A couple of years ago, as I was reading through the book of Hebrews, I stumbled over a verse that forced me to reevaluate some key assumptions I had unquestionably inherited from my Bible church tradition: both the necessity and validity of adult Sunday school classes. The verse? Hebrews 5:12—“ For though by this time you ought to be teachers…” At that point I stopped. I thought about the audience to whom the author was writing. The book of Hebrews was written sometime around A.D. 65. The Jewish church—the probable audience of the book—was founded at about A.D. 35. So the believers addressed in Hebrews had been part of the faith for a maximum of thirty years (many of them less).
Having been believers for twenty to thirty years, the Hebrews ought to have been teachers, not students; experts, not novices; doers, not hearers; mature, not children (Heb. 5:13–14). The decades-old believers were expected to be training the younger believers in the “basic principles of the oracles of God”—the foundational doctrines of the faith contained in Holy Scripture (Heb. 5:12). They were expected to be skilled “in the word of righteousness,” passing on this skill to those who were yet unskilled (5:13). They were to be examples of discernment, able to lead the younger, less mature believers to “distinguish good from evil” (5:14). In short, they were to be the disciple-makers of the church, primarily engaged in teaching, not in learning.
After meditating on that passage, I thought about many Bible-adoring evangelical churches I had attended or visited over the years. Then it hit me. There are classes at my own church in which some of the members literally double the thirty-year mark of the book of Hebrews. Many more have been learners for fifty years, more for forty, plenty for thirty or twenty years. In such Bible-believing churches the function of those older saints is to show up Sunday mornings, plug into an adult Sunday school class, and build on their thirty years of Bible training. The goal of the adult education program is more Bible study with practical application for the believers’ lives—“The Bible as it is for people as they are.” The goal is not to equip those saints to teach younger believers in the church the elementary principles of the faith.
I wonder what the author of Hebrews would say if he were to critically evaluate the Sunday morning program of many of our churches. I wonder if he would say to half our adult classes, “By this time you ought to be teachers. Most of you have been believers for 25-plus years. What’s wrong with you? Will you ever step out of the role of unskilled novice and into the role of mentoring disciple-maker?” The model of church ministry defined in Ephesians 4 is pretty clear: The pastors and teachers of the church (those engaged in teaching and preaching) are to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” Yet in many of our churches the teaching leads to knowledge and practical application—good things, but not quite ministry work specifically designed for “building up of the body of Christ.” Paul’s instructions to the pastor-teacher, Timothy, was to entrust the beliefs and practices of the church “to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Yet in many of our churches the teachers entrust the things of God to men and women who are not always themselves involved in any intentional disciple-making instruction. This isn’t true of everybody, of course. Some believers who grow in the faith do move into disciple-making ministries. But far too many get stuck in the rut of the eternal student, growing fat and sedentary in more and more biblical and doctrinal knowledge used only to enrich their own lives or the lives of their families.
So, what can we do to realign our adult Sunday school classes with a more biblical model of discipleship?
First, consider harmonizing Sunday school classes with the rest of the Sunday morning ministry of the church. Too often adult Sunday school classes become “mini-churches,” mirroring at a smaller scale what goes on in “big church.” They sometimes have mini-worship, mini-offerings, mini-sermons, and mini-prayer time. Then those same mini-church members shuffle on to big church where they get a more generalized version of the same activities. This is called redundancy. We need to rethink the role of the Sunday school in the overall vision and program of the church. If there are things that aren’t being done during Sunday worship, they should be done during Sunday school, and vice versa. The normal Sunday morning worship should include Scripture reading, teaching, and preaching from the pulpit that substantially nourishes the faith of growing believers in the church. This pulpit ministry should be the primary biblical exposition and practical exhortation for all members of the church. If the pulpit is functioning this way, then Sunday school should strive to do something that complements this pulpit ministry, not competes with it.
Second, consider grouping adult Sunday school classes by spiritual maturity, not physical age. The New Testament distinguishes the spiritually mature in Christ from “infants” or “children” in Christ (Eph. 4:14, 15; 1 Cor. 3:1; 13:11; 14:20; Heb. 5:12–14). The young in the faith are to be engaged in “basic training,” learning the fundamentals of the faith, the story of Scripture, and the basics of Christian living. Some of this initial training should occur prior to baptism and admission into membership in a local church; some should occur in the first several years of a believer’s new-found faith. Yet this training should be deliberately geared for the spiritually young, regardless of physical age. After passing through spiritual grade school and graduating from spiritual high school, believers should be headed toward honing their spiritual gifts to engage in a body-building ministry of the church. In other words, after a certain period of time, believers should transition from a mentee role in the church to a mentor role, from student to teacher. Of course, believers will always need intimate fellowship, accountability, and additional training. But at some point early in the Christian life, the maturing believer should be weaned from their dependency on constant instruction, and they should get their spiritual nourishment from the church’s pulpit ministry and from personal Bible reading. In a discipleship model, sixty-year-old Christians have no business being in a “senior adult class” taught by expository teachers unless they are still “children” in the faith who need to learn for the first time Scripture, doctrine, and Christian living.
Third, consider restoring a simple structure of beginners’ classes for new or young believers, ministry training for growing believers, and leadership training for mature believers. Regardless of whether Sunday school classes are divided into age groups, each one should be dedicated to one of these three body-building tasks of the church. 1) Beginners’ classes should be designed for those who have been believers for a short time or who have never formally experienced a “Christianity 101” kind of instruction. The emphasis of such classes should be rudimentary biblical content, essential doctrines of the Christian faith, and basic Christian living. Members of this class should typically be in the process of preparation for baptism or church membership. 2) New believers or newly-initiated members of the church should graduate to ministry training courses, regardless of their physical age. These classes should equip church members for evangelism, discipleship of believers younger than them in the faith (i.e., assisting in the classes under category 1), or participation in outreach or other ministries of the church. This training should involve not only biblical and theological truth, but also practical ministry experience—hearing and doing. 3) After many years of demonstrating faithful service in the ministry of the church, mature believers should be selected for leadership training—first as deacons, then as elders. Such training may involve formal education at an accessible Bible college or seminary, but it can also involve a specialized training program in the local church itself. Such preparation should include broad and deep biblical knowledge, systematic theology, church history, leadership skills, and training in teaching and preaching. Those in the early phases of this process would serve the church in the office of “deacon.” This process may take five to ten years, and only after such leadership training and service should believers submit to an ordination examination and appointment as pastors or “elders” of a local church.
Fourth, consider including short-term “elective” classes to meet special needs in the congregation. The changes suggested above in no way hinder a church from periodically or regularly offering special classes, conferences, or seminars dealing with biblical, doctrinal, historical, or practical issues. In fact, one should expect that such supplementary programs should be part of the normal teaching of the church. Marriage conferences, financial seminars, “refresher” courses on Bible doctrine, a series on church history, parenting classes, divorce recovery groups, a young married class—all of these can be offered on a short-term basis and taught or facilitated by members of the church involved in ministry training described above (category 2).
The author of Hebrews castigated his readers who had been believers for twenty-plus years because by that time they should have been teachers (Heb. 5:12). I’m concerned that many of our Bible-believing churches have failed to graduate their long-time believers from the status of student to that of teacher. Instead, they have institutionalized a model of adult Sunday school designed to perpetuate a nursery of needy spiritual children without transitioning them into responsible, mature, and productive spiritual adults. If we consider the four suggestions above, our churches will begin to reflect the biblical emphasis on discipleship rather than the cultural emphasis on personal enrichment.
[Originally posted at www.retrochristianity.com March 24, 2012.]