The Elder and Teacher (III): Oversight of the Training of Adults

After church was over, the routine was predictable. The adults went outside, stood on the sidewalk surrounding the church on the comer, and talked. The kids ran off energy, chasing around the lot, slowing down periodically when scolded by a watchful parental or other adult concerned about skinned knees and torn “Sunday clothes.” Then the bell rang, and Sunday School began. The kids filed back into the building, sat in pews for the “singing time.” Soon, they divided into classes appropriate to their age groups. Meanwhile, the parents either went home, or, as in our family’s case, walked to Grandma’s house for coffee, homemade bread and jam and conversation. Adult Sunday School? What’s that?

Sound familiar? Probably typical of many Reformed and Presbyterian churches until recently. The few notable exceptions were the churches who were doing a fine job of evangelism, in which many were coming to worship who had never had the benefit of good discipling and nurture as children. But even then, adult Sunday School was not a very popular educational tool. More typical was individualized instruction by the pastor or an elder, and that only “kicked in” when an individual wanted to make a profession of faith and needed to be prepared for the interview.

That fact reveals a great deal. For most Reformed churches, “adult education” was viewed as instruction in the doctrines of the Reformed faith, and was considered finished upon an articulate profession of faith. The goal was sufficient knowledge; the goal was deemed to have been reached when that knowledge was proven in an interview for public profession.


Allow me to challenge that view of adult education. Of course, God’s people must know Him and His Word. Of course, there must be a good and working knowledge of Reformed doctrine. But knowledge should never be an end in itself; it is only a tool to be used for a greater goal. That goal is mature service and obedience to Christ. To say it in slightly different language, the goal of adult education is equipping for ministry, the ministry of every believer. That’s the point of Eph. 4:11–12. Remember that passage? It is the seminal text that establishes the different role of the officebearers in the church from that of the office of believer. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors (and here shepherding elders also fit) and teachers are all given to the church by Christ “to prepare God’s people for works of service.” (I don’t particularly like the NIV translation “works of service”; the word is diakonias, and refers to the various ministries of God’s people that the preaching and pastoring equip them to offer to their God in response to His grace in their lives.) Now here’s the point. You as elders (and deacons, and ministers of the Word) have a job to do in the life of the church. That job in its most basic understanding is to minister the Word so thoroughly that you equip God’s people for their own ministries. Let me be specific:

• Your task is not just to teach catechism so that people know it enough to profess faith. It is to teach the doctrines of God’s Word so that people can use it, defend it, teach it to others, be so strong in it that they will not be uprooted by the struggles of life. Interestingly, Heb. 5:14 refers to “solid food” (as opposed to the “milk of the Word”), and is not referring merely to doctrine. “Solid food” involves both the “teaching about righteousness” and the “constant use” that results in training folks to distinguish good from evil. In short, a practical Christian ethic is inseparably connected to solid doctrinal training. Mature Christians are not just those who know more, but those who can live out their faith more discerningly. That must be the goal of your educational task.

• Adult education involves more than just elders. It surely embraces the ministers. Your task as a minister is not fulfilled when you preach sermons that can be recognized as arising out of a text, and are correct in form and function. Rather, it is to open texts so clearly, so directly, so practically that God’s people are gripped by the grace, the power and the duty laid upon them to respond in heart, soul and life. The powerful, timely and Biblically appropriate sermon application is perhaps the hardest thing about preaching to do well; but to fail to do it well is to gut your preaching. Delivering exegesis that God’s people can’t apply is inexcusable. It is unfortunately also very popular.

And that’s where Adult Education comes in. The debate ought not to be on the level of whether to have education available to adults. (There are still some who chafe over the subject of an adult Sunday School class.) Rather, the debate ought to be on the level of what kind of training the adult education courses provide. It is the goals I want you to think about. You must develop mature, practicing disciples for Jesus Christ. You must train people to serve in ways that make them uncomfortable (evangelism!?). You must equip people to defend the faith in an increasingly hostile world. That takes knowledge, of course, but also skills. You must cultivate in your people a distinctively Christian and Reformed view of God and the world (call it a worldview or a philosophy; it is that Biblical perspective that sees Jesus Christ as the Lord and Master of all dimensions and facets of life). That used to be done exclusively from the pulpit. In many places, it was done well. But it isn’t enough today. The world changes more quickly; the enemy attacks on more fronts all at once; God’s people must be better equipped, better trained, more deeply rooted.




Allow me to share with you a peek at a curriculum plan we have developed here in Dallas. Understand clearly: I’m not suggesting you adopt ours. I do not believe it is the cirricculum plan to end all curriculum plans. Rather, I’m asking you to take a look at it closely. Observe the goals. Note the underlying assumptions. Watch to see how the goals are worked into the course progression.

You will of course, have to deter· mine your own adult education goals yourself, within the context of Biblical instructions (Eph. 4:11–12, e.g.). You know your schedule; we know ours. We can’t do too much midweek, due to distance; you might be able to. We have two morning services, with Sunday School for all ages between services. We are able to offer 3 adult course offerings on Sunday mornings and 2 on Wednesday evenings at all times throughout the year (no lengthy break in the summer). You might not be able to pull that off in your schedule, but you can learn some lessons from our experiences. (And, If you wish to learn more details, I’ll be happy to send you more information. Write and ask.)

1. The calendar is divided into 5 quarters of 8 weeks each, beginning with September. Each Sunday School course is 1 quarter (8 weeks) in length. That allows for the use of various qualified and competent teachers who would be unable to commit to an entire year. Quarters are divided from each other by a week designated for special purposes: friend day (evangelism), special fellowship time for the diverse congregation we serve, a video or film of high quality for the entire church, and others.

2. Each Quarter, at least 3 courses are offered all at the same time on Sunday mornings as electives for adults. These 3 course offerings reflect 3 separate curriculum tracks:

A. Membership Track: Course 1 – nature and commitments of local church membership; Course 2 – basics of Biblical and & Reformed doctrine; Course 3 – personal evangelism training; Course 4 – training in personal and family stewardship. (Because of the unique demands of ministry in Dallas, and the demands of living as believers in this area, we ask all those who seek membership, including transfers, to take all 4 courses.)

B. MaturingTrack: Serious Biblical and/or creedal studies (Bible books, R.C. Sproul books or tape studies and Heidelberg Catechism training). Five different courses per year provide much diversity. (Here the emphasis is on the defense of the faith, the explaining of the truths of God’s Word to a world that no longer knows nor believes. Skills in apologetics are developed. Distinctly Reformed Christian worldview is established.)

C. Practical Track: Biblical Application courses, including Worship Music Training, Parenting Principles, Financial Stewardship, Evaluating Film and Videos, Biblical Foundations for Christian Marriage, Biblical Counseling Seminars, How to Study the Bible, and others.

3. On Wednesday nights, two counes are offered to adults on alternating weeks (1st and 3rd, 2nd and 4th). The first is a study of Church History, since so few have ever traced the faithfulness of God through the history ofthe church. The second is called Promise and Deliverance (from the book of the same title by S.G. De Graaf). It aims at establishing a covenantal hermeneutic by tracing the mighty acts of God revealed in the Old Testament. ewe find that few believers today are conversant with the Old Testament.)

4. Each summer, the courses vary, to accommodate vacations, and to allow children’s Sunday School teachers to take courses. We typically offer courses that include challenging films or videos or that establish each class as a stand-alone one, which doesn’t depend as much on previous weeks. Also, every summer we offer a Sunday afternoon (2 hours preceding evening worship) course for 5 weeks for training and developing potential officebearers in the Biblical principles shaping the work of elders and deacons. Our nominations to office are made from the group of those who attend each summer.

Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, recently published a workbook for training elders and deacons entitled The Shepherd’s Heart.