In no area of religious teaching is the Church lagging more than in adult education. Universities, colleges, and high schools are developing programs for adult study in all kinds of subjects, and their classes are in many cases overflowing; but in this important field the Church is far behind. If the need for better-trained Sunday school teachers is to be met and if the laity are to be biblically and doctrinally literate, there will have to be a great upsurge of adult Christian education. So long as the Church’s teaching ministry continues to be occupied almost wholly with youth, its outreach will be hampered.
But an upsurge of adult education can never be accomplished within an hour on Sunday. Weekday time must also be used. There is no other option. Here are samples of what is being done by some churches that have accepted the responsibility of weekday adult Christian education. Programs like these are certainly within the reach of thousands of other churches, provided that they are really burdened for the teaching of adults. And unless many churches are so burdened, Protestantism in American faces a growing spiritual debility.
For nearly a quarter of a century, the historic Park Street (Congregational) Church of Boston has conducted the Boston Evening School of the Bible. The school, meeting on Tuesday nights for two terms of ten weeks each, annually enrolls hundreds of adults and over the years has had more than 6,000 students. Its aim is an informed laity. Dr. Harold J. Ockenga, minister of the church, who with Dr. Howard Ferrin, now chancellor of Barrington College, began the school, reports that most of the Park Street members who are now vitally interested in studying the Bible have attended the evening school.
This program of weekday adult Christian education exists primarily for persons who are employed during the day and who wish to build up their knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. There are three classes of fifty-five minutes at each session of the school and also a chapel service. The basis of instruction is two-fold: first, the curriculum must be Bible-centered, with the primary emphasis on the content of the Bible; second, the curriculum must exhibit uniformity and also diversity in order to maintain both continuity and interest. Courses are given in Old Testament survey, New Testament survey, Bible doctrine, and principles of Christian education. There are also electives. At a closing rally each year three types of certificates are given: the evening school certificate for successful completion of each course, the Sunday school teacher’s certificate for two years of class work, and the Bible student’s certificate for three years of work.
Although the school reaches far beyond the parent church (students in the current registration of approximately two hundred represent ninety-three churches), its administration is under Park Street Church, whose assistant minister, the Rev. Paul E. Toms, serves as dean. There is also an advisory board composed of interested Christian leaders who help direct the school, which is supported by enrollment fees.
So successful is the Boston Evening School of the Bible that it will be expanded to include an enlarged curriculum, afternoon classes, branches in suburban areas, and special sections for college and university students.
An adult weekday Christian education program closely linked to the Sunday school program is that of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh. This large inner-city church, founded in 1778, had a peak Sunday school enrollment of 1,589 in 1925. For thirty-seven years the enrollment declined, until four years ago it was less than 600. Then the minister and session began to restructure the whole educational program. A key factor in the new program of this downtown church was the concerted effort to reach couples with young children. Special training courses were introduced and required for all Sunday school teachers. In three years the long decline in the Sunday school was reversed, and this when there were fewer people within walking distance of the church than ever before. Today the Sunday school numbers over 800.
Out of this revival of the Sunday school has come renewed interest in the study of the Scriptures throughout the congregation, leading to the organization of an Adult School of Christian Education, meeting on a week night. The schedule includes a cafeteria dinner, a brief chapel time, and two fifty-minute class periods. Generally, four courses are presented twice each evening. Subjects of these have included Bible book studies, biblical theology, archaeology and the Bible, the major cults, missions, the Bible and modern theological trends, the Bible and our present crises, and the Bible and marriage. Each year more than 400 adults have attended these courses.
In his evaluation, the minister, Dr. Robert Lamont, points out that this educational renewal has come about without a professionally trained director of Christian education. Laymen are providing dedicated leadership. Important results include small Bible-study groups meeting in homes in almost every major part of Pittsburgh. Of these informal, lay-led groups, Dr. Lamont says, “Their influence and outreach is beyond description. I suppose there are more copies of Bible commentaries and modern translations of the Scriptures being used by our people than in any other church of similar size.” In recent years, some forty young people from the church and Sunday school have gone into full-time Christian service. Many lives have been changed, teen-agers have been grounded in the great centralities of the Scripture in preparation for college, family life has been strengthened, and the 2,200-member congregation has been spiritually quickened.
That a church does not have to be large in order to venture into weekday adult Christian education is shown by the Hyde Park (Long Island) Baptist Church. In this suburban church of 260 members, the program centers in home Bible-study groups, sponsored by the church and its minister. At present twelve such groups meet weekly from September to June (and some continue during the summer). The groups are small and are under lay leadership. All but two meet in homes, most in the evenings but some, attended by women, in the mornings or afternoons. Groups are Bible-centered and continue for as long as two hours. The method is that of discussion, with the leader staying in the background. Leaders are chosen by the pastor on the basis of depth of Christian commitment and consistent Christian living as well as knowledge of the Scriptures. The pattern is to study Bible books and major Bible themes. Always the aim is to apply biblical truth to personal, business and professional, and community life.
The pastor, the Rev. Bruce Jackson, reports a raising of the level of Christian discipleship and understanding of the Scriptures in his church. When there is a call for some special service in the congregation or community, he finds that it is usually members of the home Bible-study groups who volunteer.
The small-group home-study approach is a simple and practical way of developing a more biblically informed and more deeply committed laity. Reports are that it is being used throughout the country (see “New Neighborhood Project: Bible Study,” by James A. Adair, Eternity, July, 1964). While it has drawbacks, such as the possibility of unproductive discussion and unsound interpretations of Scripture, adequate pastoral supervision and careful choice of leaders can guard against these. All in all, home Bible-study groups, through their very informality and spontaneity, are an important development. And they have a significant parallel. As George N. Patterson, CHRISTIANITY TODAY’S correspondent in Hong Kong, reported (“Christianity Behind the Bamboo Curtain.” July 16, 1965), many believers in Red China are meeting in their homes, where their Christian life is centered around group Bible study.
For over twenty-seven years the First Presbyterian Church of Schenectady, New York, has had an effective program for teaching adults. Known simply as “Doctrine Classes,” it began with eight couples, mostly elders and their wives, meeting for two hours twice monthly with assignments under the instruction of the pastor, Dr. Herbert Mekeel. Ten years later there were more than 100 couples divided into two groups. Later, short-term classes were developed in many subjects, among them books or themes of the Bible, insights into Bible teaching from the viewpoint of scientists who are committed Christians (because of the proximity of the General Electric Company, the church membership includes a considerable number of scientists and engineers), personal evangelism, missions, music as related to worship, home relationships, cults, and archaeology. In all courses the constant emphasis is on what the Bible says. Attendance at the various classes ranges from seven (in Greek) to 175. Through the years outstanding teachers have come to give regular instruction. There have also been special classes for Sunday school teachers.
Especially significant are the results of adult Christian education in this church with a current membership of about 575. Many who have been in the doctrine classes have become pastors, missionaries, and other full-time Christian workers. The total number who have gone into full-time Christian work from the First Church of Schenectady stands at about 100. The program has also led to a noteworthy rise in missionary giving. Daughter churches have sprung up, one of them now larger than the mother church. Lay preachers have been developed and have supplied churches without ministers or filled in as substitutes. Other outgrowths include a program of weekly visits to the county jail, the county home, and the Utica Mental Hospital and city hospitals, and participation in the work of the International Friends.
One of the most promising agencies for adult weekday Bible study is Growth By Groups. Operating under the control of local churches but sponsored by a central organization that supplies study materials, this movement is the result of ten years’ research and experimentation to find a way to train laymen in discipleship and personal witness within the framework of the local church program. The first group began five years ago at the Memorial Baptist Church of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania. With the number of groups doubling every year, Growth by Groups is now represented in 500 churches across America. It is undenominational and thus far has found its largest response in mainline denominations, notably Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian.
Those who want to go further in their Christian growth and experience are given the tools to dig into Scripture at home, and they meet in weekly fellowship groups to share their results. Groups are kept small—four to eight each—and the leadership rotates each week among the group members. Techniques of group dynamics, inductive Bible study, conversational prayer, and leadership training are woven into the program to make the groups self-sustaining.
To belong to a group, a person must commit himself to a life of spiritual discipline for a minimum of ten weeks by (1) maintaining a devotional period each day in which his life can be renewed through prayer and study of the Scripture, (2) seeking the help of other Christians of like mind in the fellowship of a small action group in which mutual encouragement can be found, (3) seeking the renewal of the church by making his group the seed-plot for other groups within his church and other churches in the community, and (4) finding creative ways to express the Christian faith in personal and corporate witness in the world outside the church.
Group members are obligated to help one another keep the covenant. For those who wish to continue after ten weeks (about 70 per cent do) there is a long-range program of advanced study. By the time the year is out, group members have mastered basic techniques for studying every kind of literature in the Bible completely on their own. And what is more important, the Word of God has in many cases come alive for members of the groups.
To forestall problems of group study, the program includes such features as regular group inventory quizzes, retreats, church control of the group, and suggestions on how the minister may derive the most benefit for his church out of this kind of adult study.
Pastors of churches active in Growth by Groups have spoken highly of the results of the program. According to the Rev. Walter Gilliland of the First Methodist Church of Corry, Pennsylvania, “Growth by Groups has been a blessing to our church. It is an excellent method for the establishment and continuation of small groups within the church for the purpose of studying the Word of God and encouraging Christian growth through a sharing process.”
Says the Rev. Franklyn Vial, minister of the Memorial Baptist Church of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, “A whole new generation of leadership is available in our church as a result of our adult study groups.”
The Rev. Dirk Nelson, director of Christian education at the Manoa Presbyterian Church in Manoa, Pennsylvania, explains his experience with Growth by Groups this way: “Our small groups have done more to create an interest in and concern for growth and commitment … and a context for real person-to-person fellowship around the Scripture than anything I have tried.…”
Dr. Roy J. Fish, director of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, experimented with Growth by Groups while a pastor in Fairborn, Ohio. He had this to say: “I observed an unusual growth in the lives of those who carried through with the program. Our young people especially found the creative study of the Scripture exciting.…”
Growth by Groups is so structured as to be available only through the local church. Thus each member of a group feels an integral part of the larger fellowship of his church, and the larger fellowship of the church is helped to recognize the need for a weekday program of adult Christian education. (The headquarters of the movement is Christian Outreach, Box 115, Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania 19006.)
An example of a good-sized central-city church in the process of developing a highly structured house-church program is the First Presbyterian Church of Rockford, Illinois. Taking as a pattern “the church in the house” of early Christianity, Dr. James B. Adamson and his assistant, Rev. Robert C. Linthicum, in cooperation with the church’s session, explored how their church could more effectively proclaim Christ today by developing an informed and involved laity.
This year twenty future “lay ministers” are participating in a House-Church Training Institute. In preparation for their ministry, they are undergoing two years of special discipleship. The program consists of six courses, each meeting for eight sessions. Two courses are on the Old Testament and two on the New Testament, and they are followed by a course in contemporary society and a course in group sensitivity and awareness. There are weekly assignments and examinations in each course.
There is also an Outreach Committee, a group of lay people who are assuming the responsibility of evangelism and thus indirectly asserting the primacy of lay evangelism. Eventually this committee will begin actual training of lay evangelists in the house-churches and will coordinate the house-church program of verbal witnessing.
In addition, there is the Church and Society Committee, which expresses the belief that Christ witnessed to God’s love by his acts of compassion as well as by his atoning death. This committee is developing the portion of the program by which the house-churches will witness to their faith in the social problems of the city.
When the program is fully operative in 1967, groups of twenty to twenty-five members of the church will be meeting every two weeks in each ward of the city. At each house-church meeting, trained lay ministers will lead the people in intensive inductive Bible study which will then be related to the people’s responsibility to witness. At least half of each meeting will be devoted to planning and mobilizing the house-church either for evangelism or for social action for the next two weeks. Mr. Linthicum, reporting on the project, stresses that the whole purpose is to develop an instructed laity through whom the Gospel can be effectively presented to the city of Rockford.
These programs of weekday adult education are by no means unique, for a good many other churches are carrying on similar projects. Yet the programs described are representative of what can be done. Despite their differences, they have certain things in common. They all represent the initiative of the local church. (Even Growth by Groups, though related to a central organization, depends on local initiative.) They reflect ministerial leadership committed to the proclamation of the Gospel and the teaching of the Bible; hearing the Word expounded in the pulpit creates a desire for more knowledge of the Word. Opportunities for lay leadership and lay expression are encouraged. All the programs are bibliocentric. Changed lives and ultimate dedication to full-time Christian vocations result from these programs, which have as their purpose training the people in the Word of God.
Programs like these developed by ministers and congregations should not be taken to imply dissatisfaction with the educational leadership of the denominations. Rather, the inference seems valid that when a church is really imbued with zeal for teaching its people the Bible, it may go on to develop a weekday program suited to its own needs. On the other hand, local pioneering of this kind is all too rare. Thus denominational programs and leadership have their place. But they cannot succeed without ministers and church boards whose hearts burn with a vision of adult Christian education. Programs and curricula, however well thought out and expertly developed, must be accompanied by committed, Spirit-led leadership in the local church. Always there must be the honest awareness that, as Milton so poignantly said in Lycidas, “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed,” and that among the hungry sheep are multitudes of adults who want to know the Scriptures and who will study them if only they are shown how.
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