Corporate Worship: Catechism

Dear Church Family,

In our morning worship service, after the pastoral prayer, we recite together a portion of a Reformed catechism or confession. The Westminster Standards (Confession, Larger and Shorter Catechisms) contain the summary of the doctrines taught in Scripture and as such are received as part of the constitution of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. So, we recite together a portion of these standards each week as a church to familiarize and remind ourselves of the doctrines taught in God’s Word. Though the Heidelberg Catechism is not part of the constitution of our church, we use this catechism in worship as well as it too is a good summary of the doctrines taught in Scripture.

[Aside: Herein lies one of the distinctions between the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition and the Continental Reformed Tradition. The former typically hold to the Westminster Standards, while the latter typically hold to the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dordt). There are certainly some other differences, but this would be the main one.]

Forms Matter

When visitors or new members come to our church from outside the Reformed tradition – especially from traditions that hold to the so-called stance of “no creed but the Bible” – they understandably have many questions. Most of the questions about our worship have to do with our use of forms: “Why do you use man-made creeds, confessions, or even prayers in worship?” One person commented to me, “When I read the catechisms or forms that are used in the service, I don’t disagree with them; it just makes me uncomfortable saying them by rote. It seems too formal.”

Last week, I addressed this idea that for some people formality is equated with insincerity. This notion has become all too common among many Christians today and is a result of thinking of the corporate worship of God’s people as primarily something that ought to be ‘experienced.’ No doubt, you’ve seen commercials and advertisements that use this language: Experience the power of our cable company! Experience the freshness of our laundry detergent! Enjoy the experience of this movie! This kind of language has made its way into the church. Fewer and fewer churches have ‘worship services;’ now, they are called ‘worship experiences.’

D.G. Hart and John Muether address this modern prioritization of experience over form in their book With Reverence and Awe:

“Finally, consider the consequences of the modern bias against forms for our doctrine of Scripture. If we use the Bible to pray or to sing praises, are we actually doing something less genuine in our devotion and piety? If we repeat the Lord’s Prayer are we guilty of ritualism? And what does spontaneity do to the memorization of Scripture or the catechism? If we use the words of the Bible or the catechism to express our convictions, our desires, our praise and adoration, are we guilty of dead formalism and quenching the movement of the Spirit? Conversely, might not the decline of psalm singing and catechism memorizing among Presbyterians indicate the triumph of experience in our worship? So forms matter. There is no escaping them. Instead of avoiding them (which is impossible), we need to determine what the correct forms are. They are the forms that please God, that permit us to express the truth he has revealed. Whatever our experience is, these forms are ones that edify us, that build us up in the faith and increase our knowledge and understanding of God’s Word.” (D.G. Hart and John Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship, 155-156).


Catechesis refers to oral instruction in the doctrines of the faith, usually by question and answer (learning the catechism). The importance of catechesis cannot be overstated. J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett see catechesis as one of the great losses in the contemporary church, and one of the critical elements that must be brought back in order to sustain the future of the church. They call catechesis ‘building believers the old-fashioned way.’

Again, many Christians may resist the idea of catechesis or learning the catechism, seeing it as something that only the Roman Catholic Church does. Or, some are content to say, “I read and memorize the Bible. That’s all I need.” So, many Christians have much Bible knowledge, but lack any coherent categories by which they may see how all of God’s Word fits together. It would be like memorizing the periodic table of the elements, but having no concept of the chemistry that defines how the elements relate to one another.

I often speak of the importance of having proper categories – categories which help one to mentally sort, file, and remember various ideas. The catechism does just that: it gives us good, biblically defined categories by which we may assimilate and retain the teaching of God’s Word. Catechesis gives a person cups in which to catch the reading and preaching of God’s Word. Without the cups that the catechism provides, the Word of God washes over us, but we are less able to retain it, believe it, and live accordingly.

Therefore, I encourage all of the parents in our church to either begin, or continue, to catechize their children using the Westminster Shorter Catechism. One of the primary responsibilities of Christian parents – which parents promise to do at the baptism of their children – is to teach them the doctrines of our holy religion. For parents (and especially fathers), this is a sacred duty. For some it can be intimidating, but I guarantee that both you and your children will benefit immensely from the regular study and memorizing of the catechism.

There are many ways to go about catechizing your children, but here are some resources that our family has found helpful:

(1) The Westminster Shorter Catechism with Scripture Proofs (you can easily find this online or in the back of the Trinity Hymnal, as well)

(2) Westminster Shorter Catechism Songs by Holly Dutton. Singing the catechism aids immensely in memorization. Other versions are available, but our family has found these to be very helpful.

(3) Training Hearts, Training Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism by Starr Meade. This book uses an updated version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Personally, I prefer to memorize and teach the catechism using the original language, but the devotional material in this book is excellent. It is broken down into short daily studies in which a family may study one question from the catechism every week. When you’ve gone through all 107 questions, I recommend what the dentist recommends: rinse and repeat.

Parents sometimes ask at what age they should begin catechesis. My answer is: as soon as possible! Proverbs 22:6 is well known: “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Interestingly, that verse may also be translated, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old it (the training and instruction) will not depart from him.” Indeed, even if a child doesn’t fully comprehend all of the instruction that he receives from his parents in his youth, when he walks about that instruction will guide him, when he sleeps it will watch over him, when he awakes it will talk to him (Proverbs 6:22).

Catechism in Worship

In our worship service at Hill Country Church (PCA), we recite together a portion of a Reformed catechism. The pastor will then give a brief instruction by way of explanation and application of the teaching of the catechism. As we have already seen, the catechism is useful for instruction in the doctrines of our holy religion.

In our corporate worship service, however, the recitation of the catechism serves another purpose as well. Immediately following our recitation of the catechism, we have a time of corporate and private confession of sin. These two elements (catechism and confession of sin) are not randomly placed. They are tied together for a reason.

The recitation of the catechism is a help for us to hone our confession of sin. The catechism will remind us of either what we are supposed to believe concerning God, or what duty God requires of us (WSC 3). When we approach our time of confession of sin, we ought to be thinking in these two categories: where do I fall short in what I believe concerning God and how have I transgressed or fallen short of the Law of God. The catechism teaches us the doctrines of our holy religion, and it also helps us to think about all the different ways that we sin against God and His holy Law – in both our beliefs and our behaviors. And then, we may form our prayers of confession accordingly, and amend our thinking and behavior to conform to God’s Word.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!