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Why the Challenge?
As Lutherans, we firmly believe in the power of the Word. We are people of content. We believe, teach, and confess that Scripture is God’s Word, and that the Spirit works through it to create and sustain faith in us. Through the effects of Law and Gospel, we are brought to repentance and true faith. Having received God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, we are called to engage our vocations in peace.
We are also people of doctrine. We have a common confession (the Book of Concord); we believe that centrality of truth. We believe in justification by grace through faith, the uses of the Law, the two natures of Christ, and so on. Teaching the truths of the faith was so central to our American Lutheran forefathers that many—if not most—of our congregations were planted with a school attached. Teaching the truths of the faith was so important that they started Saturday schools for kids in the summer to learn their Small Catechism. (I remember reading somewhere that at least 100 hours of instruction before confirmation used to be a requirement!) We hold Luther’s Small Catechism as a sort of baseline of doctrines that every Christian should understand—and continue to learn to understand—throughout life. All the members of our congregation may not know the Book of Concord very well, but at least they should all be familiar with the Small Catechism.
That said, how do we keep a firm focus on the Word, or letting Scripture speak for itself, while still maintaining a focus on doctrine? What we in the parish run into, all too often, is feeling pulled between the two. I know it sounds like a silly division, but hear me out in practical terms. When deciding on a lesson or unit to teach, we generally feel we must choose between a doctrinal study (jumping around Scripture by using proof texts) or a walk-through book study. What can feel lost in deciding between these two poles is connection. When using lots of proof texts to teach doctrine, we can easily lose touch with the context of Scripture. Ask parishioners who have been through units like this and they will tell you that they don’t know the Scripture narrative very well (I’ve been asked “Does the flood come before or after Jesus?” a few times from adults). We have inadvertently trained these people to think of Scripture as a disjointed book full of true statements. This is most certainly not true. Scripture is an epic story of salvation, and when we do only doctrinal studies our learners miss out on this (and they can easily miss out on how Jesus fits into the rest of the Bible).
On the other hand, we can feel a bit lost when we simply walk through a Bible book. Start on page 1, chapter 1, verse 1, and then walk through the book verse by verse. When the time runs out, pause and pick up next week. In contrast to the doctrinal study, these sorts of lessons are more focused on the context of Scripture and its overall narrative. They allow for greater amounts of curiosity and coverage. They also can drag on for years. I am all for this kind of study—but there is a problem that arises here. It’s the problem of losing sight of the forest for the trees. We spend so much time walking through books like Genesis or John that, without bringing in connections, we fail to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Why spend all this time going through the Small Catechism in confirmation class if we’re only going to talk about Bible stories?
A Proposed Solution
Connecting the two doesn’t have to be so complicated. As someone who’s wrestled with this disconnect for the last few years of ministry and has done some serious time reading up on the science of education, I have some tips on how to help bridge the gap between biblical content and doctrine. The solution lies in intentionally integrating the Small Catechism into whatever we do.
The chief parts of the Small Catechism are most certainly doctrine, but they’re meant to be more than just a collection of disjointed ideas. Instead, the Ten Commandments, three articles, and seven petitions serve as a fundamental group of enduring understandings of the faith. Now, an enduring understanding in educational terms is like a big idea. It’s a basic truth that not only informs our life and faith now, but can also be transferred again and again to different vocations in different stages of life. An enduring understanding has some necessary information (like the First Commandment that we fear, love, and trust in God above all things), but as we move through life we can never know enough to have complete mastery of that understanding. (What fearing, loving, and trusting in God looks like is a lifelong pursuit that the Spirit unfolds to us over time, through the Word, and is understood in experience.) An enduring understanding is a concept we continue to spiral back to over and over in our curriculum, devotions, and lives. This is part of the genius of Luther’s arrangement of the first three chief parts of the Small Catechism. If we learn them and continue to spiral back to them as we go through life, then we’ll have a solid base of doctrine around which to lead our learners.
Bringing in the Catechism
As we move through the content in a scriptural book, a pericope, or a devotion, we have great opportunity to reinforce one of the enduring understandings of the Small Catechism. We don’t have to abandon the content of the Word of God to focus on a doctrinal concept, and we don’t have to abandon the doctrinal focus for scriptural content. Not only can we spiral back to key concepts as we go, but we can also help our learners better understand how to apply the Small Catechism to Scripture. Below is a simple process I’ve used to help bring enduring understandings into parish education activities.
- Think about the kind of parish education activity you’re planning. Is it a devotion? a Bible study? a small group? or something else?
- Think through whatever Scripture reading you’re planning on using for this activity. Maybe it was assigned (as in a curriculum) or maybe it was chosen to reinforce the theme of the devotion. How you get the content doesn’t matter as long as you’re intentionally bringing Scripture into your activities. Read through the selection a few times to get more familiar with it.
- Consider one major aspect of your Scripture reading. Think of a natural theme or idea that flows from the text itself. As you do so, to think about which element of the Small Catechism you want to specifically reinforce in this educational activity.
- Is your focus on how God designed us creatures to live faithfully? If so, then you might want to focus on one of the Ten Commandments. Which one does this Scripture most clearly point to?
- Is your focus on the person of God or God’s relationship to His creation? If so, then maybe you should focus on one of the articles of the Creed. Is it on the nature of the Father’s sustaining work and His character? or is it on the person and work of Christ? or is it on how the Holy Spirit calls the Church to faith and action? The articles of the Creed (and explanations) are deep, so I’d recommend focusing even further down to one aspect of an article that applies most closely to your scriptural passage.
- Is your focus on how God has redeemed us to life as His children? If so, then try focusing in on one of the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. Which aspect of life as God’s redeemed creatures does the Scripture most clearly illuminate?
- Now that you have one enduring understanding of the faith in mind, integrate it into your lesson or parish activity. You won’t have to abandon the text or even your objectives. Instead, you have an opportunity to reinforce. I suggest considering one or more of the following procedures:
- As you introduce the activity (class, lesson, devotion, study, etc.), begin by reviewing that enduring understanding from the Small Catechism. If your learners were at one time confirmed in the faith, quiz their memory! Consider writing the enduring understanding on your PowerPoint, handout, or board. This doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes, but it helps bring whatever content you’re covering back to the foundations of faith. For example, if you’re thinking of teaching a lesson on Daniel and the Lions’ Den, then you already have content (Daniel 6). One simple understanding that is easily reinforced in this lesson is the Second Commandment, which deals with fearing God through prayer.
- When writing an objective for your learners for an activity, use the enduring understanding from the catechism as a springboard. Right there, in reinforcing a big idea of the faith, you have material through which to view lesson planning. Continuing with the above example, a possible educational objective could be that after the learners have studied Daniel 6, they will summarize how Daniel’s prayer life illustrates proper fear and trust in God. Now we have an objective that gives the learners some direction on how they’re going to reinforce that understanding through digging into the text.
- When thinking of a way to check for understanding of the objective or activity (formative assessment), try using the enduring understanding as a guide. To follow the above example, at the end of the lesson, have the learners write down their summary of Daniel’s prayer life. Once they’ve done so, have them share with a small group. Then, have each learner write down a few insights from the discussions over the text that will help him or her fear, love, and trust in God better through prayer. This way, you can draw it all back to the enduring understanding and also demonstrate that studying the catechism is a lifelong journey.
As Lutherans, we have such a rich heritage of doctrine. We often feel conflicted and torn on how to bring it into our lessons and activities without losing our focus on the Word. When we begin to slowly and intentionally bring enduring doctrinal understandings, like those of the Small Catechism, into our activities, we begin to find great opportunities to bridge the gap and reinforce the faith.
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