While the motto of Christian Education and Publications is “discipling God’s covenant family,” Equip for Ministry is aimed primarily at church and family leadership. It will come as no surprise to our leadership that this article addresses a priority aspect of local church ministry that unfortunately is often neglected in strategic planning. As a result many churches do not realize their full potential and are desperately trying all kinds of haphazard and inferior tactics to take up that slack. In many cases, churches do not see long range results in the lives of their people. Extensive studies show that the failure to focus on this area of ministry is contributing to the loss of the older teenagers and middle-aged boomers from the church. What is this crucial area of ministry? You guessed it: Christian education!
The Place of Christian Education
Our surveys and interviews often reveal that many leaders, even teaching elders, in PCA churches are not always aware of what is happening in their Christian education programs. When asked about CE in their church, many immediately jump to the Sunday school. “We have a Sunday school for all ages.” That’s great, certainly a start; however, Christian education is much more than the Sunday school. You cannot point to a thirty to forty-five minute Sunday school class and call that your CE program. “But oh,” I am told, “our pastor is also a good Bible teacher and that too is part of our education program.” Yes, but how does that interface with Sunday school? How are the two connected? Does one aspect of the church’s teaching ministry reinforce or impact the others? Of course they do, for better or worse.
Based on our biblically reformed theology, we know that it takes an entire covenant family to raise a covenant child. That is no new idea to our readers. The vows taken at the covenant baptism of an infant underscore the church’s role in that process. When people are searching for a church home, I advise them to consider two things after the preaching of the Word. One is the community atmosphere, the relationships in the church. The other is the Christian education program. Why these things? If these are in place and well synchronized, then everything else will tend to fall into place or at least be easier to incorporate into the ministry.
In March of 1990 the Search Institute of Minneapolis published an extensive study of protestant churches. The report concluded that “Of all the areas of congregational life we examined, involvement in an effective Christian education program has the strongest tie to a person’s growth in faith and to loyalty to one’s congregation and denomination…This is true for adults as it is for adolescents…Done well, it has the potential beyond any other congregational influence to deepen faith and commitment.” In other words, Christian education, whether you call it, training, equipping, or discipling, is the lifeblood of a church’s ministry. No matter how you choose to label it, at least 80 percent of all church activities come under the umbrella of Christian education.
One of the privileges and challenges that we have had over the years in the ministry of Christian Education and Publications is to work with local churches in developing a full-orbed education and training ministry. This is so important because coming from our history, education in the church has not been looked upon with much favor. Some of the mainline churches have used the educational avenue, along with the pulpit, to disseminate ideas that deviate from the Scriptures as the source of truth and authority. However, the antidote for bad education is not no education, but good education.
The Purpose of Christian Education
The purpose of Christian education is to help people understand and see the implications of biblical truth in a way that assists, encourages, and equips the members of God’s family to live lives that please Him, not only individually but corporately as well. That incorporates activities such as: knowing, understanding, worshiping, ministering, obeying (personally and corporately), plus viewing life and reality from a God-centered perspective.
The task of Christian education in God’s covenant family is multifaceted because it is the responsibility to educate, train, and equip God’s people for kingdom living which is all inclusive. As Abraham Kuyper was famous for reminding us, “There is not one square inch of creation over which Christ has not said ‘Mine.’” Therefore a church can evaluate the effectiveness of its ministry by looking for evidence of spiritual growth in people’s lives. For example: Do we see a passion for evangelism and a healthy enthusiasm for worship? Does the body corporately demonstrate an expression of its faith through relationships and community? Do we see demonstrations of love, mercy, justice, and kindness in the body of believers?
I remember when the late Dr. Norman Harper, professor of Christian Education at Reformed Theological Seminary, said to me, “Charles, one of the problems we face in the church is that pastors do not have a vision for Christian education.” I responded that we see that very problem as we travel about the church and we have concluded it is because seminaries have not built this into the training and instruction (though some institutions are correcting this), but also because local churches have not modeled the significance of CE to their people.
I have also concluded from years of working at the denominational level that even in the PCA, while our education is “biblical” so much of it is merely trivial pursuit for many of the children, youth, and adults. Many members are being taught from the Bible, but “so what?” If that teaching does not produce kingdom-oriented people with a distinctively biblically reformed world and life view, then we are failing to help our family members learn to live biblically.
In Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, (reviewed in the May/June issue of Equip for Ministry) Neil Postman wrote that our general educational methodology is flawed because it teaches us to “give the answers” rather than to think, ask, and understand the questions. As I read those incisive words, I thought of Francis Schaeffer’s claim that we are not answering the questions that people are asking. Postman says that many adults are intimidated by what the younger generation already knows, hence dialogue between children, youth, and adults is scarce or superficial. I must conclude that there is some correlation between these conditions and the departure of so many older teens (and the absence of many adults) from the church.
Many studies show that the church as we presently know it, will not be able to reverse the process of decline. Though we know that the church in its basic biblical form will always exist in this life, the visible church will probably look entirely differently during the next ten to twenty years. Those in church and family leadership roles must see this as an opportunity to come together with a carefully developed strategy to shape each person from the cradle to the grave into a kingdom oriented individual. We need to start at the youngest point of a person’s life and develop an education and training program in our church that will make a difference in the way we think and live. We cannot afford to play trivial pursuit, nor can we neglect the opportunity to help our people learn how to think biblically about life.
The Strategy for Christian Education
Creating an effective, life changing, and biblically solid Christian education program requires an intentional, coordinated strategy. What is taught in one part of the church’s ministry must be integrated into and reinforced by what is taught in the other parts. This is especially important in our fast changing and fragmented world. We cannot be guided by the idea that we simply teach the Bible and the rest is up to God. He expects us to teach “line upon line, precept upon precept.” We must take the time to teach the Word in such a way that no one is left hanging with the famous question of the younger generation, “So what?”
It is essential that the senior pastor, whether he pastors thousands or hundreds, take the leadership. It is acceptable and valuable in some cases to have a staff person responsible for Christian education, but if the teaching elder(s) are not strategically involved then the process will not be unified or coordinated. I am personally convinced that this lack of organization and integration is one of the main reasons that so many church members fail to assimilate and drift away. This principle should have top priority. The teaching elders must, by God’s grace, have a passion and vision for education, training, and equipping. The objective of pulpit ministry is to develop kingdom minded people.
The Right Ingredients
Growing out of that “umbrella” principle are two ingredients that must be developed and coordinated carefully and prayerfully: teachers and curriculum. First, the leadership must carefully select godly men and women to participate in the teaching and training program. We must be carefully selective regarding the people we use in those leadership/teaching roles. I have often heard the excuse that we must use whomever volunteers, but this approach reflects a lack of vision and a failure to train members for the task. God never asks us to do something wiouthout providing the resources and people needed to so it. But his provision still requires us to train and equip those people for that ministry.
A number of years ago CE/P developed a “Teacher Covenant Contract” (available from the bookstore). We recommend that local church sessions use it when enlisting teachers and Bible study leaders. It contains seven questions to be answered in the affirmative by those participating in Christian educational ministry:
- Do you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture?
- Do you believe the doctrines set forth in the Westminster Standards?
- Are you willing to be a Christian model for your students to follow?
- Are you willing to work as a member of the teaching staff unitedly to accomplish the goals and purpose adopted by the Session?
- Are you willing to be diligent in your preparation for your lessons?
- Will you support the meetings and training programs for teachers throughout the year?
- Will you abide by the decisions made by the Session and its Christian Education Committee?
Teachers or leaders should model the things they teach. That’s one of the key ways people-especially younger people-learn. This generation of millennial kids is definitely a “show me” generation. They actually learn best by seeing things lived out. For many of our readers in larger and more transient churches that struggle to find enough teachers, the second ingredient is even more important. You must be able to provide them with good curriculum that will guide teachers in that coordinated and unified direction.
Therefore, the second ingredient is the curriculum used in the process. Often churches let the teachers decide which curriculum they will use. The choices may or may not fit into the church’s overall philosophy of ministry, but that does not really matter-or does it? Of course it does. Too many churches have confused their members by the lack of unity and coordination of teaching. Hearing one thing from the pulpit and another from a Sunday school class or Bible study group is counterproductive.
Leaders of the CE program should keep in mind the following seven principles when deciding which materials to use.
First, according to the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) chapter 12-5d, the Session oversees all parts of the life and ministry of the church. It must approve the activities related to each group, including study materials used.
Second, do not approve materials that are at cross-purposes with your church’s mission, philosophy of ministry, or theology. This has caused untold problems, schisms, and conflict. Whatever the church does, as a whole or through its various groups, must contribute to the overall accomplishment of the church’s mission.
Third, study materials should support the mission and direction of the PCA; therefore, the materials used must be consistent with Scripture. This is the most basic element in choosing materials, though this does not suggest that all studies have to be basically Bible studies. But as the Apostle Paul wrote to Titus, we must “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.”
Fourth, curriculum should support the PCA’s confessional position, as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, in order to underscore the idea that as a PCA congregation we maintain a certain biblical, theological and philosophical perspective which should be woven throughout the ministry.
Fifth, the materials should be spiritually helpful to those who use them. They should be a resource toward the end of godly living.
Sixth, materials should help the teacher and students apply biblical truth to practical life situations. This is basically what we mean when we refer to a biblically reformed worldview.
Seventh, curriculum materials should be clear and easy to use. Not only should the author’s purpose and intent be clear and attend to the above suggestions, but the students should be able to use them without too much difficulty. Keep in mind the audience that will be using the materials. As long as they are biblically based materials, there is nothing wrong with looking for a formate that is as “user-friendly” as possible for the teacher as well as the student.
In summary, there is an important and urgent need to educate and train effective disciples and equip them for ministry. This requires living with an understanding of the Word of God and our world while consciously attempting to embrace the right worldview or perspective of life and reality. We must have a strategy that will result in the active involvement of the people in ministry to one another and to those outside our Christian community to demonstrate that the Church is not irrelevant but actually the nucleus of God’s Kingdom.
CE/P offers training and resources to assist local churches with this strategically important task. The staff in Atlanta, as well as regional trainers and consultants across the country, is available to serve local churches. Other resources are also available to enable churches to have the best education, training, and equipping program possible. For more information about these training resources, contact our office, 404-320-3388 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.pcanet.org/cep.