a negative way. New Christians must learn to observe, which means not only being aware of what Christ has done for them according to a particular doctrinal slogan, but becoming an observer in the sense of putting Christ first, before all other loyalty. The key elements of catechesis would include knowledge of the scriptures and doctrine and the practice of the sacraments and prayer, all in a way that eliminates all conflicting and competing gods, spirits and loyalties and enables a life of built-in faith.

Without such teaching, Ernest argues, a church cannot form disciples of Jesus, even if it adds a number of worshipers or social media followers.

James Ernest – Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

He was particularly concerned about three deficits in evangelical catechesis. First, and “[d]despite its often vehement approval of the centrality of the scriptures, the evangelical church has failed to get its adherents to read all the writing well. ”Indeed, it was not until last year that The Gospel Coalition proclaimed a “biblical illiteracy crisisAfter LifeWay Research found that only 36% of evangelical Protestants in this country “read the Bible personally every day.” (It is not necessarily just an american problem, Besides.)

Second, Ernest believed that few evangelical preachers relate the Bible they teach to Christian doctrine. Here, too, it is not difficult to find disturbing polls, such as one which finds that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals believe in Arianism (that Jesus was “the first and greatest being created by God”), while that a third agree that “Jesus was a ‘good teacher, but he was not God’.

Finally, I appreciate that Ernest understood the “lack of prayer” as amplifying the other catechetical issues. If evangelicals are opposed to repentance for their participation in systemic sins – and are drawn to a politician who proudly does not repent of personal iniquity – it may be because their prayer life is so inconsistent and superficial. that it does not lead to “a radical opening to criticize by the Spirit of God.”

I can see versions of these problems all the time: in my students and in myself. Because I teach a first year course in Christianity at an evangelical university, I have seen nearly twenty years of eighteen-year-olds brought up in the Church show less and less knowledge of the Bible story and less and less familiarity with theological bases. Notions. Then there is me. As the dislocation of the pandemic lockdown has temporarily revived and reinvigorated my commitment to Bible study and prayer, I have noticed that my neglect of these disciplines returns alongside other more regrettable ways of living. back to normal.

But what I liked most about Ernest’s warning is that he defined catechesis as something more complicated than just reading more Bibles, hearing more doctrine, and praying more. It’s how we do each of these things that matters, not just how much we do.

Read the bible
Courtesy of Pixabay

I have no doubt that it would help if evangelicals and other American Christians read the scriptures and pray more often and learn better what to believe about God, sin, salvation, etc. But this kind of catechesis is necessary, insufficient. You don’t need to know much about history to know that Bible-educated, knowledgeable, Orthodox, and deeply godly Christians have done terrible things in the name of Christ.

So I’m glad Ernest adds that it’s not just about amount reading the Bible, but quality. Reading the Bible often, but without any idea of ​​its complexity, context, or completeness, can create its own discipleship problem. And he found little benefit in a kind of prayer that leaves the prayer leader “lost in a hyperspiritualized egocentricity in which one absolves oneself of any responsibility to reappear to do the Lord’s work in the world; or if one reappears in the mission, that mission does not include participation as a well-trained Christian citizen in civic affairs.

In my own experience, I have found that studying the past deepens my own catechesis. For example, I am more attuned to biblical ideas about the problems and potential of humanity having heard their echoes in 20th century history. (My version of Karl Barth’s diary.) But it is when Ernest expands his perspective on what it means to teach Christian doctrine that we can most clearly see the crucial role Christian historians can play in solving the problem. problem of evangelical catechesis.

For Ernest does not understand doctrine as a set of abstract intellectual ideas about God, but in the “sense of a complete teaching on God, the world and the life of the people of God in the world”. If so, evangelicals presenting a false image of Christ to the world may not simply be a problem of capricious or immature Christology; it may reflect the failure of evangelicals to relate good belief about Christ to good practice and experience as disciples of Christ staying in this world.

Enter historians, not just theologians.

Even though, in Andrea’s recent words, we are looking more through the prism of ethics than metaphysics, Christian historians can still teach their fellow disciples of Christ “the world, and the life of the people of God in the world. “Even though our work takes us away from the history of Christianity itself, historians can help disciples of Jesus better understand the world to which they are called, the world that God created, loves and restores: to see this world with both clarity and empathy, neither nostalgia nor fear.

And we can help you fix a related problem. Ernest is surely right to say that catechesis is “a difficult process, nourished by the Holy Spirit and deliberately encouraged, cultivated, by teachers and pastors, older sisters and brothers in the faith, according to inherited patterns” . But sometimes historians need to disrupt patterns inherited from the past.

Sometimes historians need to point out how evangelical churches that emphasize catechesis have instilled doctrines that distort “the life of the people of God in the world.”

Consider another recent blog post. “In an ever-growing body of evidence”, wrote pastor and editor Marty Duren, “Historians show heretofore unrecognized social consequences of the American version of evangelism, consequences that concerned Christians should assess – and be impatient to do.” Duren lists several historians who help Christians “recognize the ethical failures of white evangelicals whose claimed orthodoxy has been and is insufficient to affect their praxis.”

Many of his examples should be familiar to readers of The anxious bench. Duren’s list includes Kristin’s Jesus and John Wayne, as well as books by Aaron Griffith, Lauren Turek, and David Kirkpatrick – all interviewed by David or John on this blog. The work of these historians demonstrates how certain evangelical ways of understanding God have distorted the understanding of the world of evangelicals and have distorted their way of living there as the people of God. They illustrate how Christians who pray, read the Bible, and emphasize doctrine can nonetheless encourage racial injustice and patriarchy, neglect the poor, and seek political power at the expense of Christian witness.

And this kind of teaching is also catechesis. So, if you agree that your evangelical church could better teach followers of Jesus Christ to follow Him into the world, consider how to invite historians into the process. Count them among “the wise voices” who, Ernest hopes, “will communicate the loving grace of God in a way that will lead to the reform of life from the inside out.”


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