Five Angles for Understanding the Catechism

Pete Jurchen Teaching in the Parish Leave a Comment

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If you haven’t heard, there’s a new edition of the Synodical Explanation of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism that is being field-tested even as I write this. Plans call for it to be published by October 2017. This is fantastic! There will be a lot of discussion, much of it online, about how to approach and use the Catechism. It’s always good to revisit our teaching and instructional strategies from time to time. In this spirit, getting a preemptive jump on this, I’m sharing with you five different angles for understanding the Catechism.

What do I mean by angle, and why should you care? Consider this—what we aim for is learning. It’s not enough to simply lead activities or lecture. What all parish educators really want is for the learners to better understand the material. What is it, and what does it mean? How does it apply? The task of instruction, especially with this kind of deep understanding in mind, can be a daunting one. Especially for those in the parish, it’s easy to get stuck in one instructional method or routine. After all, who has the time to prep? That’s what we tell ourselves, at least. We tend to look at what we do in the process of catechesis from one direction or method. We know that the task of education is a big one, and there’s lots to do, but with our time restraints and fear of the unknown, we easily get tunnel vision. When this habit sets in, it’s tough to actually evaluate our instructional techniques or classroom management. Believe me, I’ve been there too. We know there’s got to be another way.

In light of this, I propose we take a step back and consider a variety of angles through which we can better understand something. Think of an element of the Catechism as a statue in a museum gallery. Your first vision of the thing upon entering the gallery is a valid one. You can appreciate the craftsmanship or beauty of the work of art looking at it head-on. But you can get a lot more out of it by stepping closer to it and viewing it again. Then, if you were to take a few steps to the side and view it from that angle, you could get a different impression of the statue. It’s the same thing, but viewing it from different angles, spots, and perspectives can only deepen your appreciation and understanding of it.

The same applies to how we view the Catechism. It’s meant to be approached throughout your life. I previously wrote an article about how to integrate the Catechism into activities throughout your parish educational system. It’s that important. As lifelong learners of the Catechism, each element of the Six Chief Parts will only unfold more and more as you view it and experience it from different angles. So, with this in mind, I propose five different angles from which to view each element of the Catechism, be it a Commandment, Article, or Petition. Think of these five angles as tools in a toolbox to pull out when your teaching feels stale, your learners are tired of the same old routine, or when you’re planning your next lessons for the new Catechism. These are not complete and they’re not a program, but I’ve cobbled them together and rephrased them from a variety of educational sources. Here they are, from the simplest to the most complex. For easy recall, I’ve titled the five angles: content, context, confession, contemplation, and conversation.


How well do your learners actually grasp the content of the element? It’s easy to simply read over a passage or memorize it for a moment, but it’s another thing to understand what the text of the thing “says.” This angle is the most head-on, but it’s also the most crucial. Consider how well information actually sticks over time when your learners memorize something. Try returning to that memorized element several times to check for retention. Or, if it’s a Confirmation class, pull out quiz activities or games that revisit the content of previous elements you’ve covered. Better yet, once your learners have covered the content, have them summarize it in their own words. Writing things down is another strategy here. The key to this angle is just engaging the content of the element, reworking it, summarizing it, and explaining it over and over again.


Can your learners understand the element in the context of Scripture? This isn’t so much about applying the element to life as it is about understanding its role in the overall story of salvation. For example, if the element is the Second Commandment, can your learners connect how this element plays into Bible stories, like the call of Samuel and the prayer of Hannah? It’s one thing to learn the content of the element; it’s another to understand what it means. Bible stories play a huge part here. Fortunately, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation provides a ton of Biblical narratives in each section. Using the angle of context means looking into those narratives and interpreting what they mean within God’s overarching salvation story. This may mean force-feeding your learners as you open the pages of Scripture, but your learners may also make those connections and build these understandings on their own.


Can your learners take a step back and see how the idea of the element is part of the bigger confession of the Church? It’s one thing to know the content of the First Commandment and even be able to interpret how the First Commandment plays out in the story of, say, Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac. It’s another thing to understand how the First Commandment fits into the greater doctrine of God. This may include the doctrine of the Trinity or the attributes of God. With the angle of confession, there are many paths to take. But the idea is to look at understanding the element and using it to explore the bigger doctrinal concepts we Lutherans hold most dear. Taking time to view the element from the perspective of our greater confession of faith keeps us from losing sight of the forest for the trees. Again, there are many helps in the printed Small Catechism that help point us in the parish to more robust doctrines as we go.


How well attuned are your learners to how those outside the faith might perceive this element? In addition, how aware are your learners of their own ignorance or blind spots concerning the element? This angle is much more inward-focused, but it’s no less valid. When approaching an element, the learners need time to contemplate their own biases and explore questions they have. If they do not have opportunity to self-reflect and ask honest and difficult questions, they will never fully understand the Catechism. So, approaching an element from this angle may look as simple as inviting each learner to anonymously ask a question they have of the Catechism, to which the teacher can give feedback. Or, you could invite your learners to write down how they think others may feel about the element to build some empathy and give way to apologetics. We do not want to get stuck in this angle as it can become highly subjective, but without it learners may not feel safe to inquire of their own learning. This is never a good thing.


How able are your learners to hold informed conversations with fellow learners about the element? This may seem silly at first, but it’s important for understanding. The key idea of this element is, ultimately, application. Can your learners take time to share with each other, affirm each other, and learn from each other? Are they able to give examples to each other on how they put the element into practice in their lives? Do they have the skills to pray for and with each other, or are they more passive? This angle requires giving up a bit of control. Perhaps it involves the learners breaking into small groups. In these groups (or pairs), they could share how this element plays out in their lives, affirming each other and supporting each other. For Confirmation-aged learners, perhaps this includes bringing in adult mentors who can share their own experiences surrounding this element of the Catechism.

There you go—five alternative angles for better understanding the Catechism: content, context, confession, contemplation, and conversation. Hopefully, taking a tour around these angles has sparked some ideas in your own mind on how to freshen up approaching the Small Catechism and build deeper understanding. However you approach teaching the elements of the Catechism, may God bless your ministry.




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About the Author

Pete Jurchen


Rev. Pete Jurchen is Editor of Curriculum Resources at CPH. In addition to his MDiv, he has a MS Ed. in Curriculum Leadership and enjoys the pursuit of lifelong learning. He is honored to serve the congregations of the LCMS by equipping and partnering with its households in engaging their God-given vocations. He lives in Imperial, MO, with his wife, Deb, and his four children. You can read his latest posts here.

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