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Do Evangelical Churches Have a Catechesis Problem?

Do Evangelical Churches Have a Catechesis Problem? November 16, 2021

His article appeared in The Atlantic, so maybe only us evangelical “elites” noticed it. But I hope all sorts of evangelicals are taking seriously evangelical writer Peter Wehner’s warning that “many [American] Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics” — to the point that “Jesus now has to be reclaimed from his Church, from those who pretend to speak most authoritatively in his name.”

A senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, Wehner served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations

The experts Wehner talked to (including Kristin Du Mez) identified multiple causes of the evangelical share of this problem. But one recurring theme was that of an educational crisis in evangelical churches, where Baylor professor Alan Jacobs warned that what little teaching does exist can scarcely compete with the formative influence of our increasingly politicized media. 

“What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure,” agreed James Ernest, editor in chief at Eerdmans (publisher of my most recent book). “The evangelical Church in the U.S. over the last five decades has failed to form its adherents into disciples. So there is a great hollowness. All that was needed to cause the implosion that we have seen was a sufficiently provocative stimulus. And the stimulus came.”

Ernest did us all the great favor of elaborating on his comments in a blog post of his own. I think he’s largely right… but want to add that historians have a role to play in addressing the evangelical catechesis problem.

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

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

is indoctrination, though we are wary of that word because we often see it used in negative ways. New Christians have to be taught to observe, which means not just to be aware of what Christ did for them according to some particular doctrinal slogan, but to become observant in the sense of putting Christ first, ahead of every other loyalty. Key elements in catechesis would include knowing scripture and doctrine and practicing the sacraments and prayer—all in a way that purges away all contradictory and competing gods and spirits and loyalties and enables an integrated life of faith.

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

James Ernest – Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

He was particularly concerned about three deficits in evangelical catechesis. First, and “[d]espite its often vehement endorsement of the centrality of scripture, the evangelical church has not managed to get its adherents to read the whole of scripture well.” Indeed, it was just last year that The Gospel Coalition proclaimed a “crisis of biblical illiteracy” after LifeWay Research found that only 36% of evangelical Protestants in this country “read the Bible personally every day.” (That’s not necessarily just an American problem, by the way.)

Second, Ernest thought it concerning how few evangelical preachers connect whatever of  the Bible they do teach to Christian doctrine. Here, too, it’s not hard to turn up troubling surveys, like the one finding that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals believe in Arianism (that Jesus was “the first and greatest being created by God”), while a third agree that “Jesus was a ‘good teacher, but he was not God.’” 

Finally, I appreciate that Ernest understood “lack of prayer” as amplifying the other catechetical problems. If  evangelicals are averse to repenting for their participation in systemic sins — and are drawn to a political figure who is proudly unrepentant about his personal iniquity — perhaps it’s because their prayer life is so inconsistent and shallow that it doesn’t lead to “radical openness to critique by the Spirit of God.” 

I can see versions of those problems all the time: in my students, and in myself. Because I teach a first-year course about Christianity at an evangelical university, I’ve watched almost twenty years’ worth of mostly church-raised eighteen-year olds show less and less knowledge of the biblical narrative and less and less familiarity with basic theological concepts. Then there’s me. While the dislocation of the pandemic lockdown temporarily revived and reinvigorated my commitment to Bible study and prayer, I’ve noticed my neglect of such disciplines returning alongside the other more regrettable ways that life is getting back to normal.

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

Reading the Bible
Courtesy of Pixabay

I’ve no doubt that it would be helpful if evangelicals and other American Christians both read Scripture and prayed more often and learned better what it is that they should believe about God, sin, salvation, etc. But that kind of catechesis is necessary, not sufficient. You don’t have to know a lot about history to know that biblically literate, knowledgeably orthodox, and deeply pious Christians have done terrible things in the name of Christ.

So I’m glad that Ernest adds that it’s not merely a matter of quantity of Bible reading, but quality. Reading the Bible often, but without any sense of its complexity, context, or wholeness, can create its own discipleship problem. And he found little benefit in a kind of prayer that leaves the pray-er “lost in hyperspiritualized self-absorption in which one absolves oneself of all responsibility for re-emerging to do the Lord’s work in the world; or if one does re-emerge into mission, that mission does not include participating as a well-formed Christian citizen in civic affairs.”

In my own experience, I’ve found that the study of the past deepens my own catechesis. For example, I’m more attuned to biblical insights about the problems and potential of humanity having heard their echoes in 20th century history. (My version of Karl Barth’s newspaper.) But it’s when Ernest elaborates on his view of what it means to teach Christian doctrine that we can see most clearly the crucial role Christian historians can play in addressing the evangelical catechesis problem.

For Ernest doesn’t mean doctrine as a set of abstract, intellectual ideas about God, but in the “sense of comprehensive teaching about 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 just be a problem of wayward or immature Christology; it may reflect evangelicals’ failure to connect right belief about Christ to right practice and experience as followers of Christ sojourning in this world.

Enter the historians, not just the theologians.

Even if, in Andrea’s recent terms, we look more through the lens of ethics than metaphysics, Christian historians can still teach fellow disciples of Christ about “the world, and the life of the people of God in the world.” Even if our work takes us far from the history of Christianity itself, historians can help Jesus-followers better understand the world into which they are called, the world God created, loves, and restores: to see that world with both clarity and empathy, neither nostalgia nor fear.

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

Sometimes historians need to point out how evangelical churches that do emphasize catechesis have inculcated 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 are showing heretofore unacknowledged social consequences from the American version of evangelicalism, consequences concerned Christians should evaluate—and be eager to do so.” Duren lists several historians who are helping Christians “to 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, plus books from Aaron Griffith, Lauren Turek, and David Kirkpatrick — all interviewed by David or John at this blog. The work of such historians demonstrates how certain evangelical ways of understanding God have warped evangelicals’ understanding of the world and misshaped their way of living in it as God’s people. They illustrate how Christians who pray, read the Bible, and emphasize doctrine can nonetheless abet racial injustice and patriarchy, neglect the poor, and seek after political power at the expense of Christian witness.

And that kind of teaching is catechesis, too. So if you agree that your evangelical church could do better at teaching disciples of Jesus Christ to follow him into the world, think about how to invite historians into the process. Count them among “the wise voices” that Ernest hopes will “communicate the loving grace of God in a way that will lead to reformation of life from the inside out.”


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