Looks aside, there are valid reasons why those of us involved in ministry should know our philosophy of Christian education and be able to communicate it to those we serve.
Philosophy, as applied to Christian education in the local church, has to do with the effort to ground all that we do to instruct, train, disciple, and equip believers in a way that harmonizes with our core beliefs. It also means that the content that we teach or study along with our people—our curriculum—is shaped by our beliefs as well.
What Should Christian Education Accomplish?
There was a time when this was all a bit easier. Some years ago, I had the privilege to worship and work in Sunday School alongside Ken and Betty Rice. They were part of a generation of leaders who were passionately committed to Sunday School. For more than 25 years, Ken served the Church of the Nazarene in Sunday School ministry. He even took a year’s sabbatical at one point just to re-connect with Sunday School in the local church. I well remember his definition of Sunday School: “The laypeople of the church organized to do the work of ministry.” This emphasis was very functional and evangelistic. Sunday School was Christian education. At that time, many of our churches still averaged more in Sunday School attendance than in morning worship.
We believed the way to build a great church was to build a great Sunday School.
We believed the way to build a great church was to build a great Sunday School. We gave ourselves fully to the task. “Let the buses roll,” we cried. Twice a year, we held Sunday School contests (districts against districts, churches against churches) to see who could recruit the most new members. When attendance reached 100, the preacher would preach from the rooftop, kiss a pig, or jump in a wading pool full of Jello®. A friend of mine even dressed up in a gorilla suit and handed out banana-shaped invitations that read, “Come, be one of the bunch!” It was great! The philosophy was simple: get the people in, get them saved, train them, and then send them out to bring more people in.
Curriculum came from the Sunday School department at Nazarene Headquarters and Nazarene Publishing House. We couldn’t imagine doing anything else. We knew what our curriculum was, and it came from Kansas City. At that time, Nazarenes even took their Sunday School quarterlies with them on vacation. They knew that wherever they went, the Nazarene Sunday School would be teaching the same lesson. There was uniformity, not only in our curriculum, but in many of our methods of Christian education.
Changing with the Times
Somewhere along the way the climate changed, society changed, and we changed. It became harder to work up enthusiasm for the old methods. To some, these methods began to appear shallow and worn. Some believed the old methods didn’t work anymore; others said we just quit working them. I think both were probably right. We still wanted to reach people with the gospel, but it also became important to hang on to our dignity in the process. Some have suggested that as Nazarenes became more educated, moved to the suburbs, and sought to adapt to our new status in society, we began to develop new expectations of ourselves and of the church’s ministries.
I’m not a sociologist. I’ve been a pastor, and I know people get tired of doing things the same way year after year. People want variety. Ministry is about meeting needs, and people began to expect the Christian education program of the church to meet needs it hadn’t addressed before.
The faithful people who lead, direct, support, and attend these programs want to believe that what they are doing is meaningful. As much as ministry leaders at times carp about Joe and Jane Pewsitter, the folks in the congregation want to know that our philosophy of Christian education reaches beyond building a bigger church (or getting a bigger church!). They want to be challenged to invest themselves in a work that can profoundly change lives for the better. They are not interested in filling slots in a program, but will give themselves passionately when they grasp the vision of what Christian education can be: to become channels for the God who reveals himself by his Spirit and through his Word in ways that transform lives and create positive relationships, stable homes, and communities of faith.
Christian education has expanded. It is no longer tied to one particular program. Sunday School is still the major component of Christian education in most churches, but now we have small groups, recovery programs, neighborhood Bible studies, discipleship classes, on-line training programs, and fellowship and recreational groups, as well as service and missions programs. Sunday School may now be Sunday Night School, or Wednesday Night School, or a small group meeting in someone’s home. There are inter-generational and family-based programs. Traditional Sunday School curriculum competes with Bible book studies, topical studies, popular book studies, video-based curriculum, church growth studies, disciple ship studies, and various felt-needs programs (and some of the best still comes from Kansas City!).
The definition of Christian education has been expanded to include discipleship and spiritual formation. The rich history of these emphases has made a valuable contribution to the field. We have worked harder at training new believers and incorporating them into the fellowship of the church. We have also encouraged believers to develop deeper and more meaningful relationships with God through exploring the classic spiritual disciplines of historical Christianity. As the scope of Christian education has expanded, it has also diffused.
Shaping a Philosophy for Today
Since Christian education is based on our core beliefs, a good place to start is with the Bible. Dean G. Blevins and Mark A. Maddix bring this into focus in the newly-released Discovering Discipleship: Dynamics of Christian Education (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2010). Blevins and Maddix affirm that Scripture is the “content, context, and compass” of Christian education. The Bible is the “preeminent source of discipleship” (p. 27). The Scriptures, as the narrative of God, help “readers understand the nature of God and God’s actions on behalf of creation, including humanity” (p. 29). The Bible also contains “educational pronouncements and methods” in passages such as the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:1-9 (p. 30). This and similar passages in both the Old and New Testaments opens “a door to countless activities related to teaching and learning: communicate, instruct, model, exhort, inscribe, interpret, and live out these commands as a person, as families, and as a people of God” (p. 32). “[S]cripture serves God’s gracious desire to reveal Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Scripture provides information necessary for the salvation of persons, communities, and the world” (p. 36). The Word of God must be at the core of our curriculum, enabling God’s people to encounter God’s truth in age-appropriate and personally meaningful ways. This is where a comprehensive Bible-based curriculum built on educationally-sound methodology can make a great contribution to believers in local congregations.
Blevins and Maddix also create a distinctively Wesleyan understanding of Christian education by capturing John Wesley’s emphasis on the “means of grace.”
“The means of grace include practices that Christians associate with spiritual formation: the Eucharist, Bible reading and proclamation, prayer and fasting, worship, service, and social ministry, church and small group participation. As described by Wesley, God gives grace toward humanity through these educational and ministry practices, thus leading to spiritual maturity and holiness of heart and life” (pp. 23-24).
Scripture shapes what we believe; what we believe shapes our doctrine; and our doctrine is expressed in how we do Christian education. Our philosophy of Christian education should, therefore, engage these foundational truths to the service of fulfilling Christ’s command, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a).
Making disciples is what Christian education should be about.
Making disciples is what Christian education should be about. It encompasses the entire process, beginning before conversion in acts of compassion, building relationships, and effective communication of the gospel. It guides those who have experienced the new birth into a deeper understanding of God’s Word and how it can be applied to their lives today. It encourages development of spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer, and corporate worship. It guides believers toward spiritual maturity and fruitfulness: to be sanctified wholly, living lives of Christlike character through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It challenges believers to discover their place of service and equips them to fulfill God’s calling on their life. All this is accomplished within the context of a community of faith that models Christ’s love and compassion toward all people.
That’s my philosophy, friend; what’s yours?
DUANE BRUSH served for 30 years as a pastor in Colorado and Missouri. He is currently an editor in adult curriculum at Nazarene Publishing House. He is also a DMin. candidate at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. His dissertation is “A Design for Continuing Education in Biblical Holiness Preaching.” He and his wife, Nora, currently reside in Kansas City near their son, daughter-in-law, and two amazing grandchildren.