The need for Christian education was emphasized by Jesus himself. In fact, the early believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) and “were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Jesus told us to “make disciplines of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you …” (Matthew 28:19-20).
For modern believers, a significant component of devotion to the apostles’ teaching, or examining the Scriptures, and of disciple-making is Sunday Bible study and instruction. While other small groups may meet to discuss Scripture at other times, and believers have other resources for learning – such as study guides, commentaries, helps, and references – the most frequented forum for instruction in the Scriptures is the Bible study made available by the believer’s church body on Sunday morning. As a consequence, church Bible study is one of the most important components in the edification of the saints.
Some Threats To Adult Bible Education
Bible study groups, primarily Sunday school classes, are frequently the primary evangelistic and outreach tool for a church. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and it actually has served many churches quite well. However, the focus on evangelism too often leads teachers – or curriculum writers – to “dumb down” the material in order to avoid offending visitors or unbelievers with “heavy” theological discussions or even with “lighter” discussions of serious topics such as sin, judgment and salvation.
The groups of people organized around small groups – whether Bible studies or Sunday school classes – can certainly be evangelistic. In fact, something would be amiss if they were not. But people will be most evangelistic when they are equipped according to the model of Ephesians 4, and that equipping includes rigorous and substantive Bible study. When believers are most convinced of the authority and relevance of Scripture, we become the most effective in evangelizing.
Another threat to instruction is that we have created a false dichotomy between “fellowship” and Bible study. To some, “fellowship” is the warm, friendly, personal interaction that either precedes or follows the Bible study. The implication is that Bible study is, by comparison, cold and lifeless. Cold and lifeless it can be, and unfortunately often is, but this is due primarily to the teacher’s lack of skill or preparation. Our “fellowship” has become primarily glad-handing, back-slapping, casual-conversing social events that have nothing to do with Biblical intimacy with fellow believers. True Bible study, on the other hand, under the leadership of an experienced and prepared teacher and under the supervision and illumination of the Spirit, produces true fellowship and is the most loving type of it.
Adult curriculum, therefore, deserves our attention. We presume, though, that an adult member of the church knows at least the basics about the Bible, faith, and serving God and our neighbor. This is frequently not the case. One study class might use a certain curriculum published by the denomination and never considers any other course of study. Another might spend four years on a verse-by-verse exposition of Titus, and plans to complete the Bible in this matter in about 300 years. Married adult classes might choose “book studies” from a wide variety of topics, so long as they are either parenting, marriage or finance. Meanwhile, believers have forgotten the bit picture of the Bible, cannot relate specific teaching to God’s overall plan of redemption, and become stunted in their personal growth. And some new converts have never even received this basic instruction.
Is there a better way? Is there a way to ensure that adults are stimulated, motivated and refreshed in their Bible knowledge? That they are encouraged and edified in their obedience to God’s word? Absolutely.
How To Improve Adult Bible Study
- Evaluate Results. Assess your current adult education program. Test the materials. Test the knowledge of adults. Test the conformity of their behavior to their knowledge. Determine how many different curricula your classes are using, and the instructional goal of each. Determine whether your results are satisfactory. Above all, be honest in this assessment stage.
- Expect change. All biblical teaching should aim to affect a change in the learners’ mind, will or emotions. In other words, teaching should strive to change a person’s thinking, behaving or feeling, or some combination of them. All curricula should also reflect that intent. If each lesson in your current curriculum, or in any proposed curriculum, does not express an intentional teaching goal or lesson purpose, you should seriously consider using another curriculum.
- Assign responsibility. If you do not have a staff member responsible for education, consider assigning that responsibility to one you already have. If that is not an option, you might recruit a members who is gifted in teaching and administration (or choose several to obtain that gift mix) and give him the responsibility of improving education. Someone in your church will have an interest and skill in this area. Both are needed.
- Choose direction. Determine what you want from adult education. Do you want all adult members to study through the Bible every three years? Do you want to ensure that everyone hears your core doctrines periodically? Do you want to offer a smorgasbord of practical courses? This is likely the most crucial aspect to consider when assessing your adult education and determining whether any changes are required, and what they should be. Do not be hasty in this determination, or you will find yourself needing to address it again soon.
- Take action. Let’s don’t kid ourselves. Bible study groups can be like a medieval castle: when threatened, they draw up the bridge and get ready for the siege. Any proposed changes to the groups, including proposed changes in curriculum, will likely be met with fierce resistance. Leaders should be careful to bathe this process in prayer and thoroughly explain the benefits of curriculum change. Even then, some groups will resist. The temptation will be to give up or permit change to be voluntary, and voluntary change is not likely to result in any difference.
- Consider alternatives. Standard fare for adult Bible study groups is denominational curriculum or a study of Bible books. And most Bible study is conducted during the Sunday morning hour. There are alternatives that might serve you better.
Common Lessons. In the past it was common for all adult Bible study classes in the church to use the same curriculum, which permitted them to conduct weekly workshops to discuss how to present upcoming lessons. The merits and limitations of this approach should be considered. Alternatives to weekly common lessons include having quarterly or bi-monthly common lessons covering your confession of faith, creed, basic doctrines, spiritual disciplines, and so forth.
“Degree” Courses. Instead of adult bible study arranged around age groups, some churches offer courses arranged around topics. These would include church history, Old Testament, New Testament, spiritual disciplines, spiritual gifts, basic Christianity, systematic theology, apologetics, prayer and family worship, among others. Members could choose which “courses” to take, much like they would for high school or college, with the goal that every member would eventually take all the courses. (See Jay Adams’ materials in this regard).
Creeds and Catechisms. Study of the historic creeds, catechisms and confessions of faith can provide a rich resource and a sense of connection with other believers who have lived before us. These summaries of faith can be included in the regular course curriculum or studied on their own. Either way, they should not be overlooked as fertile ground for teaching material.
Times and Locations. Sunday morning is neither the only time, nor the church the only place, to conduct Bible study. If classes were focused on evangelism and outreach, they might conduct their study in restaurants or coffee houses. Studies could also be conducted during the week in members’ homes. However, one drawback to conducting studies off campus and at other times is the difficulty for the church to supervise curriculum and teaching.
The tendency of most churches is to focus most of their educational energies on children and youth. But Scripture tells us not to neglect the edification of the adult saints, either. Adults who do not regularly feed on the meat of God’s word will find that they have become stunted in their spiritual growth. It is the church’s responsibility that the Bible study it provides its members is the best possible.
Rob Faircloth is new Said at Southern contributor and student at Southern Seminary. He blogs at Out To Lunch.