Whatever the Model, Don’t Be Afraid to Teach
Let’s say there are two basic things you can accomplish with the adult Sunday school hour: create fellowship or teach content. And let’s say that, to some measure, the more you do of one, the less you do of the other.
Down at the “create fellowship” end of the spectrum you have a Sunday School class whose membership stays the same.
- It’s a class with a certain permanent teacher, maybe a class name, and you “join” the class.
- The first 5 to 15 minutes of the class are spent informally chatting. The next 10 to 15 are spent taking prayer requests and praying. The last 30 to 40 minutes are spent on a lesson, and a lot of this time is discussion.
- The goal here is to teach content, yes, but it’s also to create a sense of belonging, engagement, and fellowship.
- People talk of “doing things” with their “Sunday school class” outside of class, from watching the Super Bowl to service projects.
All in all, the term “Sunday school class” is used to refer to a group of people, the same we use the word “church.” Indeed, such classes are often a church within the church.
Down at the “teach content” end of the spectrum you have a lectern, a lecturer, maybe a manuscript, and rows of folding chairs—more if the teacher is good; less if he’s not.
- The class is not permanent, but only lasts for a set duration, like a quarter or a semester. When the time is up, people choose another class with another teacher, a different topic, a different set of attendees, and probably a different classroom. The whole thing works more like a college or seminary curriculum.
- For the most part, the teacher teaches. He may ask questions and take questions, but the majority of the time is spent downloading content.
- The goal of this class is to teach.
With this model, the term “Sunday school class” is not used to refer to the people, but to the teaching event.
I’ve described the far ends of the spectrum, and obviously there are many churches which do something in between, or both. For instance, I’ve attended a number of churches which have permanent classes, but which do their best to download good content during the hour. In seminary I attended a Sunday school that was structured in the first way (it was a permanent group), but the teacher did a fantastic job of presenting great content every week.
COUNSEL FOR BOTH MODELS
No matter how your Sunday School program is structured, I’d like to offer three words of counsel.
1) Be strategic. Both of the above goals are fine and biblically allowable. But you need to recognize what you are doing, and consider how that fits into your larger discipleship goals. Be thoughtful and strategic whatever you are doing
So take a look at what your church is corporately doing at other times of the week. Consider how much time is devoted to teaching and how much to fellowship. And then use the Sunday school hour to greatest effect.
My own church meets again on Sunday evenings, which plays a large role in creating fellowship. That leaves the Sunday school hour free to download content. Lots of content. Lots of really, really good content.
2) Supplement your weakness. Furthermore, figure out a way to supplement the weakness of either approach.
If your Sunday school is one permanent group going through curriculum, move the bulk of the fellowship to outside the Sunday school hour. You can accomplish great teaching and good fellowship, but not in one hour. Let your group get to meaty Bible content during class and then focus on doing life together outside of class. That way, the hour of digging into the Scriptures when you're together allows you to see the spiritual growth of your group members.
If your Sunday school is the seminary/semester model, then you want to make sure you’re finding other ways to cultivate fellowship in the church.
Both Sunday school as the event or Sunday school as the group can work. But you'll need to recognize the shortcomings of either approach and work to supplement them.
3) Don’t be afraid to teach. In the first two points, I have been neutral between the two models because the Bible is neutral. But here’s my prudential advice: use your adult Sunday school to teach! Teach as much as you can, and as systematically as you can. And I think you should do this no matter how your program is structured.
If the only teaching your congregation receives in the course of a week is a forty-five minute sermon, and maybe a little bit in their small groups, they’re not learning much. You could be teaching them so much more, and you just may be missing a big opportunity.
Focusing your class on instruction instead of fellowship might require you to change a culture, but if you’re a pastor, that’s okay, you’re in the culture-changing business! If more and more pastors put a little more confidence in their call to teach, and to equip others to teach, Christians would increasingly view that as normal.