Friday, May 8, 2009

Dr. Gleason on Catechism Training

I spent about 45 minutes on the phone yesterday with Dr. Ron Gleason, interviewing him about the training of children in the church. Dr Gleason is pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Yorba Linda, California. He has quite a diverse bio, having served as a tank commander in the Army before spending 10 years in the Netherlands, studying Herman Bavinck, and serving as a pastor.

I first heard of Dr. Gleason while listening to a message he gave on Herman Bavinck (who I only recently learned of through another man's top 15 reading list of 2008 – he rated Bavinck's 4 volume theology as his #2 book of the year). While listening to the message, I was intrigued by a statement he made about catechism training in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands. Gleason said "The children in the church were trained in the catechism over five years: 3 years in the Heidelberg Catechism, 1 year in the Belgic Confession, and 1 year on the Canons of Dort, and it was primarily the responsibility of
the fathers to catechize their children." Since catechism training is so rarely utilized in today's church, I asked if he would let me interview him on the practice. Below are his responses:


Can you tell me a little about why your church does Catechism training?

If you look at the modern church, there is a tremendous emphasis on programs. But what kind of legacy has the mega-church left us? Are people better off today because of what they learned in church, or do they have a deficient understanding of the stories of the Bible and of theology? The Dutch church was always looking for ways to bring unity between church, school, and home. Studying Catechisms helped provide that and we've followed their approach at Grace Presbyterian. This is a tool we can put in the hands of fathers and equip them to embrace their greatest responsibility of training their children to follow Jesus.

What kind of process do you follow at your Church to teach the Catechism?

The Dutch Church started teaching their children at 12 years old. Then, when they were 18 they were ready to be accepted into the church and join in communion. Our church is pushing back the starting age to 9, because of the desire we've seen in many of the children to join in communion at an earlier age. The Jewish practice seemed to be to accept a child into the community at 13, so I guess we're modeling that a bit.

How do you incorporate the parents in the Catechism training?

When we kicked off this program, I began by teaching the parents the catechism during Sunday School. I would use this time to walk them through the question for the week and give them tips for teaching the material to their kids. The parents are then expected to teach the Catechism daily and help their kids memorize all the questions. We still follow this model and find that it is very effective in allowing us to connect church and home. Initially, we also had the Elders meet with each family in their home to explain what we were doing and why. It was a big paradigm breaker for a lot of families and took some time to embrace, much like if you were to come to someone's home and say "we think you should consider home-schooling." The emotional reaction is very similar.

What material do you use to teach the Catechism?

I wrote three workbooks that we use as a basis for instruction. The material is based on a combination of the Heidelberg and Westminster shorter catechisms. I combined the two to get more emphasis on the Apostles Creed, Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. These workbooks are only available through our church right now.

What did catechism training look like in your home?

We would generally work on the catechism right before bed. That is when the kids were most attentive and willing to dig a little deeper, primarily because they wanted to put off going to bed. When they were younger, we might only spend 5 minutes on the questions, but as they aged, we noticed that they were much more eager to ask clarifying questions and to dig deeper into the meaning of the questions. I was honestly not that concerned about whether or not they understood the questions or even the words they were using. I just wanted them to memorize it, to get the information in their head, and I believed God would bear fruit from that effort later.

And how did your kids respond to the Catechisms?

Just this week my two oldest sons (39 and 37) were telling me how much they benefited from learning the catechisms. They are excited to teach their children as well. All five living children are following the Lord and growing in their love for him.

How else are the scriptures taught in your home?

Every night, at the end of dinner, we read through a passage of scripture, discuss it, then pray. We take maybe 3 minutes to read the scripture and then I just want to see if they can grasp the main points. Usually my wife chooses the book of the Bible we read. Right now we're reading through Galatians.

What else does your church offer for the youth?

We don't have a Jr. high or Sr. high program – instead we have mentoring groups. The boys are mentored by their fathers. If they do not have a father, then their grandfather, an elder in the church, or another man will agree to mentor te child. These groups meet in the homes of the elders, every other week, and primarily deal with life issues. Right now we're studying a 2 volume series by Douglas Bond (Stand Fast and Hold Fast).

But we also equip the youth by training fathers to lead devotions in the home. On Wednesday nights the men gather for a Bible study, right now we're teaching through Proverbs. I don't teach that study, I facilitate it. The men rotate on who teaches the study, and each man is required to bring copies of his teaching notes to share with the other men so that they will know how to teach the content to their family. You see the only way to really learn how to teach your family is to practice teaching. This study gives men a safe place to practice and get positive encouragement from other men.

I was very grateful to have this interview and for men like Dr. Gleason that are pushing the average church member to go deeper in their understanding of theology and the Scriptures. Maybe you have not been very satisfied with your church's approach to children's ministry. Try reading through some of the catechism links on this post and see what you think of the material. Are these the kinds of things you would like to know about God and have your kids learn as well? Have you longed for your church to be intentional to link the teaching at church with what is being taught in the home? Then maybe you should consider using the catechism approach to training your children.

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