A blog about everything about teaching the Bible. "And still I will show you a more excellent way..." (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is the Bible School Worth Saving?

That was the headline of the most recent issue of Gospel Advocate Magazine. There were several featured articles about the importance of the local church's education program. Well, since my current ministry is heavily focused on the Bible School, I thought I'd write something here about my view of the current state of the Bible School in the church today. This post is geared mainly toward elders, deacons, ministers, teachers, and others who work directly with a church education program.

Before I say anything else, I want to say that teaching the Bible is an essential task of the church. The Bible School is not the only way to do that, but it is one way, and has been successful in the past.

Paul the apostle wrote, "Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me" (Colossians 1:28-29 ESV). I think that passage communicates the mindset of the committed Christian teacher as well as any passage can. The goal of the church's education efforts is to bring the students to maturity in the faith. It takes hard work, and the work must be done in the faith that God is at work through all the human efforts.

That is an indispensable part if not altogether the whole work of the church. No one denies that the "formal" worship assembly has a teaching purpose. On the other hand, I don't think many people would argue that spending an hour a week in assembly, in which one gets maybe a half hour of very specific Biblical instruction, is sufficient (by itself) to bring about the accomplishment of the goal Paul spoke of in Colossians. A couple of prayers, a few hymns, the Lord's Supper, a short Scripture recitation, and a sermon may be enough to keep one in the faith, but I don't know of anyone who's Christian practice is so limited that I would consider mature in the faith. Now, the worship assembly has important purposes of its own, and is indispensable, but it isn't my purpose here to go into those.

So, we all ought to agree that the teaching ministry of the church must be more than the traditional one hour Sunday morning worship service.

We have Bible class! Call it whatever seems most sophisticated to you--Sunday school, Bible School, Bible Class, the Education Program--whatever it is we have it in almost every congregation. It isn't the only way to do the work, but it is certainly one of the most common ways, and for most churches the only thing we do besides the "formal" assembly. Is it still the most expedient method of maturing disciples? Is it still effective. Is it still a valued part of the church's work? I think the GA headline says an awful lot, and is very insightful about the current state of the Bible School in most churches.

Where you are, you probably have about half the number of people attending Bible class as you have in Sunday morning worship services. That says only about half of our people see any value in it at all (at least they don't see it as having indispensable value). I know that over the years of my ministry I have been discouraged by the relatively poor participation in the Bible School. Others have been more discouraged than I have been. It is my experience that most of us just accept that 50% figure as the best we can do, and grow sort of numb to it. I'll confess to having grown a bit too comfortable with it myself.

With a few exceptions here and there, the local church Bible School isn't in very good shape. Leaders struggle to find enough voluteers to fill all the classes, and often no more effort is put into designing and planning than it takes to run to the local Christian Bookstore and pick up a stack of lesson books.

Well, is it worth saving? To answer that question we have to know what it is supposed to accomplish, and decide whether or not it still has the ability to do it. Bible class is supposed to be a more informal place where students can learn the Bible, and the point of that is that they should come to know the God of the Bible and mature in their relationships with him. That means that Bible class has both evangelistic and edificational purposes. It can still be done in the local Bible School setting. In fact, those who do value Bible class are growing in Christ by participating in it, even if it isn't always what it could be.

A side note, and then I'll make a few final points: Bible class is not the only method of teaching and maturing disciples. While it is controversial to say so in some circles, small group studies can have a powerful impact on people. Some churches have also discovered that interactive internet "classes" are an effective means of educating the flock. I'm not against churches doing any and everything within the bounds of righteousness to accomplish the mission, but I think we'll be losing something of inestimable value if we don't start making an effort to revitalize our local Bible School programs.

Alright then, some final notes for those interested in gaining something practicable in your local church: (1) People will value what you value. If the Bible School is just something your congregation does, because it's what we do, and no great effort is spent on it, and it isn't worth spending money on, then that 50% who currently do not value the program will stay that way, and you may lose the interest of more of the currently involved half. (2) People will go out of their way to get involved with something they see as a privilege, or fun. I can't help thinking of Tom sawyer convincing all his friends that whitewashing a fience was a privilege. Well, I certainly don't mean that we should be deceptive in anything. Participating in a good, quality, thriving education program in a local church is a great privilege. What I mean is that we need to make Bible class great. Spare no expense in training teachers. If possible spend the money on a single ministry staff position devoted exclusively to the program. Put up pictures of what is taking place in classes. Have class only "field trips." Make it truly something. Hey, nake it fun! If it seems like something someone would want to spend an hour or two of their time on, they'll get involved. The way many of our churches go about doing Bible class, you can't really blame that unenthused 50% for not wanting to get involved. (3) People will do what they're led to do... in time. Next year, I plan to give a "state of the education program" address on a Sunday morning. It will be an opportunity to promote the program, encourage involvement, talk up successes, and generally lead the congregation to be involved. That won't make 100% participation happen immediately, but over time, God working through me, who knows? the leaders in the local church need to discuss together how much they value the Bible School, and then every leader needs to become an advocate of it. (4) People grow discouraged, and eventually quit, when hard work goes unappreciated. Encourage your volunteers (because that's what they are) who teach and help in the Bible classes! Pat them on the back regularly. Provide workshops to feed them with ideas. Send them cards. Have a Teachers Appreciation Dinner (that does not require them to cook for themselves). Be creative! Remember, there is no Bible class without a teacher. Finally, (5) pray. In Paul's efforts to mature the brethren, he said it was God working through him. Unless God blesses it, your local education program will be a miserable failure. Pray alone. Pray together. Pray as leaders. Pray for the teachers. Pray for the students. Pray for yourself. Pray in faith, and God will greant success to your local Bible School.