Adult Christian Education

My church will soon have access to better classroom facilities and is taking the opportunity to think through our approach to adult Sunday School. A fairly open-ended committee (in terms of participation) has been formed and a questionnaire was sent to all those participating to ensure reasonable preparation prior to the first meeting. I ended up writing a very brief paper prior to actually addressing the questions themselves.

Provisional Thoughts on Adult Christian Education

Before directly addressing the five questions presented to the members of the Adult Christian Education Committee, I would like to first present a framework by which those questions can be seen as part of a larger whole. Though I will engage with only a few passages of scripture, my goal is use them to point to a broader scriptural stance rather than simply as proof texts for a narrow point.

I would like to first establish that teaching is a gift given to some in the church for the edification of all. We are not meant to get along without the gift of teaching, nor are all to be considered teachers. Along with those who have different gifts, teachers are to play a vital role in building up the church toward maturity.

I Corinthians 12:27-30
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?

Ephesians 4:11-14
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

If teaching is meant to be an important ingredient in attaining to maturity and unity, we can also confidently say it is not optional, at least not in the normal sense. Though perhaps there might be unusual situations in which teaching is prohibited, in the normal life of the church teachers are to exercise their gift for the benefit of all in an ongoing manner. This benefit is not typified by detailed knowledge but by wisdom that is integrated with sound living.

Hebrews 5:11-14
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

It is also important to note, that although teaching is a gift given by God, it is not without strong obligations on the recipient. These obligations follow the general pattern of diligent work and preparation in the exercise of the gift. Both in the warnings against false teaching and the exhortations to guard oneself as a teacher, the importance of right teaching and the attendant obligations on the teacher are made clear.

I Timothy 1:6-7
6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.

I Timothy 4:16
16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

James 3:1
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

In light of all this, what are we to think of Adult Christian Education? I believe we can draw many conclusions, but will highlight only a few key lines of thought.

1. The historic practice of the church to employ times of teaching outside of worship is sound and needful to fulfill the ministry to which the church is called. Apart from a comprehensive alternative, it seems clear to me that Sunday School should remain focused on teaching.

2. More specifically, ACE should not merely focus on those receiving the teaching, but on the teachers themselves. That is, the goal can not simply be to provide teaching of some sort for the congregation, but must rather seek to support those gifted as teachers in their ministry within the church. Teaching is not some generic commodity that can be doled out as needed. Rather, it is the vital ministry of those gifted by the Holy Spirit for the task at hand. To put it another way, teaching is not simply about the students, but about the mutual sharing of gifts in which teachers bless the church with their gifts, just as they are blessed by those with other gifts.

3. Though teachers should exhibit the gift of teaching, such a gift is not sufficient to be active as a teacher in the church. A teacher is also called to apply himself diligently to ensure the flock is protected against error, arrogance, division, and other dangers. I would suggest, then, three basic criteria for teachers. First, they should show some indication that they are gifted as teachers. Second, they should have a basic level of skill to manage a class without causing consternation or misunderstanding. Third, they should exhibit a soundness of life and learning. Each of these criteria serves, I believe, as a continuum, and should not be used to thwart those who need to be developed as teachers. Rather, they should be kept in mind and used to guide a balanced judgment regarding the fitness of a person to teach.

4. Though I highlighted the importance of the teachers in point 2 above, yet in another sense it is all about the people, those who are being taught. Teaching cannot perfect God’s word, for it is perfect. Thus, its value must be located in mediating God’s word to a particular people at a particular time. In this sense, teaching does not find fulfillment simply in the exercise of a gift, but rather in the building up of a particular people.

In light of the above points, I believe the appropriate answers to the five questions for the committee will now come into view more readily.

1. What is the goal of Adult Christian Education?
To facilitate the teaching ministry Jesus provides his church through the agency of the Holy Spirit, that all may be brought to maturity and unity.

2. What subjects should be included in a well rounded curriculum?
I believe that this question should not be answered once for all but should be seen as a vital and ongoing question central to the Session’s oversight of the spiritual well-being of the congregation. I would suggest that the Session consider providing a list of topics or studies on some regular basis to those who have been identified as teachers. I would further suggest that this list should not be seen as mandatory but rather as guidance, to allow some room for creativity on the part of the teachers in meeting the expressed or implied needs of the congregation.

3. Do our teachers need additional training? Is so, what type? For example: method training vs. content training
As I highlighted in point 3 above, teachers should be expected to improve themselves on an ongoing basis in terms of skill and soundness, granting that the actual spiritual giftedness itself fits poorly with expressions of improvement.

4. What formats are most effective in achieving the goals of ACE. For example: lecture, discussion, class size, classes that stay together with teachers rotating, vs. a system where classes are offered and students select among the offerings.
I suggest that the structure allow for some variation in the type and temperament of the teaching. For instance, suppose a man gifted as a teacher and recognized as such, though he is skilled at teaching in particular ways, does not yet have the skills appropriate to a particular format of class. If that is the only format offered, then the needful ministry of his teaching in the church may well be hindered unnecessarily. I believe diversity should be emphasized along a couple key lines including class size and class duration, balanced by the real concerns of expediency and feasibility.

In my opinion, the overarching goal is to facilitate the useful ministry of teachers aimed at the real needs of the congregation. Thus, whatever the format, I suggest it is imperative that there be a person gifted as a teacher who feels responsible to guide the class to truth, maturity, and unity, and that that teacher hold a position of some discernable authority in the class. This in no way implies all teachers must stand behind a lectern or some other set format. Rather, it means that the format should not be used to devolve the gift of teaching down to a group level in which there is no one responsible for the well-being of the class.

5. What issues would you like to see addressed (or resolved) by this committee?

I hope we can determine a feasible manner to allow a bit more flexibility in the size and scope of the classes offered. For instance, though I enjoy teaching larger classes in a lecture format, I also love to lead directed discussions in a much smaller context.

I also believe we must emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in gifting some to be teachers, and begin to adapt our schedule to the actual slate of teachers we have developed, rather than finding someone to teach a predetermined course.

3 Comments

  1. Paul Baxter
    Sep 11, 2002

    Nice essay, Jay.

    I like all of your answers. The only problem is that you haven’t said much that gives concrete help in the planning process. Certainly you must have an opinion about question #2.

    I’ve been thinking a little about adult ed in our church as I’m planning a class for next summer. One thing that really struck me was something I learned from my visit to the First Baptist Chuch in Waldorf, MD. In addition to being VERY friendly to visitors, what I liked is that they starterd the SS class with prayer requests, then the teacher prayed briefly for all the situations mentioned. This seemed very right to me. Often in group meetings the prayers are done, if at all, at the end and people feel pressed for time. By doing it at the beginning the teaching time is automatically bounded by the prayer time. Just a thought.

  2. Jay
    Sep 11, 2002

    True enough, regarding my vagueness. It was somewhat intentional, since my goal in writing it was to keep the finer points of the activity grounded within a larger picture. I figured that numerous people would provide details, so I painted with a broader brush. My concern was that if I introduced my take on those details while still trying to paint the big picture, someone who disagreed with my details might be inclined to also disagree with my broader points.

    Interestingly, I believe all of our current Sunday School classes begin with prayer along the lines of what you described.

  3. Paul Baxter
    Sep 11, 2002

    Fair enough. Glad to hear about the prayer thing.