Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 1
According to a recent Gallup Poll, among those who call themselves Christians in our country today, many do not even know who wrote the four gospels. In churches all over our land, worship services are dull, and prayer is a distant practice from bygone days. Sunday School attendance is dropping drastically, and some pastors label Christian Education “boring.”
Incredibly, all this is occurring at a time when the church is reaching greater numbers of unchurched people than in the last twenty-five years. The big question is: what is happening to these gospel-hungry people after they become church members? Is their relationship with Christ deepening? Is the church impacting their lives sufficiently to make them able to respond like Christ in their earthly relationships — to be His disciples? Is the Christian Education program teaching a Christ-centered way of life, not simply a system of doctrine? While a few churches are doing a good job, in the vast majority the answer is no. What, then, should be the focus of an effective Christian Education program?
MAKING DISCIPLES: THE GOAL OF CHRISTIAN EDUCATION
The primary challenge for the Christian educator is to make disciples for Christ — to help people dig into the character of God, begin to understand it, and then adjust their lives to conform to that which pleases God. Subsequently, the church begins to plan all activities around these two main goals.
It is no coincidence that every human being on this earth has two needs that dovetail perfectly with the above goals — the need to know God better and the need to work that faith out practically in daily life. These two needs will never change, yet, the manner in which we address those needs changes greatly from person to person and culture to culture. It is the job of the Christian educator to meet these needs in the most creative, exciting, God-honoring ways possible.
The problem today, however, is that most churches do not take seriously the job of meeting these needs. A blase, shallow attitude prevails toward most Christian Education programs — Sunday School especially is seen as bland, benign, and boring. We are failing to develop world Christians, people who know that what they are learning in church is connected with what is going on in the world. People are not getting the message that every event has implications for the Christian; the question is not “Does God want me to respond?” but “How?”
What, then, must be done? It is time for church leaders get serious about Christian Education. This means getting serious about conducting a quality program, challenging people to know God and want His will in their lives; getting serious about a commitment to excellence in teaching, both in recruitment and training; and getting serious about support and encouragement of the teaching staff.
CONDUCTING A QUALITY PROGRAM
Many adults do not want to attend Sunday School, much less teach, because the material does not challenge them or stimulate critical thinking. Some churches have realized this shallowness and have taken steps to get people excited about Christian Education. Suddenly, Sunday School is no longer simply for the children; it is a dynamic tool God uses to help adults discover how to make their lives work. People show up for class enthusiastically expecting to learn from a teacher who takes his role seriously and has studied his material thoroughly.
Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, with 2600 members, has witnessed astounding results in its new approach to Christian Education. Adult Sunday School attendance has doubled in the last three years.
“We are trying every creative idea we can think of to get our people excited about Christian Education,” says Robert Bayley, Minister of Christian Growth and Nurture. “We have three worship services, three adult Sunday School hours, and two children’s Sunday School hours. This enables even those who teach to attend Sunday School. We also aggressively identify those in the church with educational backgrounds and encourage them to teach. One-month electives, taught by volunteers, have been extremely successful. Last summer, traditionally a very slow period for Sunday School, we ran thirty-four electives; attendance on some Sundays topped the entire grade 1-12 Sunday School.”
Robert Edmiston, Director of Training for the Christian Education and Publications Committee of the Presbyterian Church in America, believes that the biggest factor in dry, dull Sunday School classes is being bound to curriculum — “we have to get through this lesson” — instead of using it as a tool to teach the Word of God and make disciples for Christ.
“The teacher lets the information control her, perhaps, for two reasons,” says Edmiston. “First, she may not have a clear understanding of what she is trying to accomplish. Second, and more devastating, is that she may, like many others, look at the Christian Education program in an offhand way –prepare fifteen minutes before church. Anything can control a teacher operating in this manner.”
“This mindset produces a deadly cycle,” continues Edmiston. “Curriculum producers have recognized that people do not spend a lot of time preparing for Sunday School and have attempted to make curriculum simpler to use. Consequently, people spend less time preparing.”
Bayley is short-circuiting this syndrome at Central by letting adults use their God-given creativity. “We write our own curriculum,” says Bayley, “and allow our teachers to bring in outside resources and methods, giving our students opportunities for a lot of hands-on, tactile experience instead of merely listening to a lesson. Our adults use texts instead of curriculum; all dig together to discover God’s truth. This requires more serious thinking and preparation on the teacher’s part, but the resulting Christian growth is worth it for our adults.”
Another key problem causing shallowness in our educational program today is our view of teacher recruitment. Often, teaching degenerates into a ministry of mediocrity because we are not trusting God to call people who are growing spiritually to a teaching ministry; instead, we beg anyone to hold the class. Howard Hendricks, in his book Teaching to Change Lives, reminds us that to teach a child two plus two equals four, a person must have a minimum of four years of college, but to teach a child the unsearchable riches of Christ, anything is good enough.
“Many churches,” laments Edmiston, “do anything they can to fill the teaching slots in their program, usually twisting people’s arms and telling them, ‘you really don’t have to do very much preparation.’ Quite a few simply advertise in the church bulletin: three-year-old teacher needed. This is terrible for two reasons: first, you are saying that anyone will do –and when someone volunteers, you will be hard-pressed to turn them down. Second, you have demeaned the whole program by implicitly telling everyone involved that their job is not really all that important because anyone can do it.”
The Sunday School program is usually the largest program of the church, with immense time, energy, and money invested in it. Therefore, we should “never• shortchange it by an offhand or irresponsible approach to teaching. Instead, Christian educators should approach teacher selection in a spirit of prayer. Jean Musselman (RTS ’76), the Christian Education Director at Northeast Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, comments, “If a Christian educator sees his job as filling slots, that is exactly what he will do. But I gained an entirely new perspective when I began to see that my job affected people’s lives for eternity. This realization challenged me to make sure that the people I put in a teaching position have first prayerfully considered before the Lord whether they love the Lord and like the age group they will be teaching.”
Church leaders should identify church members with possible teaching gifts, pray over them, then ask them to pray for God’s leading in the matter. Look for godly –not perfect– people whose depth in Christ and spiritual growth are very evident in their lives. Ask couples to teach; they can work on and pray over the material together.
Edmiston suggests several options if teachers run short, such as changing or dropping certain programs, or even combining classes. In addition, have recruits volunteer for a definite time period, with possible renewal when the allotted time is up; do not infer it is a lifetime proposition. Very often when a person quits, he is overextended and will never volunteer again.
If we expect excellent classes, it is imperative that we train our teachers to seek excellence. Professionals in almost every other field are constantly learning better ways to do their jobs in order to be the very best that they can be. In the church, however, we seem to think that the knowledge we possess when we begin to teach will last a very long time. Our teachers should be challenged and encouraged regularly to learn better ways to teach and to try new methods.
The greatest misconception in our churches today is that training teachers is a separate activity carried on for a specific period once a year. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teacher training should be an ongoing and thoughtfully laid out program. If our Sunday Schools are functioning as they should be, our adults should be getting practical Bible knowledge for their own lives through specific book studies and general Bible surveys.
In addition to teaching skills, one of the most important things for a teacher to understand is that he is not simply imparting biblical information as an academic exercise. Biblical truth never comes abstractly; it always addresses a life situation. Therefore, a teacher is in the business of making disciples, developing relationships with his students in order to impact their lives for Christ. The most important thing that the teacher brings to the situation is not the information, but himself or herself, the person in whom God is working.
The most fundamental way in which people change is in relationship. But changing a life through relationship can’t be accomplished in thirty minutes on Sunday morning. The teacher must develop a ministry to students outside the class — take them on outings, go to their games, do a service project with them.
Edmiston thinks outside involvement is crucial. “The vast majority of people who teach view these things as extras; they are nice if a teacher can work them in, but they are really not the essence of teaching Sunday School. But I tell you, this is the essence — the teacher shares his life to influence a student’s soul. That is a legacy worth leaving.”
There is also a time for bringing teachers aside and getting more specific, such as teaching goals and objectives, how to handle curriculum, and different age group characteristics. Edmiston comments, “We assume people know how to teach; we should not. I would like to see churches devote least one quarter a year in adult Sunday school for teacher training. Then I would like churches to have a special workshop once a year for teachers.”
Edmiston has created a two-year program of teacher enrichment called “Help People Grow in Christ.” Teachers earn credits through such activities as reading the Bible, having devotions, praying for students, knowing certain things about students, and encouraging class members to invite visitors. At the end of the course, a teacher-enrichment certificate is presented at a ceremony.
Perhaps one of the reasons for apathetic teachers is a failure to encourage teachers adequately.
“Being a Sunday School teacher can be as lonely as a Maytag repairman,” says Edmiston with a grin. “I’d like to see teachers get together once a month to hone their skills, to talk about problems, to share successes, to be stretched in terms of their biblical understanding, and to pray with each other.” Fellow- shipping with other teachers may also encourage some to try innovative methods they have been afraid to attempt. Or it might challenge others to devote more time to their task.
The church leadership should do all in its power to encourage teachers by setting high standards, providing a supportive atmosphere, and stimulating interaction with parents. Sunday School leaders should show they are serious about studying God’s Word by guarding the teacher’s time — limit fellowshipping and start the lesson on time. Churches could also pair elders and deacons with teachers to pray for them and contact them once a month to hear problems or discuss strategy.
How does your church measure up? Are you making disciples? Are you helping people change the way they relate to others in harmony with biblical instruction? God is challenging the church to steer out of the shallows, where its lurking sandbars or jagged rocks may mire us down in apathy or ignorance, and travel out to where the channel is deep and wide for free sailing into the depths of victorious Christian lives. The choice, as always, is ours.