I once took a course in homiletics (the art of delivering homilies and liturgical reflections). The professor often said, “Unless you can summarize the goal of your homily in one sentence, you have no business being in the pulpit.” He was serious about that. When each of us got up to deliver a practice homily, we were asked to tell the class our main goal in a single sentence. If we couldn’t, the professor made us sit down.
I believe the same advice applies to catechists: unless we can summarize in a single sentence the goal or theme of our lesson, we have no business teaching the class. One pitfall that many of us catechists fall into is trying to do too much. As you do your planning, then, a good question to ask yourself is, “What’s the Big Idea?” Once you know what your one-sentence Big Idea is, you’ll be able to announce it to your participants and return to it over and over throughout the lesson. Think of it this way. When a parent asks, “What did you learn today?” on the way home from class, the student should be able to state the Big Idea without missing a beat. (And imagine how happy the parent will be to hear something other than “nothing” or “I dunno”!)
Marketing experts abide by a principle known as the Rule of Seven. According to this principle, a member of a target audience must see or hear a message at least seven times before it “sinks in” and compels him or her to act on it. Without this repetition, the message gets lost among competing messages. This rule comes in handy for catechists because, in a sense, we are “marketing God.” We are striving to convey an idea we consider essential to our students’ lives and well-being. We are also up against many competing messages. Our students are not yet convinced that they really need the Gospel of Jesus to live happily and successfully. They are also concerned about the cost of discipleship. And finally, they are not altogether sure that they trust us. Building that trust takes time. Therefore, we need to announce our Big Idea boldly, clearly, and often.
So, where does the Big Idea for your lesson come from? In most cases, we can find it stated clearly in our catechist’s manuals. Often, the Big Idea is expressed in the chapter or lesson title, which strongly relates to a session’s theme. For example, when I flip randomly through a Grade 6 Finding God catechist’s manual, I find the following Big Ideas, or themes:
- Session 3: The root of sin is lack of trust in God.
- Session 12: The Psalms help us to learn how to pray.
- Session 16: The prophets called people to repentance and conversion.
- Session 21: Jesus calls us to practice the virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
Once we identify a session’s Big Idea and can say it in a single sentence, we need to plan ahead to “publicize” it throughout the session. How do we do this? We can write it on the board in big, bold letters before class. We can print it on any handouts being used that session. We can include it in computer slideshow presentations we might give. We can state it repeatedly throughout the lesson, and we can refer to it in our prayer experiences. We can select and play music that reinforces it. We can have our students design posters or write essays or draw pictures that express it. Like any good marketing strategist, we can search for and use as many clever and effective ways of announcing our message as possible.
What’s your Big Idea for your next session?
(The above is adapted from my Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox: Catechesis That Not Only Informs But Also Transforms.)