By Mark Smith
The following story is provided by our INCM/CPC Partner Gospel Light.
The focus of any Sunday school class should be the teaching of God’s Word from God’s Word. Kids and teachers bring their Bibles to class but sadly they are rarely opened and studied these days. Are you ready for a refreshing perspective and renewed commitment to the only way to know Jesus – know His word?
We are in a silent battle for the priority of the Word of God in all of life as well as the classroom. You may never have thought about this battle but I’m certain you have been the recipient of the wounds and scars from this battle. It may have been your own church, a class in a Christian college, a Sunday school classroom or a sermon, maybe a podcast that left you high and dry because God’s Word was marginalized, minimalized or completely left out of the message. I remember attending a church in Tennessee years ago with my folks and when it was time for the sermon a passage of scripture was read and then a twenty minute rambling message seemingly out of left field with nary a reference to the Bible or the passage in ‘focus’ for that morning. Sad? Certainly! Uncommon? Certainly not!
As Christian educators, pastors, teachers and leaders we have dedicated our whole lives to moving the Word of God from the pages of the Bible into the hearts of our students. As we all can quote from memory, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” Romans 1:16. Our gospel is found in the pages of the Bible and so the Bible is a top priority in the church. To accomplish this goal every church uses some form of curriculum either purchased, borrowed or self-written. The basic idea is that we start with God’s Word and, through the process of a curriculum, attempt to filter, transfer and translate God’s Word into student-friendly, accessible, effective and enjoyable learning. There are many well-established benefits to using curriculum such as increased learning, student retention, teacher ease, consistency, guided application and age-appropriate Bible coverage to name a few. But, as you can imagine, any manmade attempt at presenting God’s Word can be fraught with dangers and pitfalls such as: God’s Word actually being left out of the lesson or, in the very least, marginalized or poorly interpreted leading to incorrect application and thus faulty actions just to name a few.
There is an approach to teaching that can keep our actions and teaching on track. We must begin our journey to Bible-centered classrooms by following a correct, biblical view of the Bible itself.
Here is where we must pause and ask ourselves some key philosophical questions about our beliefs about the Bible. What is your view of the Bible as it pertains to education and growth in the Christian life? In other words, what causes spiritual growth and how is this accomplished in our teaching? We have all taught many times but how often have we paused to consider how students will actually learn and apply the lesson? How you answer this question will determine not only your curriculum choices but more importantly your educational or teaching model and techniques.
I believe the proper way to answer this question is to ask God Himself and His answer is found, you guessed it, in His Word. (See, I’ve already revealed to you two key beliefs I have about God’s Word: it is the exact words of God and it can be understood because it is clear or has perspicuity.) This means that God’s Word is sufficient for our every spiritual need and it is authoritative, it has the answers we need.
I want to focus on exactly what God’s Word does for a person and how that should influence the classroom. God actually uses His Word, the word of God found in the Bible, as a means to accomplish His work in our lives. The Holy Spirit takes the word, the word preached, taught, read and memorized to change us. Look at a few biblical examples: I Peter 1:23 “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” We are saved by the word of God. Paul makes this crystal clear in Romans 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” The gospel is found again in the pages of the Bible. Romans 10:17 “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Where is the gospel? Yes, it’s found in the word of God, the Bible. Where does our faith to believe come from? Again, the Word of God.
The testimony of the Bible about itself convinces us of the primacy of the word in the believer’s life. Now, this conviction needs to trickle down into every classroom and every teaching session in our ministries. Too often the curriculum that we use actually limits the use of or ignores the Bible outright. Think through your last teaching time or when you observed one of your teacher’s sessions. What was the actual amount of time the teacher used the Bible and the time students actually used their Bibles? Not just referred to it or referenced it but actually dug in and used the Bible? Also think about the Bible story time. Surely this would be the place in every classroom where God’s Word is opened up and read, studied and used. Even in the best of written curriculums I have found this time ends up being the teacher reading a paraphrase from the teacher’s guide with no need to open up an actual Bible and read the word. A few verses may be quoted and then ninety percent of the time is spent talking about other things such as object lessons or illustrations. As memorable as this lesson may be, I must ask how effective it is? God has promised to use His Word, not crafts, games or illustrations based on His Word. I would dare make the bold statement that the average children’s Sunday school class uses the actual Bible for maybe five short minutes or even less out of sixty minutes.
I hope you will find this as shocking and disturbing as I do. We have spent way too many years in training and preparing to be leaders in God’s church to allow this lack of priority of God’s Word in the classroom to continue. Shock is a first good step to recovering the priority of God’s Word in the Sunday school and any other teaching we offer in our churches. The Bible calls this repentance (when it is mixed with changed actions) and it is a good, healthy response to His Word. Next, we need to cultivate a strong faith in the effectiveness of God’s Word. Henrietta Mears, founder of Gospel Light in 1933 and Education Director for Hollywood Presbyterian church from the 1920s until her death in 1963, was fond of reminding her teachers about the truth found in Isaiah 55:10-11. “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” She knew the secret to Christian growth was dependent upon God using His own Word to accomplish His own purposes upon the earth. Finally, we need to overhaul every classroom and every lesson, yes, every section of every lesson making sure that the lesson features drive the Bible home. No, maybe a better way to say this is that the Bible must drive every feature of the lesson. Make sure every part of every lesson is opening up God’s Word in fresh, creative ways so that God the Holy Spirit can bring that message to bear, not returning void.
Do you need to consider a complete curriculum change or overhaul? Regardless of what curriculum you use, make sure your teachers and students are opening God’s Word with more vigor, purpose and frequency. Make sure that you and your leaders are convinced without a shadow of a doubt concerning the sufficiency and usefulness of the Word of God. There is no other way or means that He has ordained in which we grow towards maturity in our Christian lives. We have a limited time with our students so let’s make sure we are opening His word so He can change us, save us, give us faith and guide us and our students.
Mark Smith has been a Church Field Manager with Gospel Light for the past 12 years. He spent over five years in full time church ministry as a Children’s and Youth Pastor out of Dallas Theological Seminary. He currently lives in Brentwood, TN with Jennifer, his wife of 22 years, and five children ages 17 to 8. Currently he serves his local church as resident comedian and is a volunteer director of TNT Boys for the AWANA ministry. Mark is leading a workshop at CPC called: The Bible Pure & Simple: The Priority of God’s Word in the Classroom in both Nashville, TN and San Diego, CA.