Sunday schools started in our movement of churches before the United States declared Independence. What began initially as a form to train children and teenagers in biblical knowledge grew to include adult Bible fellowships and served as a place of connection and training outside of the Sunday worship service. Over time these groups faced challenges as some classes turned into an opportunity for teachers to exercise a hobby horse and fewer people committed to gather for multiple hours on a Sunday morning and the desire for traditional Sunday school classes dwindled. Small groups or home groups became the solution, providing opportunity for people to really know each other and connect on a more intimate level. I do not mean to disparage small groups or traditional Sunday school groups at all. I believe, if done well, these groups can create a sense of community and unity within a congregation. But if community is our sole focus for groups, we miss out on the chance to shepherd our people to become better equipped, even catechized, as knowledgeable Christians.
In Ephesians 4:11–16 Paul writes that church leaders exist for a reason: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” This equipping does several things:
- Builds unity in the church (4:13)
- Creates mature Jesus followers (4:13)
- Anchors believers against false doctrine (4:14)
- Builds the church up in love for Christ and one another (4:15,16)
These are wonderful benefits! How do church leaders facilitate this equipping? Some pastors might think that their sermons are sufficient in creating the kind of maturity and unity Paul outlines. However, most pastors intuitively feel what Colin Marshall and Tony Payne write in The Trellis and the Vine: “Sunday sermons are necessary, but not enough.” This is not to devalue sermons, for I think it is the most important work of a pastor and the highest time for the church. I am, however, advocating for something more.
Jonathan Pennington provides a helpful distinction between preaching and teaching in his book Small Preaching. A former student expressed the difficultly of training his people with his hour-long sermons. Pennington advised, “Preach shorter sermons and teach in other venues.” Pennington goes on to clarify the distinction: “We can define preaching as the invitational and exhortational proclamation of biblical and theological truth. Teaching, by contrast, is the explanation and application of biblical and theological truth.” The distinction may be subtle, but it is an important distinction. Churches would benefit from a formal training program that equips their people to walk faithfully and maturely with Jesus.
I have seen the benefit of prioritizing training firsthand. For the past two years, I have led a training program at Grace Polaris Church. We have walked through three consecutive courses:
- The Message of the Bible: Learning the narrative storyline of Scripture (Creation, Chaos, Covenant, Christ, Church, Consummation).
- Evangelical Beliefs: Studying topics such as the nature of God as Triune, sin and salvation, and the doctrine of the Church.
- The Church and Christian Mission: Biblical and theological knowledge culminates in a greater understanding of the Great Commission and the Gospel to the neighborhoods and the nations.
Christians need to connect well with others for prayer and fellowship. But failing biblical literacy rates tell us that people need more than that; they need biblical, theological, and missional equipping. May our church leaders take up Paul’s call to equip the saints and may our church members embrace the opportunity to become better equipped for the work of ministry.
- Start simple but be robust. You don’t have to recreate seminary. Choose books and resources people will actually read. I use books like Delighting in the Trinity, Gentle and Lowly, and What is a Healthy Church? I try to keep books under two-hundred pages.
- Use the Charis Commitment to Common Identity. Our confessional document is a helpful resource in teaching Christian doctrine.
- Grab a teammate. Ask a fellow elder to assist even as a conversation partner as part of the class.
- Make it conversational. A teaching environment needs to have a basic outline, but the path may weave and bend before you reach the destination. Ask a teacher in your congregation to give some feedback on creating an active learning environment. Give homework, provide an opportunity to discuss, and actually teach people.
Written by Pastor Zac Hess. Zac is the lead pastor at Grace Polaris Church in Westerville, Ohio. He is a graduate of Grace College, Grace Theological Seminary, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article was originally published in the 2021–2022 Year in Review.