Another example of Baptists wanting what Lutherans have but have neglected in order to be more like Baptists: Some Baptist leaders are saying that what their churches need in order to address decreasing attendance and to combat religious illiteracy is a catechism!
There may just be an ancient solution to the modern church’s problems of decreasing attendance and rising religious illiteracy in a post-modern culture turned off by denominational brand names, some leading Baptist scholars and educators say.
The answer? Catechisms — the ancient teaching tool used to drill Christian identity and doctrines into the minds of children and adults alike.
“I have been encouraging a number of people to write them,” said church and Baptist historian Bill Leonard of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University. “I think we need it.”
One of those Leonard has encouraged is Nathan Taylor, a doctoral student and associate pastor for Christian formation and children at Central Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.
Like many in ministry today, Taylor struggles with how to get sporadic and regular attenders and newcomers without spiritual schooling onto the same page. He isn’t convinced a formal catechism is the answer — but he hasn’t ruled it out, either.
“We need to invent some new processes . . . where they are learning some of the basics of what it means to be not only a Christian but one in the Baptist tradition,” Taylor said.
Baptists skeptical of catechisms would be wrong to think of them as the sole propriety of Catholics, the Orthodox and Episcopalians, Leonard said. In fact, Baptists interested in returning to the roots of their faith especially should consider them.“It’s an old tradition in Baptist life,” he said.
And it wasn’t just moderate or liberal Baptists who favored them, said Thomas Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the 2013 book Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: The Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life.
Catechisms, then and now, often use a question-and-answer format in which students must memorize and often recite core teachings before a class, minister, teacher or parent.
Nettles said he has uncovered a number of the texts that show catechisms were popular among British and American Baptists of nearly every variety since the earliest days of the movement, Nettles said.
“We’re talking first- and second-generation Baptists,” Nettles said.
Keach’s Catechism, also known as the Baptist Catechism, dates to 1693, and there is evidence Baptists were borrowing the theological training texts of other Christian groups before that.
“It was a common method of education,” Nettles said. “They didn’t have Sunday school or Sunday school literature” to rely on.
It wasn’t until the advent of the Sunday school tradition and denominational publishing houses in the 19th and early 20th centuries that the use of catechisms began to wane among Baptists and other Protestants who traditionally used them, Nettles added.
Those developments plus the advent of Bible studies pushed Christians to use uniform curricula and other literature instead, Nettles said.
Catechisms, which were sometimes produced by and for individual congregations, also declined as denominations ascended.
“Baptists were … tryng to establish more denominational consciousness and coherence.”
Also during this time, spiritual experience came to be seen as more important in religious formation than propositional truth and simply memorizing facts about doctrine, he said.