In the Churches of Christ, we have a strong tradition of teaching and baptizing. Nurturing, however, is another matter. Some congregations have new member classes, but these are usually targeted toward transfer members. And there certainly are churches with new converts classes — it’s just that we often don’t have enough new converts to justify the effort. (This is true of most American denominations.)
Basically, the New Testament was written by disciples, for disciples, to make disciples. Yet our emphasis has often been on getting decisions, claiming converts, making Christians. …
The Great Commission, along with all the practice of the New Testament church, tells us that there is mission beyond evangelism. Paul clearly believed this. Had he stopped being a “missionary” when he spent three years teaching the church in Ephesus the whole counsel of God? He affirmed the mission of Apollos (a cross-cultural missionary if ever there was: converted in Africa, instructed in Asia, and sent to Europe), which was a teaching mission (Acts 18:24–27), and Paul refused to allow that either was more important than the other—the one who planted or the one who watered (1 Cor. 3:5–9). …
The bad result of separating evangelism from discipleship and prioritizing the first is shallowness, immaturity and vulnerability to false teaching, church growth without depth and rapid withering away (as Jesus warned in the parable of the sower; Matt. 13:20–22).
Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, Biblical Theology for Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 284–285.
Now, I can’t count the number of committee, deacon, and elder meetings I’ve attended where something much like this was said. And yet I’m also seeing class attendance on the decline as a national trend. A few years ago, I participated in a preacher search, and I was surprised at how many candidates asked if we’d found a solution to declining class attendance. Some had very creative ideas for solving the problem, but in fact, my own congregation appears to be doing better than most churches.
Some thoughts —
Do not dumb down the Bible curriculum at any level. But do be age appropriate.
- If you’re my age (62) and if you grew up in a Church of Christ, you probably have a pretty decent background in the history of Israel. You likely don’t know the prophets or the Torah very well, but you’ve covered the Exodus, Joshua, Judges and know the great stories from 1 & 2 Sam and 1 & 2 Kings. This is good. But because this is second nature to a Baby Boomer raised in the Churches of Christ, we often don’t realize that new converts and even those raised in other denominations may lack these basics — making the NT much harder to understand. We’ve just got to find time in our classes to cover the full narrative of scripture.
- We evidently think our children are stupid, because we just so insist on teaching teenagers at a preschool level. Some kids aren’t stupid but unmotivated. Some hate school and so hate Bible classes that remind them of school. And since youth ministers love having their ears tickled by praise, they refuse to teach the students who want to learn at a more age-appropriate level. Some ministers even deny the importance of learning the OT or any serious Bibles study. And they are dead wrong. To cope with this, I sometimes have taught a class for those teens who want to learn. That is, other classes were offered, and those who want to learn at a high school level can take my class. And the kids were grateful — because they love God and want to really, genuinely study his word.
- If you have a campus ministry at your church (and you should if you’re near a college campus), the only kids who attend are the kids who want to attend. Teach them. In four years, you can give them nearly as much Bible as a non-Bible major would get at a Christian college, if you’re thoughtful and organized.
While the Churches of Christ have no catechism, that is, a body of teaching essential to membership, we really do. When you teach a class for new converts, don’t teach our traditional catechism. Skip the “Five Acts” and how often to take communion. Teach Jesus — and how to emulate him. Talk about cross carrying. Service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering.
And then bring in some older members and let them tell stories — testimony — of what their walk with Jesus has been like. Let the old members talk about answered prayers, hearing the voice of God, and what the church has meant to them over the years. Ask them why they volunteer at church year after year for no money, no recognition, and no title. Ask them about great moments in the history of the congregation. And encourage the new members to ask hard questions — like: how did you deal with the loss of your child? I mean, get down and dirty and talk about real life — the beautiful and the ugly. What better catechism could there be than the story of a Christian life well lived? And, of course, you can still teach Bible. Do. But teach the Bible through the lens of lives well-lived.
Oh, and here are some thoughts on running an adult ed program:
- Rotate teachers. No one teaches the same class for more than two quarters in a row. Nobody. Ever. Most churches break up classes based on groupies. That is, one group attends Br. Smith’s class and another group attends Br. Jones’ class — and the other talented teachers won’t be allowed to teach until either Br. Smith or Br. Jones dies. But my experience is that this (a) produces a split church, because Smith and Jones don’t teach exactly the same. and (b) those people who’d prefer Br. Wesson stop going to class altogether.
- I believe in age-group classes, especially for young and new members. It helps new members make friends and makes it easier to target material to an age group. Empty nesters don’t need lessons on parenting. Young couples don’t need lessons on dealing with the death of a spouse. But occasionally — maybe once a year — break up the classes by topic rather than age. It’ll help people make friends across age-group lines — which is important, too. But only do it one quarter at a time. When you take members away from their friends, they soon stop attending class. So break up topically in the summer, and then do age groups the rest of the year. (This also gives you a way to experiment with new teachers without risking destroying a class if the teacher is really, really bad — which has been known to happen.)