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Banishing Sunday School Teachers

What we do in church services doesn’t matter if it doesn’t change our lives and the lives of others. Biblical illiteracy is on the rise, and will continue to be until we make discipleship part of our life.

Most of us don’t have mentors, and when we do, they aren’t spiritual mentors—they’re business mentors. We rarely think about being discipled in the ways of Christ.

When we think of education, we think of universities and colleges. Biblical education, outside of Christian schools, isn’t even part of our thought process, and that’s a tragedy. We spend thousands of dollars paying for higher education, but how much do we spend on biblical education? When I think of it in those terms, I’m terrified about our future.

Paul lists teachers as the third spiritual office in 1 Corinthians 12:27–31. In light of this passage, we’ve already discussed that:

We don’t compare ourselves to Elijah but should.  

-  We treat pastors like restaurant managers.  

-  We tell prophets to be like retailers.

But none of this matters, if we don’t do something about the discipleship problem. We desperately need good, interesting education in our churches today. And this needs to be a church-wide movement—something that is part of our church services. It can’t just be something we do on the side.

We banish teachers to Sunday school rooms, and Christian school classrooms. We’ve taken the people who are meant to help us be disciples of Christ, and made studying under them unappealing. We’ve reserved discipleship for those who are willing to stick around for an extra hour.

Given, there are sermons in church services, but how much can you really learn from being lectured at? You need interaction. You need to question.

Church would be a whole lot more interesting if we regularly had different speakers, and had question-and-answer sessions. It would also make teachers feel welcome again. We would suddenly find our third spiritual office happily filled. Most Sunday school teachers and small group leaders I know practically beg for promotion. They only get the people in their classrooms and small groups who are desperate for discipleship. Everyone else just ignores them.

We’ve tried to fix this problem with small groups, but our small groups are not usually run by people with the gift of teaching. Small groups are usually run by people with the gift of helping, commonly called hospitality. Thus, with no spiritual leader in place, most of our small groups become group therapy sessions, or conversations about our feelings about God and the Bible—not discussions about what the biblical writers actually meant.

Why not have the person with the gift of helping open their home, be just the person who opens their home? And then have the person called to teach, be the person who teaches? You don’t need one person to start a small group, you need two.

I’m tired of watching people with the gift of teaching be banished. Let’s do something about it. Let’s empower them. Let’s invest in them, and consequently invest in the future of Christianity and the world.

What can we do about this problem? What are your ideas?


Good post, John. As someone who loves to teach classes at my church (and who also leads a small group), a lot of this looked familiar - especially the part about only the people participating in classes and small groups who are desperate for discipleship.

I've thought a lot about how to incorporate teaching into the church more regularly. When I preach, I tend to do a lot of teaching, and people seem to be grateful for that. But it doesn't necessarily translate into more people being interested in classes. The only thing that I've thought of to do so far is to teach classes that touch directly on issues that I know people are dealing with. One of the most popular classes I've ever taught was on canon formation, which a lot of people think about thanks to Bart Ehrman and Dan Brown, but doesn't get covered in too many sermons. I've talked with my pastor about offering a class this spring on the Bible and justice, since justice seems to be something that's on a lot of people's minds.

It's a shame that people won't show up when I offer a class on the Beatitudes, but that's the state of biblical literacy. When biblical literacy is low, people don't necessarily make the connection between the Bible and things that they think about on a daily basis. Teachers have to do that for them, at least to begin with.

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This is AMAZING. Seriously, you dug deep for that one...I grew up going to Sunday School and often leave mega church on Sundays wanting more. A LOT more and waiting until Wednesday can be difficult. And you're right. Most small group leaders have the gift of helps. Shame on the church. Shame on our generation for just going with the flow. But then again, what does or would this model look like? How do you raise up young leaders when we're too heartbroken or unmentored to even know and care? Good stuff!!!

John, I enjoyed your post and took the liberty of commenting further on it on my blog:

Intellectual engagement usually challenges what some have called our embedded theologies (Stone and Duke, How to Think Theologically) or our folk theologies (Grenz and Olson, Who Needs Theology?). Because our faith is often attached to our theologies, these kinds of challenges come across as an attack on our (i.e the) faith.

There seems to be a deep-seated fear of education that makes it difficult to allow teachers into the heart of our worship. Maybe this fear has some justification (after all, knowledge does puff up), but I think you're saying it's ultimately unhealthy for a people who did not receive a spirit of fear.

Who would like to chime in on Renee's question about how we can/should build a model for teachers (and teaching) to be prominent in our churches again?

How can we help people gain interest in learning about the Bible again? (Elliot cites this as a problem both for the teacher and those who want to learn.)

What about Chad's question: Are we afraid of intellectualism in the church? Or is something else going on? (And thanks for the follow-up post on this Chad.)


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