The following is the first of a new series of articles in “The Minister’s Workshop.” This series will cover important trends in local church educational programs.

Among priorities for the local church today, none is more urgent than teaching. A church that fails here is delinquent at the heart of its mission. During his earthly ministry, our Lord was the master teacher; in his post-resurrection appearance on the Emmaus road, he expounded the Scriptures (Luke 24:27); the central emphasis in his Great Commission is upon teaching (Matt. 28:19, 20). And in Paul’s list of the gifts of the Spirit, teaching is indissolubly united with pastoral work—“he gave some … pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11).

The Church, particularly on the local level, needs to look critically at the way it is fulfilling its Lord’s commission to make disciples (learners) and to teach them to observe what he has commanded.

Scripture gives no detailed blueprint for Christian education in the local church. It simply sets before us the supreme model of Christ as teacher and tells us something of how and what the apostles (especially Paul) taught. And then it leaves the door open for the development of the Church’s teaching ministry through the ages.

Today denominational boards, cooperative projects in curriculum development, various publishers, and specialists in Christian education provide an abundance of teaching resources and materials. Yet it is still the local churches under the leadership of their “pastors and teachers” that are responsible for getting Christian education done. If not actually used, even the best curricula and teaching tools are lifeless; and through ill-considered use their effectiveness may be blunted. The local church and its pastor should carefully consider official Sunday-school materials. If they have irreconcilable problems with offerings of their own denomination, materials prepared by independent or even other denominational agencies are available as alternatives.

In this revoluntary age, churches need to try new ways of doing their educational work. The one-lesson-a-week pattern is simply not enough. Weekday-afternoon or Saturday-morning classes in the church using professional teachers who are Christians, shared-time programs, public-school teaching of the Bible as literature, the Christian day school with its total program of Christ-centered teaching, are among avenues to be investigated. Young Life, Boys’ Brigade and Pioneer Girls, Bible clubs, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, camps, and social work offer paths for Christian growth of young people and involvement of adults who want to work with them.

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According to the New Testament pattern, the pastor is the chief teacher, as well as the shepherd, of the congregation. Unless the church is large enough to require a director of religious education, the pastor himself must provide initiative and guidance for the work of the Sunday-school superintendent and teachers. And even when there is an education director, the pastor cannot abdicate his ultimate teaching responsibility.

If, as Professor James D. Smart has said, “the typical Christian of our time, however noble his character, is unable to speak one intelligible word on behalf of his faith,” the fault is in part the failure of ministers to teach the Word of God. Effective espository preaching that carries the congregation through major sections of Scripture is in short supply today. In a time when mid-week services, which used to afford an opportunity for pastoral teaching, are generally in the discard, and Sunday-evening services are the exception rather than the rule, a pastor should each year devote a substantial proportion of his pulpit work to exposition of the Scriptures. In larger congregations having a full-time religious-education director, basic doctrinal unity and full agreement on educational aims between pastor and director are essential. What is taught from the pulpit and what is taught in the church school must not be in conflict.

In the all-important matter of getting teachers for the church school three things are paramount: First, all teachers must be committed Christians. Second, teachers should both like and respect children. Third, teachers must have more than an elementary acquaintance with the Scriptures; they should know the essentials of the historic unfolding of biblical revelation, and their knowledge of the Book should be a growing one.

This leads to what may well be the crux of the educational problem of the local church—adult Christian education. One of the primary reasons why, in many churches, children learn so little in Sunday school about the Christian faith and life is that their teachers lack an ordered knowledge of the Bible. And the reason why their teachers lack an ordered knowledge of the Bible is that they were taught by teachers having the same lack. If this ignorance-perpetuating circle is ever to be broken, it will only be by intensification of adult Christian education in the local church. Even in congregations where there is regular and effective expository preaching, there is need for supplemental adult Christian education.

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Here there are various options. The obvious one is the adult class that meets at the church-school hour and devotes itself to serious study of the Scriptures and their bearing on life today. Another, and one that can well be the means of outreach to non-Christians, is the home study group. Possibilities are wide and range from groups of women meeting during the day to mixed groups meeting at night, or men gathered for an early study breakfast; such groups, however, require competent oversight.

Aside from regular classes at the Sunday-school hour, the local church has before it the possibilities of youth and young-adult groups meeting at other times on Sunday or during the week. But it is essential to distinguish between social activity, which must never be neglected by any church, and a definite teaching situation, for at times what passes for Christian education may actually be no more than a pleasant social occasion.

This leads to the importance of outcomes. In the Bible, truth relates to action; as John says, truth is to be done. Thus opportunities for expressing what has been learned, not only through verbal witnessing but also through involvement in community needs and in the problems of others, non-Christians as well as Christians, are an essential outcome of the teaching ministry of the local church.

If the constant emphasis in this brief discussion has been upon the Bible, the reason is that this Book is the one indispensable source of knowledge of Christian faith and life. There are indeed other areas of Christian education, and a well-rounded program cannot forget them—missions, social concern, Christianity and culture, church history—but without the Bible there can be no Christian education. And when it is taught, the spiritual potential is greater than we can see or know.—FRANK E. GAEBELEIN, headmaster emeritus, The Stony Brook School; former co-editor, CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

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