You arrive at the elder’s meeting to discover everyone talking about Sittema’s article in last month’s issue of The Outlook. (Allow me a little fantasy, OK?) In it, he argued that every elder must be able to disciple someone, and some should be active in the church’s teaching ministry. He even suggested that the time-honored practice in some Reformed churches of having the minister teach all or most of the catechism instruction might be unwise, prohibiting elders from involvement in teaching. The sentiment around the table is that he is absolutely correct (what’d you expect me to say?), and that some adjustments need to be made in your congregation’s educational ministry if you are serious about training disciples to follow the Lord in today’s world. You pass two motions: first, to push subscriptions for The Outlook; second, to take a long, hard look at your church’s educational program. You start with the children, the lambs of the flock.
ONCE UPON A TIME
Years ago, there was Sunday School, and there was catechism. The former taught the Bible stories and songs thought important. The latter taught doctrine. Men and women from the church taught Sunday School. Seminary-trained ministers taught most of the children’s catechism classes. My good friend Dr. P.Y. De Jong, known to many of you, once told me he instructed over 500 catechism students per week while serving in his second charge in a church in Grand Rapids, MI. The practice developed for several reasons. First, such ministers were, in many cases, some of the most well-educated people in the church, certainly the most thoroughly equipped to teach Reformed doctrine. Second, it had become an expected part of the work of the preacher. Third, in many areas, all the kids came for catechism after school or on Saturday mornings, so it was physically possible within the limits of the pastor’s schedule. There were some benefits too. The kids got to know the preacher, and he them. That simple fact provided more pastoral benefits than we’d care to admit, maybe even more than the educational benefits.
TIMES HAVE CHANGED!
But times have changed haven’t they? No longer is such a thing physically possible. In the church I serve, for example, there is no way I could gather the kids together after school for catechism; students in this church attend about 25 different schools all around the Dallas metropolis. Furthermore, during the Sunday School, the pastor can only teach one class, and he is often involved in adult education. Additionally, such a dependence on one man isn’t educationally wise. Years ago, there was a common ground among most of the students in many Reformed churches. Most had been raised with the same kind of education; most knew the Bible stories, and possessed a similar knowledge base. No more! The kids we deal with today come from an extraordinarily wide diversity of backgrounds, both familial and educational. Some know little if anything about the Bible. Many don’t know the books of the Bible; few know more than a handful of Bible stories. The church’s educational ministry is, by definition, much more challenging. In some cases, training requires a 1 to 1 student/teacher ratio! It certainly requires teachers who can do more than ask the students if they memorized the answer to Lord’s Day 7 of the catechism!
And let’s face it, having the preacher do it all wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, some did a wonderful job, and the churches were blessed because of it. But some were simply horrible teachers, and generations of kids learned to loathe catechism because of it. (Folks have said to me “my worst memory of church as a kid was catechism class with the preacher. I don’t want to do that to my children to.)
What must we offer if we are going to reach, train, disciple the children of today’s world as they fall under our shepherding care? Certainly, as Reformed believers we are committed to God’s Word and the historic Reformed creeds as foundational material for our educational ministry. But how do we use these in teaching effectively today? If old style “question school” (training children to recite memorized catechism answers) won’t cut it today, what will? How can we prepare today’s children for service to Christ? Some of you are elders; you’re charged with oversight. Here are some ways you can oversee the educational ministry to the children of the church.
QUESTIONS FOR ASSESSMENT
1. Assess the situation. Before anything else, you must know what training your local church is providing. Is the curriculum consistent? Is it high quality? Do the teachers know what they’re doing? Do they know their place in the larger curriculum goals? Look over the student body you are called to train: are they from widely diverse backgrounds? Do some have good knowledge of the Bible, while others are intimidated and shy because of their lack of knowledge? Are some classes boring, so that students aren’t challenged? Are others more like baby-sitting services for coffee-drinking parents? What have the most recent 12 or so professions of faith been like? Have the students been superficial in their faith, or have they revealed deep, thoughtful and articulate faith? Do the hard work of honestly assessing the kind and caliber of training you are currently providing to the lambs of the flock.
2. Identify your educational goals. This may be scary, because many churches don’t have any, at least not any that are clear and that function to shape their educational process. But such goals are absolutely crucial! Allow me to offer an idea of what I mean, hoping that it will prod you to ask the difficult questions in your setting. I believe that the nurture of today’s children must provide at least three kinds of Scriptural knowledge—distinct, yet interdependent—by the time a student completes your training regiment at the end of high school. Ask yourself whether your church is providing some, most, or all of the following:
A. Bible knowledge of both Old and New Testaments. By this I mean a thorough grounding in the stories, broad knowledge of the major books, themes, and teachings of the Bible, memorization of key passages, and demonstrated ability to work with Scripture—to conduct or even to lead a Bible study, to explain the outline of the gospel in an evangelistic setting, to use resources like concordances and commentaries. Every believer must be sufficiently trained in these things to be considered “equipped” for ministry (which is what Eph. 4:12 tells us our goal must be).
B. Doctrinal knowledge. By this I mean a thorough grounding in the confessions of the Reformed faith, so that each knows what he believes and how he is to answer the blowing winds of doctrine that shift rapidly in new directions each day. We used to call this “catechism.” We must still teach the old truths, but we must do a much better job of it so that the lambs of the flock know it, can articulate it and use it effectively against the errors that are so much more aggressive today.
C. A world-view perspective that enables each student to think Christianly about God, church, world and their place in it, including personal vocation issues. By this, I plead for a training regimen that equips students to be ready for the aggressive worldliness they will face in their future. They must be able to read the daily newspaper or watch the TV news and to identify the sinful power of secularism, hedonism, relativism and humanism. They must know that the Reformed faith is bigger than just the 5 points of Calvinism, that it also embraces a way of living out the truth that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it!” They must understand the concept of office, that wonderful Biblical theme that teaches us that each believer has a calling and not just a job.
3. Assess Your Curriculum. Most churches buy a curriculum, either from their denominational publishing division or from someone else’s. The CRC, the OPC, the PCA and several other Reformed churches offer consistent, well-developed curricula that vary widely in quality. Here’s the question you must face: Are the curriculum materials we use achieving our (newly stated) goals? Are the children learning the Scriptures thoroughly? The doctrines of the faith? A Reformed world-and-life view?
4. Back to Basics. Look, I know that if you do the work I suggest above, you may well be a bit frustrated. Every church I’ve seen, including those I’ve served, needs help in these areas. I’m not asking you to fire all your teachers, pitch out your curricular materials, and begin to wring your hands. I do suggest that before you do anything else, you elders must come to agreement on what kind of disciples the Lord expects you to cultivate. You must come to some position on goals for your church’s nuture—and you must do that work. Only then can you begin to develop a strategy for improvement.
Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, serves Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX as pastor and recently authored the book, The Shepherd’s Heart.