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Monday, June 3, 2013

On the Teaching Ministry of a Congregation

I’m grateful for David Lewicki’s post last week on his congregation’s revision of its educational ministries.[1] His church is very similar to those of my experience, that is, they emphasize a Sunday School program that meets weekly at the church and leans heavily on “expert” teachers to communicate the church’s desired curriculum.

Lewicki points out that his congregation has a “wealth of leadership” that provides his Sunday School classes with highly educated teachers who can develop their own curricula and bring the lessons “to life.” By pointing out this uniqueness in his congregation, though, Lewicki has pointed out the inherent weakness in the Sunday School model that many of us have inherited: what if you don’t have expert teachers?

Because I grew up in a typical Southern Baptist church and have worshipped and served in four since, I can certainly say that this is not an isolated problem. Sunday School teachers are often those adults who would be so brave as to volunteer and have little to no theological training of their own. Yet this model is essentially Baptist – because we emphasize the Priesthood of the Believer so strongly it is not uncommon for the Sunday School teacher (especially in adult classes) to be more of a facilitator. By not having any theological training (or requisite spiritual maturity) as a prerequisite to being a Sunday School teacher, many classes are limited to peer groups who struggle through issues or Biblical passages together, consensus being the only curriculum to be taught.

Lewicki mentions that a weakness of the Sunday School model is that it does not inherently produce “experts.” For all the years that a believer sits in Sunday School classes, there never comes a time when they “graduate” or are heralded as an “expert.” Not even the teachers that prepare such wonderful curricula at Lewicki’s church hold accreditation or degrees from North Decatur Presbyterian Church. Instead, they have gone to other institutions where they earned degrees through intense study.

Both of the models in Lewicki’s article have strengths and weaknesses. Aside from the traditional Sunday School model he examines the now-passé “small group” model. Again, the lack of experts teaching or developing curricula shows up: “Prepared curriculum is always thinner than what a gifted teacher brings, and leaders often do not have the training and experience to guide participants through the deepest spiritual waters. Conversation gets easily sidetracked by individuals moving tangentially to the subject matter.” This is the same dilemma of the Sunday School class led by a peer of the students. While the small group is great at fellowship and democratic participation in the lesson, it is lacking in direction, focus, and rigor.

Lewicki’s church is determined to re-examine its teaching ministries by asking better questions of these ministries. He says, “We've focused on content rather than on the larger vision. We've wondered too much about "what topic should we be teaching?" and too little about "what is the goal of learning?" Topics and methods follow after the bigger vision.” Still, though, the language of these ministries seems trapped in the pedagogical vocabulary of 19th-century America. Topics, methods, the goals of learning, all are right at home in the original intention of the Sunday School movement, that is, to educate children (and eventually adults) in basic literacy and decency by using the Bible as a textbook.[2]

Pedagogy, student expectations, curricula, and measurable outcomes are all good and necessary things to consider in our educational ministries. However, as our congregations re-envision just what our churches should be teaching, consider that our understanding of teaching must be tempered by the Christian goal of forming (i.e. making) disciples. We are not in the business of granting degrees to people who have attained a level of knowledge or expertise in Biblical knowledge; we are to be about the work of making disciples. This work extends far beyond whatever Sunday School has become and deeper still that whatever cell-groups hope to be.

Lewicki has 6 suggestions for a revised framework of Christian education in his congregation, and I say he’s spot-on. Making “self-feeding” disciples is exactly right, but it is never the end-goal. So long as we endeavor to make self-feeding sheep we continue in the ways of individualism in our discipleship, which unfortunately undercuts the “communal nature” of Lewicki’s second point of vision. Rather, let us emphasize spiritual formation leading to spiritual maturity in our congregations so that they can become “feeders” too.

Let us further not cling to the vocabulary of 19th, 20th, and 21st century American education. We are the in heritors of a Great Tradition of making disciples that is more rich and varied even than our rigorous psychological/pedagogical paradigms. I would humbly suggest that we reach back to the vocabulary of catechesis when we discuss our educational ministries.[3] If it is true that “learning is about doing, not just knowing,” then let us emphasize the being of a disciple and let biblical and theological learning take its rightful place as a subordinate to the activity of being made into the image of Christ.

I am immensely interested in catechesis as a faithful practice of making disciples. I do not advocate the creation of a rigorous catechism by which a provincial interpretation of Scripture and Christian theology is ground into generation after generation of believers.[4] Instead, let us emphasize the formation of disciples through the rigorous and spirit-stretching practices of classic Christianity, all under the guide of mature believers acting as mentors for the immature. Then, I think, our Sunday Schools and small groups will not dissolve, but will be informed and enlightened by the mature “experts” that our churches produce year after year.

[2] See C. B. Eavey, History of Christian Education, Chicago: Moody Press, 1964; p. 222-37.
[3] For those readers keeping score at home, this is the subject of my Doctor of Ministry Project. Some valuable resources on catechesis include Packer, J. I. and Gary A. Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010; Parrett, Gary A. and S. Steve Kang, Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009; Harmon, Steven R., Towards Baptist Catholicity, Eugene OR: Paternoster, 2006.
[4] Contra Nettles who believes that static documents of “official” Baptist positions on Biblical interpretation should be re-introduced to ensure doctrinal purity in the local congregation. See Nettles, Tom J., Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: The Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life, Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1998.

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