Collectively, these elements provide the ecology of the life of the church. Each has its place. Yet, we need discipleship to effectively embrace the meaning of the Church’s existence. When people forget “why,” they lose motivation for participation or become subject to manipulation.
The Church has recognized the important task of discipling laity at key historic junctures. The passion for education surfaces from the pain of the Jewish diaspora, where love of God and devotion to Torah elevated discipleship to an expression of prayer and worship. Love for God could never be separated from knowledge of God, if that love was to have substance and meaning. Christians inherited this view and should recognize education is as much an expression of devotion as it is an attempt to command facts and information. We seek to know as we are known by God. The Jews realized neither the power of the nation, nor the sanctity of the temple, would keep them from their own self-destructive tendencies. Only the knowledge of God would preserve their way as the people of God; neither strategy nor alliances would work otherwise.2
The early church also embraced education as the key point both in initiating new believers into the life of the church and in deepening Christian conviction. What we now know as historic doctrinal formulations and Scripture served as resource for the instruction (catechesis) of potential believers and ongoing members.3 The early church fathers were passionately involved in education (Augustine saw this as one of his central duties each year); the Church needed a laity who knew the faith, since they often lived in a deeply pluralistic and divided world.4 The early church did not know “how” to separate evangelism and education, witness and discipleship, since a literate laity was required to survive.
By Augustine’s day, discipleship lost ground, due to the rise of Constantine and the creation of a “civil religion” anchored in Christian language and identification. When people “joined” the Church rather than “became” disciples, soon civil religion infected laity and clergy alike. When the Church fails to educate its laity, it becomes captive to the political and cultural forces in the world and becomes a handmaiden to the dominant culture, rather than a church of dedicated, passionate, informed “people” of God. When civil religion no longer sustained churches or civilization, monastics regained the role of church teacher5 (many early monastics were composed of laity rather than priests) and partnered with religious orders to retain the faith and preserve teachings through what we know as the “dark ages.”6
The Reformation revolved as much around the need for a literate laity as any other historical factor. Not only did Rome fail in responding to the Reformers, it failed to prepare laity to withstand the excesses and manipulation of the indulgence system. Laity lacked the resources to discern the faith, and thus, were manipulated by religious imposters. As much as Rome was guilty of creating a penitential system, it was even guiltier of de-emphasizing teaching and critical thought to the point its congregants and priests could not recognize their own errors. Luther’s renewal/reformation was as much a battle to educate people in the faith, as it was a strategy to destroy indulgences. Luther knew the importance of a literate laity: he translated the Bible into the German language, wrote and published sermons, wrote catechisms, created family resources, pressed for universal education of boys and girls, and exchanged the vestments of the priest for the robes of the teacher.7 When you want renewal in the Church, you must educate the “people” of God. Rome failed to do so and fell victim to their own errors. The Reformers (Luther, Calvin, even Zwingli and the Anabaptists) vowed not to make this mistake, lest the Church fall, not to cultural forces without, but from manipulation within.
In our own heritage in John Wesley we encounter the need of an educated laity to preserve a movement of God. There is no doubt his ministry was part of a powerful Evangelical renewal across England and, later, the United States. Thousands responded to Wesley, Whitfield, even Jonathan Edwards in America. What distinguished Wesley’s movement to evangelize and renew the church was his dedication to education. There is ample evidence, thanks to the work of Tom Albin and others, that much of the evangelistic thrust was not only conserved through the Methodist classes and bands, it was actually created in those small groups.8 Albin’s review of Methodist diaries reveals that people often went through spiritual transformations in the class meetings, and that those experiences were sealed in the learning and accountability that followed. Whitfi eld’s famous dictum that his evangelistic thrust yielded “ropes of sand,” while John Wesley’s created a movement, rests as a testimony to educating as well as evangelizing the laity. This pithy observation could be played out over a number of “evangelistic” strategies that followed this first Evangelical revival. How many times have we seen movements yield massive initial commitments, only to see those souls drift away like the sands of time, when education is not an equal partner in the evangelistic effort? We need to educate the “laity,” the People of God, or ultimately, we will fail as stewards of the very lives God has provided us.
What distinguished Wesley’s movement to evangelize and renew the church was his dedication to education.
Methodism relied on educated laity in what David Hempton calls, “The Empire of the Spirit. ”9 Often lay Methodists, carried globally along with the British Empire, brought the Methodist message with them. Circuit riding preachers who followed after the American expansion to the West also relied on lay helpers to sustain preaching charges along the circuit. In places like Britain itself, where the second generation of Methodists abandoned education and accountability for experience alone, the movement actually fell victim to cultural forces. This localized example of Constantinianism escalated to the point that British Methodism was reduced to a political movement instead of a vital church.10 However, where literate laity emerged to partner with clergy around the globe, Methodism became the fastest growing movement of the modern era. Literate laity not only conserve evangelistic outreach, they sustain it, insuring the stewardship of God’s work for generations.
The rise of the British and North American Sunday school Movement might be seen as an attempt to steward resources to insure an educated laity. Much is made of the movement as an evangelistic effort, often entering cities before pastors from denominations. However, the Sunday school Movement was also concerned with the stewardship of resources so that the maximum number of laity could be educated without redundant efforts or costs. In a contemporary era of curriculum glut and consumer choice, we miss the most important aspect of the original Sunday School “Union”/convention movement. 11 Many of the early Sunday school Movements were regional localized, ministries with homegrown materials, often respecting local contexts but lacking staying power over time.12 The early movement experienced redundancies in resources, revealed the limitations of the experiences of local educators, and often resulted in local but fragmented efforts. What saved this movement was the creation of “unions” and “conventions” that stewarded regional efforts, cross-pollinated ideas, and raised the visibility of educating the People of God as its sole priority.13 Unfortunately, regionalization and sectarian fragmentation later threatened the movement once more, as specific agencies and alliances sought to undercut collective efforts to provide discipleship to generations of believers of all ages.14 Sunday schools thrived in collaborative efforts and struggled when fragmentation challenged both resources and mission.
Ori Baufman and Rod A. Beckstrom, authors of The Starfish and Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, note that decentralized organizations are far more adaptable to specific issues and local needs than previous “command and control” leadership strategies. 15 However, even Baufman and Beckstrom note that “leaderless” organizations are not extremely efficient and susceptible to domestication if not maintained. Instead, they argue for a “hybrid” that involves leaders who serve as catalysts within the organization, champions for the organization, and stewards to insure resources are not replicated unnecessarily, nor efforts lost due to shifting regional contingencies.16 The rise of the Sunday school Union reminds us that local efforts to educate laity, by laity, often require the right “mix” of local and global partnerships to insure faithful shepherding of efforts and strategic placement of resources where needed. Such a partnership needs leaders who are passionate and focused to insure a long term commitment to a literate laity.
Discipleship must always be about the people of God. An informed laity sustains movements, resists temptations both outside the church and within, reforms, renews, and transforms the people of God into a force for the Kingdom. Discipleship requires vigilance, stewardship, passion, and wisdom to coordinate (not command) and resource laity in their journey. If we learn from the broad strokes of the history of discipleship, we will commit to a literate laity, a discipled people of God.
DEAN G. BLEVINS currently serves as Professor of Christian Education at Nazarene Theological Seminary
1. Hans Kung, The Church (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962), 107-132; Howard Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins: Church Structure in a Technological Age (Downer’s Grove, Inter- Varsity Press, 1975), 101-111; Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 108-111.
2. James Riley Estep, Jr. (Ed.), C.E.: The Heritage of Christian Education (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing, 2003), 2.1-3.17.
3. M.C. Bryce, s.v. “Catechesis,” in Harpers Encyclopedia of Religious Education Iris V. Cully and Kendig Brubaker Cully, eds. (New York: Harper and Row, 1990), 98-100.
4. William Harmless, Augustine and the Catechumenate (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995).
5. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Anchor Books, 1996); Laura Swan, The Benedictine Tradition (Collegeville: Litugical Press, 2007).
6. Estep, 7.2-7.5
7. R. A. Olson, s.v. “Martin Luther” in Harpers Encyclopedia of Religious Education Iris V. Cully and Kendig Brubaker Cully, eds. (New York: Harper and Row, 1990), 387.
8. Tim Stafford and Tom Albin, “Finding God in Small Groups,” Christianity Today, 47 (August 2003): 42-44
9. David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven: Yale University, 2005).
10. Rupert Davies and Gordon Rupp, eds. A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain. (3 vols. London: Epworth Press, 1965–83).
11. Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880 (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1988).
12. Boyland, 7, 19, 87.
13. Willis, Wesley R. 200+ and Still Counting: Past, Present and Future of the Sunday School (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1979, reprint 1992 ), 40-41
14. Boyland, 78-79.
15. Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (New York: Penguin/Portfolio, 2006)
16. Brafman and Beckstrom, 91, 98, 161-195.