Why Preach Sermons Based on a Catechism?
It turns out that preaching sermons based on the Heidelberg Catechism--or other confessions--hits home with worshipers, including those from the postmodern generation. A feature story exploring the value of preaching sermons based on a Catechism.
According to this Reformed Worship intergenerational survey, it’s the oldest church members who say they find catechism preaching helpful for living the Christian life.
So you may be surprised to hear that younger Christians—even people not yet believers—also find themselves intrigued by sermons based on catechisms. At least that’s the experience that several church planters shared at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship panel.
Stanley Mast, minister of preaching at LaGrave Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, led an eight-month study on preaching confessionally to postmodern audiences. Many church planters in this study decided that catechisms and confessions are still relevant because they provide background and guidelines for preaching about basic Christian truths.
Catechism sermons still relevant?
“I wanted to pose a question to new church planters: ‘Is it possible or advisable to preach evangelistically using a catechism or written confession?’ ” Mast says.
He and the study participants—who serve postmodern communities in urban, rural, and university settings—knew they were starting from a different point compared to preachers who serve people who’ve grown up going to church, as have their parents and grandparents.
For example, in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), which used to have good attendance for morning and evening services, the evening sermon was based on the Heidelberg Catechism.
This 16th century confession has 129 questions and answers, each with multiple Bible references. The Q & As are conveniently divided into 52 Lord’s Days, so that each year, congregations hear sermons on core Christian truths. The Heidelberg Catechism covers guilt, grace, gratitude; the Trinity; baptism and the Lord’s Supper; the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
Other well-known catechisms include Luther’s Small Catechism, The Catechism: An Outline of the Faith (Anglican), Westminster Confession (Presbyterian), and United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Catechisms offer excellent material for planning sermon series.
“But church planters today are preaching to people who don’t believe in the Bible or the creeds. Most postmoderns aren’t interested in the institutional church. They know they ‘don’t believe what people in the church believe’…though they don’t know what those beliefs are,” Mast explains.
Confessions worth preaching
Gregg DeMey grew up in the CRC, which he describes as a “super-literate denomination.” Now he teaches music theory at a community college and co-pastors Lakeside Chapel, a CRC church plant in Ludington, Michigan.
“In a room of Christians, we can talk about the justice of God. In a church plant situation, it’s foolish to think people believe in heaven, hell, and a final judgment,” DeMey says.
He looks for what he calls pre-biblical steps to open up conversations about faith. This includes using personal stories to help people understand what it means to hear God or follow Jesus amid lives of “brokenness, flaws, and mischief making.”
Talking about faith also means using real life events to enter conversations already going on in people’s heads.
When a Ludington junior high student told staff, “I think my friend brought a gun to school,” authorities found a loaded gun and list of names in the friend’s backpack. “One person on the list was a math teacher who goes to our church,” DeMey says.
“Two days later, kids who’d never been to church came to our weekly prayer meeting. And two days after that, someone called in a bomb threat to the jail. So 80 prisoners, law enforcement officers, and neighbors had to evacuate to the nearest parking lot, which was our church lot.”
The shock of what might have happened affected Ludington residents. DeMey realized it was “a good time to look to older and wiser people, a good time to use ideas from the Heidelberg Catechism, like ‘What is your only comfort in life and death?’ ”
Background to explain basic truths
Amy and Henry Schenkel co-pastor Monroe Community Church, a church plant in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, neighborhood of condos and lofts in renovated warehouses. “Most residents are college students, young professionals or empty nesters. Many never went to church or left long ago. They think of church as scary and out of touch,” Amy says.
So naturally, she and Henry don’t advertise sermons or sermon series as “based on the Heidelberg Catechism.” But they say they find the catechism’s structure and phrases extremely helpful background for preparing sermons.
“Amy and I took a call five years ago to start a church out of nothing. We have a task of bringing people together. But around what when people don’t know the Bible?
“It was great to work with Stan Mast and study the Heidelberg Catechism. That catechism was written in the first place because a lot of people didn’t understand basic Christian truths. It answers all these questions in our head, like ‘Is there any hope?’’ or ‘What do you do when your family is falling apart and you need something beyond yourself?’ ” Henry says.
He describes the traditional three-point Heidelberg Catechism as “totally valid, essential.” Preachers in different settings might talk about sin, salvation, service; or guilt, grace, gratitude; or creation, fall, redemption. At Monroe Community, the Schenkels explain it as “God made everything. We screwed it up. Jesus saves. We live with all we’ve got till Jesus returns.”
And when people join the church, they aren’t asked to answer whether or not they believe certain propositions. Instead, Henry explains, “We ask, ‘Do you own God’s story? Do you see your life as fully in God’s stories, in the Bible stories…?’”
One young man attended Monroe Community for 18 months but rarely talked—till he asked to be baptized. He didn’t use the language of the Heidelberg Catechism, but he was in sync with its concepts. Because when Amy and Henry asked why he wanted to be baptized, Troy explained, “Well, I’ve been feeling a little dirty lately.” And, in looking for another way to live, he recognized at church the life and story he wanted to own.
Like members of his congregation, Peter Choi is still navigating through different cultural, denominational, and geographical worlds. The senior pastor preaches to a mainly postmodern generation at Cornerstone Christian Reformed Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These are people who don’t automatically embrace timeless truths spelled out centuries ago.
“But there are still propositional statements floating around in peer culture about what’s good, what’s bad, what friends should do,” Choi says.
He’s found that his congregation understands Christian truths best when they’re couched in a relational context. That’s why, as he explained at a recent Calvin College Symposium on Worship panel, he used “The Journey Home” as his title for a sermon series based on the Heidelberg Catechism.
Choi says his sermons pointed “the way home in a world where belonging is elusive.”
People on a journey
It’s no wonder that a sense of belonging feels elusive for Cornerstone people.
“Ann Arbor is a very transient city. There are always people passing through, and that's the case at Cornerstone too. We have a lot of people who come here to go to school or young professionals who are getting started in their careers,” Choi says.
The congregation has been on a path of unforeseen twists and turns. It formed in 2005 as a merger of nondenominational, Presbyterian, and Christian Reformed ministries. All those ministries had two things in common: They were led by second-generation Korean Americans and those leaders had graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary.
Cornerstone people are on a journey of understanding their Korean roots without being totally defined by one culture. As a recent article in The Banner explained, members want to broaden Cornerstone identity from Korean to pan Asian to multi-ethnic.
“We seem to be attracting people who grew up in churches very similar to the ones I grew up in—ethnic-specific, immigrant communities of faith. We meet them at an interesting point in their life journey because they are far from what they are familiar with and questioning many things, including their faith and whether or not they will continue following Jesus,” Choi says.
Like him, most of his parishioners weren’t formed by a catechism. “My first time reading through the Heidelberg Catechism was in seminary. The creeds and confessions were not a significant part of the churches I grew up in,” Choi says.
In 2006, he was part of the eight-month study group on preaching to postmoderns using the Heidelberg Catechism led by Stanley Mast.
Choi used that study to preach people through a journey from feeling homeless in Ann Arbor to finding their identity at home with God.
“The catechism provided images and movements and content that I couldn’t have come up with on my own. It was like having a seasoned tutor look over my shoulder and coach me each step of the way,” Choi says.
Choi divided the series into the catechism’s three main themes—sin, salvation, and service—yet made them easy for people to relate to by adding hooks for each theme:
- Act I: The Sidewalk / catechism: a journey from sin / movement: from strangers / problem: homelessness
- Act II: The Living Room / catechism: a journey into salvation / movement: to friends / problem: rootlessness
- Act III: The Kitchen / catechism: a journey for service / movement: to family / problem: restlessness
Choi often uses stories from popular culture or his own life to invite people into conversations about God. “In preaching, you build a relationship between the pastor and audience, so they realize, ‘Oh, here’s a guy who gets nervous on dates, like me,’ ” he says. Identifying with the pastor makes it easier for hearers to identify with what the pastor says about life’s big questions and about God.
He recognizes that this relational approach works well with postmoderns—yet includes risks.
“One danger in preaching is that the pulpit can become a personal soapbox, but using the catechism helped make my focus broader and more biblical. It was also reaffirming in the sense that it wasn't just my voice speaking for God, but I was speaking in the company of many other voices.
“Sometimes, reading through the catechism, you realize you're never gonna improve on what's already been said. That's incredibly freeing, to point to what's been said and to say, ‘Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.’ It frees me from the desire to be profound and catchy all the time,” Choi explains.
Free to follow
He’s careful to point out that though he used the Heidelberg Catechism as a guide in his sermon series, he didn’t make it front and center. For example, he did not follow the tradition of CRC preachers decades ago and have the congregation read aloud that Lord’s Day Q & As.
Instead Choi used specific points from the catechism to form his sermon series framework and to spark creativity.
“Many listeners didn't even know we were doing a catechism series, though I did once in a while make reference to specific Q & As. It was fun to point out at the end of the series that ‘The Journey Home’ was actually based on the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism, this ancient document many of us don't know about or relate to anymore,” Choi says.
He predicts he’ll return to the catechism often to keep himself grounded and give breadth to his sermons. “I'm open to either shaping another series based on the entire catechism or perhaps delving deeper into one particular section of the catechism,” he says.
Seasoned pastors often recommend planning sermons as part of a series. This practice is worth considering for any type of congregation. It can be especially useful for people who preach to postmodern audiences.
Scott Hoezee outlines a sermon series planning process that you can do in a day. Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary. Basically, he says, you need to
- Quiet yourself in God’s presence.
- Reflect on your congregation’s needs.
- Switch gears and do something physical.
- Come back to the big picture.
- Brainstorm service elements.
- Focus on specific sermon texts.
Consider the advantages
In case you’re not convinced that you have time to set aside a day for planning a sermon series, consider the advantages. The following list comes from Howard Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt, who’ve been designing and posting worship service plans for years for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.
“A series is a number of sermons that build on the previous one, anticipate the next, and yet are able to stand alone. This method provides the opportunity for a more extensive and thorough exposition of a theme or passage,” they explain.
They know some pastors worry that a series will hobble them from responding to unexpected needs or events. Yet they’re convinced that sermon series have many benefits.
For example, a sermon series often has more impact than a single sermon, because pastors can go more deeply into a subject, theme, or passage. The pastor lives into the subject. And worshipers do too, because a skillful preacher will help them remember key themes from previous messages and look forward to what comes next.
Vanderwell and deWaal Malefyt say you can base a series on many things, such as a specific doctrine, Bible character, or book of the Bible. They recommend planning a series of three to 12 sermons. The exception is a sermon series based on a catechism or confession, because that kind can run much longer.
Meet postmoderns where they are
In his study with church planters about preaching evangelistically to postmodern audiences, Stanley Mast outlined several ways that the Heidelberg Catechism matches with a postmodern mindset.
He shared the following points at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship:
- Postmoderns are basically uninformed about Christianity. They may be anti-authority or “not religious” but are often interested in spirituality. The Heidelberg Catechism conveys basic Christian truths on “what to believe, how to live, and how to relate to the transcendent.”
- Postmoderns don’t necessarily believe one tradition has the corner on truth but they respect others’ traditions. The ethos, Mast says, is “your story is as good as mine, so I don’t want to write you off.” He sees the Heidelberg Catechism as a “warm presentation” of the Reformed tradition, one a preacher can present as a way of letting others know where the preacher is coming from, as a way of relating to the preacher.
- Postmoderns are less interested in what’s true than in what works. The Heidelberg Catechism is pragmatic in explaining what difference it makes in your life if you accept it.
- Postmoderns resonate with the metaphor of life as a journey. They yearn for relationships, community, and identity. The Heidelberg Catechism’s central theme is belonging.
- Further, Mast explains, the catechism highlights major life issues, such as “Who am I? What’s wrong with this world? How did it get this way? How do you fix it? How do I live?”
- These stories talk especially about preaching to postmodern audiences. How closely do the profiled congregations match your congregation…especially your new members or visitors?
- In what ways, if any, does your church use a catechism? How has this use changed over the years? What advantages or disadvantages do you see in these changes?
- What are the best reasons you see for basing sermons or church education on preaching? What are potential dangers or drawbacks?
- Which first steps might you like to experiment with in catechism preaching during your worship services?
- Did you create a catechism-based sermon series that is especially multisensory or interactive? If so, will you share your materials with us?
- If yours is a congregation with a history of catechism preaching, did you interview people from different age groups about what they found helpful or not helpful about the catechism and which catechism insights have shaped their lives?
Say what the sermon series will do
Sermon series make sense for postmodern audiences because they provide a reason for going to church. “Non-Christians and young Christians aren’t inclined to go to church just because it’s Sunday. They want to know what’s happening, why this week’s sermon relates to last week or next week,” Jon Huizenga explained at the Calvin Symposium on Worship panel. Huizenga is senior pastor of River Rock Church, a Christian Reformed church plant in Rockford, Michigan.
That’s why almost all Huizenga’s sermons are part of a series. He thinks of a series in terms of the “glue” that holds it together. He talks about biblical glue for working through the Book of Acts, doctrinal glue for a series on the Apostles’ Creed.
Huizenga uses catchy titles, like “Take a Ride on the J Train.” He advertised the series like this: “When you surrender yourself to the Holy Spirit, you’ll have twists and turns, sights and frights. But Jesus will get you where he wants you to go. It will be the ride of your life.” Another series, “How Do You Deal with How You Feel,” helped worshipers deal with guilt, grief, fear, and anger.
He plans messages about five months ahead, opening up folders to collect series-related stories from the world, his congregation, and his family. Using real-life examples, he’s found, works much better at River Rock than using canned illustrations.
“People don’t necessarily accept propositional truths, but they connect with stories. So I’m always looking for the story in the Bible. And people are attracted to learning how a particular story fits in with the Bible as a whole,” Huizenga says.
Wherever possible, he makes sermons multisensory or interactive. For a sermon on how the gospel affects a person’s inmost parts, he asked a volunteer to talk about gossip while chowing down on Krispy Kreme donuts.
“Those donuts, like gossip, aren’t good for you. But there’s something that draws you and slides down easily. It was a good way to illustrate how gossip connects you to the old life, not to the new Holy Spirit life,” Huizenga says.
Text by Joan Huyser-Honig
Photography by Steve Huyser-Honig
Listen to the Calvin Symposium on Worship panel discussion of Stan Mast and church planters talking about preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism. Hear Peter Choi’s sermon series “The Journey Home.” Read or listen to sermons that Stanley Mast has preached on various psalms.
Want to include the Heidelberg Catechism in your worship? Then “steal” these worship service plans on comfort or gratitude, check out sermon starter ideas (scroll down), and order recommended resources for different models of catechism preaching.
Peruse contemporary painter Rachael Van Dyke's Heidelberg Catechism gallery of paintings
(scroll down to Heidelberg Q & A).
Delve deeply into An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology by Lyle Bierma, Charles D. Gunnoe, and Karin Maag.
Read Robert Swierenga’s fascinating account of catechism preaching and other changes in Reformed and Christian Reformed Churches in Chicago. Though catechism preaching has declined in many denominations, Christianity Today reports that it’s on the upswing in some nondenominational churches.
Remembering the Faith: What Christians Believe by Douglas Brouwer is easy to study and discuss as a group.
Presbyterians, especially, will benefit from Enjoying God Forever: Westminster Confession (Foundations of the Faith) by Paul Smith. Learn how to integrate Luther’s Small Catechism in worship and church education.
Find ancient creeds and catechisms associated with various Christian traditions. Notice how the more recent Barmen Confession and Belhar Confession put beliefs and doctrines in modern political contexts.
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, council, or worship committee meeting. These questions will get members talking about catechism preaching:
Share Your Wisdom
What is the best way you’ve found to acquaint your church with a catechism? Please write to us so we can identify trends and share your great ideas. Whether you do these or any other things, we’d love to learn what works for you:
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