What We Believe

Kids, Character, and Catechism

L. Charles Jackson

"As a twig is bent, so goes the tree." Likewise, the character of our children is formed as we train them early in life. Certainly Solomon echoed the same thought when he said, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6 NKJV). What is this training, and what does it look like?

Like fixing a car, this training takes more than one tool. There is one tool, however, that Presbyterians have always recognizes as basic: the catechism. Presbyterians have almost universally agreed that children should have their souls marked and shaped with the good theology found in the catechism.


When we develop the character of our children, we mark their souls. This marking is actually part of what we mean by character. The etymology or word history of character gives us a rather vivid picture of what it is we hope to do in teaching the catechism to our children. Character is related to the idea of a distinctive mark impressed on something. When this concept is applied to morality, it denotes a mark or quality. This relates to the idea of scratching, etching, or imprinting moral qualities into the hearts or souls of our children.

The Greek word for "character" was once related to a tool for marking or engraving. This gives us a picture to which we can relate. Character, in this sense, consists of the moral and ethical marks made in the souls of our children. Character could be likened to the rows we plow into our children's souls and into which we plant the word of God.

This gives us a vivid illustration of what it is we do in teaching character. We are etching their hearts. Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who etches the word of God in our souls. Still, God uses means to accomplish this work, and parents and teachers are to employ such means. Historically, one of the most important means has been catechizing.

Americans at one time were familiar with catechism in Bible training. Some of you are familiar with the famous New England Primer, which required memorization of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Such catechism has fallen into disuse, to put it lightly, and there is a corresponding decline in many other areas of child training. It seems to be true, though hard to prove, that whenever and wherever catechism training loses a foothold, so also theology loses its place in the heart of the church.

John Calvin said, "We who aim at the restitution of the Church are everywhere faithfully exerting ourselves in order that at least the use of the Catechism ... may now resume its lost rights" (quoted by Donald Van Dyken, Rediscovering Catechism, p. 3). One of our own theologians from the past century, John Murray, noted, "We believe it is to the discontinuance of this practice [of catechizing] that we can trace much of the doctrinal ignorance, confusion and instability so characteristic of modern Christianity" (Van Dyken, p. 8). It is normal, then, for us to associate strength of spiritual vigor and character with the catechetical training of our covenant youth.

Catechism: What Is It?

Catechetical training is as basic as asking good questions and expecting good answers. Quite simply, catechizing is the asking of set questions and the listening to set responses. There is not a lot of glamor to it, is there? However, when you press the concept a bit, you will find some encouragement. Most people associate catechism with instruction that comes through asking questions out loud.

The word catechism derives from the Greek word katecheo, which provides us with another helpful image. Indeed, it is a word with some beauty as an image for training our children in the faith. It is the combination of two Greek words. Kata is a word that generally means "down" or "down towards." You probably recognize the other word, echeo, meaning "to sound." We are familiar with the English word echo, which indicates a sound that repeats itself as it resonates.

This is exactly how the catechism works. You ask a theological question, and then you wait for your child to sound back the answer. This is a hopeful idea when it comes to teaching our children. Isn't this exactly what we want? Don't we want the truth of Scripture to echo in the hearts of our children? As we "sound down" the truth of our Lord, we hope that this same sound will echo back in the hearts and lives of our covenant loved ones. Isn't that great! We want the truth of God's word to resonate in the souls of our children. If this is done consistently and in the context of a loving home, the souls of our children will be indelibly marked, and the twig will grow into a strong tree.

Catechetical instruction may sound a bit rigid and unnatural to many of us today. But it is not really as difficult as you might think. This can be a very blessed experience when you start with toddlers. You ask them the catechism question, "Can you see God?" The answer helps their little souls almost immediately, because you can connect it to their next move to sneak into the pantry and steal some cookies. The answer, as some of you know, is this: "No, I cannot see God, but he always sees me." Wow—talk about something that you want to echo in the souls of your children, especially when they face secret temptations in their teen years! The more this echoes in their souls, the more hopeful we can be that they may very well be steadied in the face of secret temptations. Indeed, parents, as you teach them this precious theological truth, you yourself will often be convicted as it echoes in your own soul.

This is, of course, the beautiful theological image of catechizing. I hope, as you work your way through what can doubtless be the drudgeries of catechism, that your own heart will echo. Keep these kinds of images before you. Let the beauty of them drive you through the difficult hours of using catechism to teach Bible truth.

We are talking about the rigorous and sometimes monotonous process of asking questions and getting answers. You should know immediately that there is nothing flashy or colorful about catechetical training. However, catechism accords well with the repetition and review that are so necessary to mastering the basics of any discipline. It can also be a rather natural and easy part of your family life. Many families simply start their day with family worship, which includes catechism, Bible reading, singing, and prayer. So many dads get overwhelmed with how to do family worship, agonizing over what they think should include an hour-long theological disputation that would kill them and their family's faith.

This is where books like Starr Meade's Training Hearts, Training Minds is an excellent resource. She has arranged daily lessons for learning the Westminster Shorter Catechism in modern English. There are several other helps. For those of you looking for junior high or high school Bible studies for your children to do, either with you or independently, G. I. Williamson (an OP minister) has a handful of study guides for the Westminster Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Certainly it is never too late to start, but the earlier the better. Children should be taught not only to memorize, but also to understand. This may very well determine whether the instruction actually resonates in their souls or merely becomes an exercise that they forget when they get older. Also, the catechism helps our children to listen to sermons more intelligently. They will be able to hear, filter, and build upon the words of a sermon if they are well-versed in theology.

This is why it is helpful if churches assist parents in using catechism to teach Bible truth. Sunday school programs can include catechism as part of the curriculum rather easily. Great Commission Publications has a program called Kids Quest, which is an organized catechism program for young children. There are a variety of other resources to use. Singing songs is another great way to memorize and learn the catechism. Judy Rogers's songs provide a terrific resource for this. She sings a lot of "easy to learn" children's songs for the Children's Catechism.

Of course, catechism should never take the place of Bible knowledge. I recently spoke to some parents who said they were dropping catechism because they wanted their kids to learn the Bible, not "theology." Please understand that you are not on the horns of this dilemma. There is no such dilemma. Theology is simply an organized summary of the teaching of the Bible about God and related subjects.

As our covenant children grow up as Christians, and especially as Presbyterians, catechism should be part of their experience. It provides solid, thorough knowledge that will help them in today's confusing world. It gives them a good preparation for life. It provides a ready sounding board from which we hear the faith echoed back to us. It gives a workable framework within which we do theology as we live. Rigorous training provides a powerful framework for interaction as we deal with life together in the covenant.

Consider using the catechism as a tool to mark the souls of your children, and pray that God would cause his truth to echo in their souls and in the souls of their children for generations to come.

The author is pastor of Covenant OPC in Dayton, Ohio. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2007.

New Horizons: March 2007

Kids, Character and Catechism

Also in this issue

The Lost Art and Practice of Family Devotions

The Divines' Intent

Edification—not Provocation

Helps for Worship #16: Prayer of Confession (Part 2)

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