Christian Education in the Local Church

What comes to your mind when you think of “Christian education”: a denominational or presbyterial committee? a Christian school? that small “sanctified junk” section of your religious bookstore? the Sunday school? the youth program?

In one sense, “Christian education” is a redundancy, for no education is really possible apart from the truth of biblical Christianity. As a created being, man is totally dependent upon his Creator if he is to learn anything. Nonetheless, the term “Christian education” is a useful one. In Christian education, the truth of God is brought to bear upon every aspect of daily living. Surely each local church should be vitally concerned with this teaching and learning process. How faithful and responsible is your congregation to the task of Christian education?

The educational program in your local church should look beyond the Sunday school. As important as this ministry has become in the twentieth century, it is unable to accomplish everything in the limited time that it meets. Christian education should be active in many other areas as well: youth clubs, vacation Bible school, camping experiences, family life, the church library, training classes, missions, Bible studies, catechism, etc. By grasping the full scope of Christian education, we begin to understand the great task to which the local church is called.

The Biblical Basis for Christian Education

The basis for a Christian education program is given by Jesus in Matthew 28:19�20: making disciples, baptizing them, and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” R. B. Kuiper has observed, “A noteworthy feature of the great commission is that it bids the apostles and the church of all ages to teach. In fact, teaching is spoken of as their chief missionary task.

They are to go in order to teach. Going is but a means to the end of teaching. And they are to baptize those who accept their teaching. But they must teach, whether or not men give heed. And, significantly, they are told not once, but twice, to teach” (The Glorious Body of Christ, page 245).

But what is such teaching? It is equipping the learner to become like Christ. Ephesians 4:11�16 tells us about gifted pastors and teachers building up the body of Christ into unity and maturity. As you look at the Christian education ministry in your church, how much of this equipping is going on? Are you really “making disciples”? Are the recipients of your teaching being challenged and directed into godly living? Teaching is not telling (“How many times do I have to tell you?”). Christian education is not just a recital of Bible books, catechisms, and creeds, nor careful adherence to a curriculum (getting the quarterly covered in forty-five minutes), nor a bag of tricks to keep children entertained. Pupils may churn out verses they have memorized (perhaps to win a contest), but with little change taking place in the way they live at home. (Remember Psalm 119:11, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”)

Church Growth

The goal of a Christian education program is the growth of the whole church into the image of Christ. As each member develops his own particular gifts and abilities, the whole community of believers grows. The church is people�people changed by the grace of God from darkness into light, but people who still need to be changed throughout their Christian pilgrimage (2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Pet. 3:18). The teacher equips his students by helping them through this growing process. To a large extent, this means helping them teach themselves. What the learner contributes to the learning process is just as important as what the teacher contributes (“I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes,” Ps. 119:99). Probably your church has had lots of “teaching” going on, but how much “training” that helps people live out what has been taught?

Christian education is particularly important as we consider the modern American scene: seven to eight hours of television being watched each day, the baby boomers, groups with special needs, family fragmentation, high mobility, the declining popularity of Christianity, increased secularization, indifference to moral absolutes, entertainment saturation, Bible illiteracy, the explosion of technology�to name but a few things. These cultural influences can easily affect the local church adversely. It cannot afford to have its educational ministry characterized by sporadic attendance, unfulfilled assignments, sloppy instruction, boring classes, and limited methods. The church of Jesus Christ must stand tall over against the world-and-life view of a pagan society.

Excellence

Thankfully, many of our Orthodox Presbyterian congregations are seeking to fulfill the implications of Matthew 28 and Ephesians 4 by adopting aggressive educational programs, but others are still struggling. A few years ago, one of our ministers, after visiting several of our churches, described their education endeavors as “atrocious”! Many of our weaknesses at the local level may be due to the strange idea that in order to be humble, we have to be mediocre. The standard of excellence is set only high enough to exist, to “just get by” with what is necessary in order to keep the educational program going “the way we’ve always done it.” Forgotten is Paul’s exhortation to “always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). Since man’s chief end is to bring glory to God, surely your Christian education ministry must be well prepared, relevant, transforming, flexible, varied, and designed to change behavior.

Suggestions

Here are eight ways that you can strengthen Christian education in your local church:

  1. Have a Christian education board or committee. Even if your church is small, someone needs to be planning for the future. The small church can achieve progress in surveying needs, formulating the program, approving curriculum, selecting personnel, overseeing facilities and equipment, and making the congregation more aware of Christian education.
  2. Enlarge your educational vision. Don’t limit Christian education to Sunday school. Consider implementing such programs as weekday clubs, Bible studies, training classes, outdoor education, and catechism. Broaden your scope to include youth and adult ministries, not just work with children; all three are important areas.
  3. Formulate clear objectives and goals. Remember the need to go beyond mere factual content (as important as that is) to the development of godly lives. Perhaps your church has been guilty of putting up the boards, shingles, and drywall of an educational program before you have really laid the foundation! The Christian education program should be based upon an understanding of what you are really trying to accomplish.
  4. Emphasize your positives. While we need to be realistic about our educational limitations, don’t overlook the particular strengths and advantages of your local situation. This should be done even if you have a small congregation. Says Kenneth 0. Gangel: “Here’s a strange thing: the church that most needs good Christian education is often the church with cramped space, few helpers and outmoded programming. It is sometimes difficult to convince leaders in small churches that the same principles which function adequately in large churches can also function in small churches” (Leadership for Church Education, page 139). Build upon the ability to know everyone by name, your strong family units, the crossing of age lines, your sense of purpose, and your creativity in the use of the facilities and resources that God has given to you.
  5. Work closely with the home. Church and family (as well as day school) must work together to achieve the purpose of preparing individuals to be disciples of Christ. If the student has the influence of the covenant church community and the “twenty-four-hour day” model of Deuteronomy 6:5�9, his educational training will be a cohesive whole. Teachers in your local congregation must communicate regularly with the home to make sure that what is taught at church is being lived at home.

HOW TO HAVE AN EFFECTIVE CHRISTIAN EDUCATION MINISTRY

Smaller churches can have effective, vibrant Christian education programs. I am the product of the ministries of a smaller church. The western Montana community where I grew up had a population of less than 2,000. The high school I attended had less than 200 students. Our church never reached 100 in average attendance, yet quite a number of people who were a part of its ministries became ministers, missionaries, and denominational leaders. Additionally, a large group of strong, Christian lay leaders developed within the ministries of that church. Our church was not dull, dry, or deficient—we were a small congregation where God was at work.

The tendency, however, is for smaller churches to stand in awe of the multifaceted ministries of the megachurch and wish they could provide them. All too often the large church is held as the model for the smaller church to follow and pattern after. That is usually a mistake.

Granted, some churches remain small for the wrong reasons. It is tragic when a church is located in a thriving population area and remains small and ineffective because of internal conflict, bad reputation, the inconsistent lives of its members, lack of vision, or poor leadership. On the other hand, a newly birthed baby church is an exciting, living thing with all kinds of potential. A small church in a small community can be more effective in reaching its community than many larger churches.

DESIGNING EFFECTIVE DISCIPLEMAKING MINISTRIES

In designing effective disciplemaking ministries for the smaller church, it is essential that we be aware of and sensitive to the unique characteristics of smaller congregations. They are not smaller churches waiting to become large. Smaller churches tend to be relational in their orientation. People are more important than performance. Smaller congregations are usually more intergenerational in their approach to ministry. There is often a strong awareness of heritage and tradition. In fact, they can be clannish and ingrown. There is a strong social dimension in their gatherings. Smaller churches are different, but not inferior.

Christian education is the disciplemaking arm of the church. Christian education ministry is concerned about reaching people for Christ. But it does not end there. Effective Christian education ministries are committed to working with people to help them become deeply devoted and obedient followers of Jesus who are maturing as Christians and using their gifts to build and bless others. It involves Sunday school ministry, but it also involves all ministries with a disciplemaking focus.

How can a smaller church maintain a vibrant Christian education ministry? Here are 10 key principles that will help make this a reality.

1.Be clear about your church’s mission, vision, and values.

A church’s mission statement articulates why it exists. The church’s vision provides direction—it states what the church hopes to accomplish. A church that clearly understands its mission and possesses a deep commitment to its God-given vision will develop strategies and invest resources to fulfill them. These members will express values that prioritize the lost, seek to lead them to Christ, and help them become devoted, mature disciples of Christ. There is no substitute for a passionate commitment to mission, vision, and values shared by church leaders and every member.

  1. Ascertain your assets and build on them.

Smaller churches possess special features and assets that they can capitalize on to make them effective in Christian education. The accountability of the smaller church, the family atmosphere, and the participatory nature all fall into this category. A key question smaller congregations need to answer is: What do we have to offer people? After these assets are identified, develop strategies to maximize them for discipleship ministries.

  1. Identify and implement a disciplemaking process.

Not only do individuals make disciples, so do congregations. Smaller churches need an identified process for disciplemaking as much as large churches. In effective churches, disciples are not made by accident, but intentionally—on purpose. What is the logical and biblical process a church can follow as it seeks to make disciples?

We Build People, the overarching discipleship emphasis of the Assemblies of God, is helpful in this regard. First, a disciplemaking church seeks to include people in its fellowship. Second, the congregation has a responsibility to instruct people and help them develop a working knowledge of the Bible, knowing what they believe, while developing the habits of life that will enable them to become strong, maturing Christians. Third, the church has a responsibility to help believers discover their gifts and abilities, present a strategy to develop them, and begin utilizing them in ministry. Fourth, believers need to develop a heart for outreach to their communities and the world. They also need to develop necessary skills to share their faith with others. Finally, every believer needs to learn to live out a life of worship, prayer, and praise. Effective smaller congregations do not leave this to chance. Their leaders are passionate about implementing this process for every age group.

  1. Keep the ministry organizationally simple.

Smaller churches do not cope well with the challenges of multiple and complex organizational structures. Smaller churches need simple, easy-to-manage structures to succeed. Multiple ministries tax the already limited human leadership resources of the local church. The tragic result can be overworked leaders living on the ragged edge of burnout. The simple, departmentalized, and age-graded organizational structure of the Sunday school is ideal for organizing the ministry needs of the smaller congregation.

  1. Feature relationally oriented ministry.

Smaller churches are characterized by a preference for close, personal relationships. Effective Christian education ministries in smaller congregations will work hard to put people ahead of programs. Teachers and workers will not let anyone slip through the cracks unnoticed. Wise leaders in smaller congregations will ensure that guests are welcomed, new people are incorporated, and the needs of people are met.

  1. Mentor leaders and train teachers.

Instead of large leadership-development seminars, the smaller church depends more on the pastor to personally spend time mentoring promising leaders. In the smaller church, an effective Christian education teacher training program is nonnegotiable. The pastor takes the leading role in teacher training. He will see that those involved in teaching ministry attend training opportunities that are offered. The concept of training teachers by placing them in team settings with experienced teachers is ideal for the smaller church. The pastor will do everything in his or her power to combat an “anyone with a lesson manual will do” mentality.

  1. Involve people in ministry.

In the smaller church, an exceptional opportunity exists to get a high percentage of believers actively involved in ministry. If the pastor exhibits a high level of commitment to helping people identify their gifts and abilities, this will become a congregational value. Gift discovery, development, and deployment must not simply be an adult issue. A pervasive culture must exist within the church to affirm giftedness in children and provide opportunities for them to begin using their gifts in ministry to the church as a whole. The smaller church has always provided this kind of opportunity. Many who are effective in ministry as adults today discovered their gifts as teenagers and began using them for the Lord in smaller churches. Many smaller churches continue to be a seedbed for ministry development.

  1. Actively promote participation.

Every person who claims to be a Christian needs to be involved in small-group study and application of God’s Word to grow and develop as a disciple. Second Timothy 3:14–17 makes it clear that God’s Word is profitable for all age groups and is indispensable to spiritual growth and maturity. Smaller churches have a unique opportunity to actively promote the participation of every member in small-group Bible study. A variety of opportunities should be established that include Sunday morning and other days of the week and times as well.

  1. Build your ministry on proven growth principles.

There are no shortcuts to productive ministry. Christian education ministries that truly reach and build people are established on well-proven growth principles. Smaller churches cannot sacrifice such things as systematic outreach, enlarging their ministry base, using kinship or friendship networks, creating new units, and developing new leaders with an outward focus, if they expect to grow. These things are not the innovative strategies of large churches with unlimited resources—they are fundamental principles of effective growth for any church.

  1. Depend on supernatural power.

The importance of supernatural power to achieve the goals of Christian education is a critical issue. No church can help people overcome life-controlling habits, destructive patterns of thinking, and demonic power without God’s power. Smaller churches, just like large ones, need to identify the processes they will use to make disciples. However, outward discipleship processes without inward power is an exercise in futility. Prayer, faith, obedience, and divine empowerment provide what is necessary to see lives formed and transformed.

Smaller churches have no need to feel intimidated or inferior in their discipleship efforts. They have many natural advantages that can be used for effective Christian education in their churches. Fundamental discipleship principles work wherever they are used. Smaller churches certainly have access to the same power as large churches—the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit. Smaller churches don’t have to take a backseat to anyone in disciplemaking effectiveness.

 

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