The Ancient Roots of Catechesis
The word catechesis comes from the Greek word katēcheō, which means simply to teach or instruct. It appears some eight times in the New Testament—four by Luke (Luke 1:4; Acts 18:25; 21:21, 24) and four by Paul (Rom. 2:18, 1 Cor. 14:19; Gal. 6:6, where it occurs twice)—usually to refer to a more general notion of instruction.
In the first few centuries of the church, however, it took on a more specific meaning. It came to describe the particular kind of instruction involved in preparing new believers for Baptism. By the third century, you would be a “catechumen” between one and three years before you were baptized and became an official member of the church. In this in-between “liminal” space, you were considered Christian, in a sense (that is, to outsiders). But you weren’t yet a full-fledged member (to insiders).
During this time, catechumens drank in the story of Scripture, and the core tenets of Christian belief, spirituality, and practice. Also during this time, catechumens practiced different spiritual disciplines like fasting, anointings, exorcisms, and celibate living.
The main conviction behind all this was that you didn’t just wake up and decide to be a Christian. Building faithful believers took time. It gave these liminal Christians the space to leave one world and enter a new one.
Catechesis has etymological roots with words having to do with “hearing,” as in the word echo and acoustics (the Greek word akouō means “to hear”). The fourth-century bishop and catechist Cyril of Jerusalem plays on this double meaning when he writes to would-be catechumens: “You were called a catechumen, one who hears only externally, hearing hope but not knowing it, hearing mysteries but not understanding, hearing the Scriptures but not knowing their depth.”
What is Catechesis?
Catechesis, then, not only names a deep, thoroughgoing instruction for new believers; it also marks out a designated time in which those new to the faith can learn what it is to be Christian—what it is to inhabit the world as a Christian. It marks out a genuine “third space” between church and world.
A number of contemporary Anglicans have referred to catechesis as the “front porch” of the church, to name this kind of third space. Between the home and the street, as it were, catechesis meets people in the middle.
This metaphor captures the peculiar genius of catechesis: without sacrificing missional outreach and engagement with non-Christians, catechesis also enables the church to uphold the integrity of her liturgy and doctrine. This is especially important in a time in which, as in our own day, the church’s teachings and way of life seem alien to many non-believers.
To switch the metaphor: catechesis is a lot like learning a new language. When you’re learning Spanish, for example, you don’t just memorize new words. You also need to learn a new grammar, a new way of seeing how the words fit together—perhaps even new ways of moving your tongue or lips.
If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language, you know you can’t just plug a sentence into Google Translate and expect a native phrasing—often you get something hilariously different! This is because going from one language to another can’t be done with just a dictionary. You have to learn to think and imbibe the language you’re speaking in order to become really fluent. You have to “live” in the language for a while.
Catechesis, then, is a lot like learning to “speak Christian.” Before you set sail to Christian-land, you need to enroll in language school. That is what catechesis is all about.
What’s Unique about Catechesis?
Many people might say: we have Sunday School, church membership classes, or some other kind of adult education classes—what’s so different about catechesis?
Catechesis, as I’ve mentioned, is the ancient church’s way of instructing new believers in the faith. Sunday School didn’t come around until the late 1700s. But there’s much more to it than traditional precedent or recovering the “ancient ways.” Catechesis is distinct from other forms of education in at least three ways.
First, it is connected to the sacramental life of the church—especially the initiatory rites of Baptism and/or Confirmation. While catechesis is useful for all believers of whatever age (the great Reformer Martin Luther warned against the pride of thinking you ever get “beyond” the basics of catechesis), catechesis is particularly related to the missional life of the church—to that stage in which people learn what it means to become Christian.
Second, catechesis implies a basic yet comprehensive introduction to the faith. Catechesis is unique from other forms of discipleship and education in that it seeks to introduce new believers to all the core components of the Christian faith, not piecemeal. But it does so in a way that is accessible to new folks.
This is represented in the fact that most catechisms (a text used for catechesis) are based around the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, plus some kind of teaching on the sacraments.
This is related to the third way catechesis is unique. Catechesis doesn’t just teach new Christians the “what” of Christianity; it also teaches them the why and the how. It’s an introduction to the faith in a particular kind of way: not just learning what to believe but also how to be a Christian and why being one is the life-changing event that the Gospel claims it to be.
Christianity Learned by Living
The church has traditionally understood—if only, at times, intuitively—that Christians learn capital-T Truth (Jesus as the “Way, Truth, and Life”) by practicing it. It is caught as much as taught. We learn the faith not primarily through books but through joining up with actual communities that speak the language fluently.
The New Testament scholar Kavin Rowe puts it this way: “For … Christians, the truth of the world is learned by living the life that is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ…. One joins the community called Christians in trust and learns the truth of the world through the time it takes to practice what being a Christian is.”
So, while catechesis has obvious parallels with adult education and discipleship, these terms imply a much broader, often more nebulous, kind of practice than what has traditionally been understood as catechesis.
Catechesis marks a unique time of training in which we learn the truth of the world through the time it takes to practice what being a Christian is.
Another way to say this is that catechesis involves not simply an education of the mind but a formation into a whole way of life. It involves, at the core, and education of desire. To be sure, it involves learning new content—the core teachings of the church. But even more so, it’s about learning what it means really to be a Christian, to be the kind of person who lives in such a way that what we profess in our creeds is infuses our way of life.
Catechesis teaches us to think biblically and theologically, but it goes further: it inducts us into a new mode of being in the world. It gathers people from far and wide and brings them into a way of being human rooted in Christ—Christ the model human and the image of God.
As new believers enter “the school of Christ,” then, they not only learn about truth; they learn to live truth. And that is, simply put, what it means be catechized, to be a Christian.