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New Horizons

Christian Education in the Local Church

Calvin R. Malcor

What comes to your mind when you think of "Christian education": a denominational or presbyterial committee? a Christian school? that small "sanctified junk" section of your religious bookstore? the Sunday school? the youth program?

In one sense, "Christian education" is a redundancy, for no education is really possible apart from the truth of biblical Christianity. As a created being, man is totally dependent upon his Creator if he is to learn anything. Nonetheless, the term "Christian education" is a useful one. In Christian education, the truth of God is brought to bear upon every aspect of daily living. Surely each local church should be vitally concerned with this teaching and learning process. How faithful and responsible is your congregation to the task of Christian education?

The educational program in your local church should look beyond the Sunday school. As important as this ministry has become in the twentieth century, it is unable to accomplish everything in the limited time that it meets. Christian education should be active in many other areas as well: youth clubs, vacation Bible school, camping experiences, family life, the church library, training classes, missions, Bible studies, catechism, etc. By grasping the full scope of Christian education, we begin to understand the great task to which the local church is called.

The Biblical Basis for Christian Education

The basis for a Christian education program is given by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20: making disciples, baptizing them, and "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." R. B. Kuiper has observed, "A noteworthy feature of the great commission is that it bids the apostles and the church of all ages to teach. In fact, teaching is spoken of as their chief missionary task. They are to go in order to teach. Going is but a means to the end of teaching. And they are to baptize those who accept their teaching. But they must teach, whether or not men give heed. And, significantly, they are told not once, but twice, to teach" (The Glorious Body of Christ, page 245).

But what is such teaching? It is equipping the learner to become like Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16 tells us about gifted pastors and teachers building up the body of Christ into unity and maturity. As you look at the Christian education ministry in your church, how much of this equipping is going on? Are you really "making disciples"? Are the recipients of your teaching being challenged and directed into godly living? Teaching is not telling ("How many times do I have to tell you?"). Christian education is not just a recital of Bible books, catechisms, and creeds, nor careful adherence to a curriculum (getting the quarterly covered in forty-five minutes), nor a bag of tricks to keep children entertained. Pupils may churn out verses they have memorized (perhaps to win a contest), but with little change taking place in the way they live at home. (Remember Psalm 119:11, "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.")

Church Growth

The goal of a Christian education program is the growth of the whole church into the image of Christ. As each member develops his own particular gifts and abilities, the whole community of believers grows. The church is people—people changed by the grace of God from darkness into light, but people who still need to be changed throughout their Christian pilgrimage (2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Pet. 3:18). The teacher equips his students by helping them through this growing process. To a large extent, this means helping them teach themselves. What the learner contributes to the learning process is just as important as what the teacher contributes ("I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes," Ps. 119:99). Probably your church has had lots of "teaching" going on, but how much "training" that helps people live out what has been taught?

Christian education is particularly important as we consider the modern American scene: seven to eight hours of television being watched each day, the baby boomers, groups with special needs, family fragmentation, high mobility, the declining popularity of Christianity, increased secularization, indifference to moral absolutes, entertainment saturation, Bible illiteracy, the explosion of technology—to name but a few things. These cultural influences can easily affect the local church adversely. It cannot afford to have its educational ministry characterized by sporadic attendance, unfulfilled assignments, sloppy instruction, boring classes, and limited methods. The church of Jesus Christ must stand tall over against the world-and-life view of a pagan society.

Excellence

Thankfully, many of our Orthodox Presbyterian congregations are seeking to fulfill the implications of Matthew 28 and Ephesians 4 by adopting aggressive educational programs, but others are still struggling. A few years ago, one of our ministers, after visiting several of our churches, described their education endeavors as "atrocious"! Many of our weaknesses at the local level may be due to the strange idea that in order to be humble, we have to be mediocre. The standard of excellence is set only high enough to exist, to "just get by" with what is necessary in order to keep the educational program going "the way we've always done it." Forgotten is Paul's exhortation to "always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58). Since man's chief end is to bring glory to God, surely your Christian education ministry must be well prepared, relevant, transforming, flexible, varied, and designed to change behavior.

Suggestions

Here are eight ways that you can strengthen Christian education in your local church:

1. Have a Christian education board or committee. Even if your church is small, someone needs to be planning for the future. The small church can achieve progress in surveying needs, formulating the program, approving curriculum, selecting personnel, overseeing facilities and equipment, and making the congregation more aware of Christian education.

2. Enlarge your educational vision. Don't limit Christian education to Sunday school. Consider implementing such programs as weekday clubs, Bible studies, training classes, outdoor education, and catechism. Broaden your scope to include youth and adult ministries, not just work with children; all three are important areas.

3. Formulate clear objectives and goals. Remember the need to go beyond mere factual content (as important as that is) to the development of godly lives. Perhaps your church has been guilty of putting up the boards, shingles, and drywall of an educational program before you have really laid the foundation! The Christian education program should be based upon an understanding of what you are really trying to accomplish.

4. Emphasize your positives. While we need to be realistic about our educational limitations, don't overlook the particular strengths and advantages of your local situation. This should be done even if you have a small congregation. Says Kenneth 0. Gangel: "Here's a strange thing: the church that most needs good Christian education is often the church with cramped space, few helpers and outmoded programming. It is sometimes difficult to convince leaders in small churches that the same principles which function adequately in large churches can also function in small churches" (Leadership for Church Education, page 139). Build upon the ability to know everyone by name, your strong family units, the crossing of age lines, your sense of purpose, and your creativity in the use of the facilities and resources that God has given to you.

5. Work closely with the home. Church and family (as well as day school) must work together to achieve the purpose of preparing individuals to be disciples of Christ. If the student has the influence of the covenant church community and the "twenty-four-hour day" model of Deuteronomy 6:5-9, his educational training will be a cohesive whole. Teachers in your local congregation must communicate regularly with the home to make sure that what is taught at church is being lived at home.

6. Take advantage of all available resources. In Christian education, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Many resources are available to help any church improve itself, and you should be alert to materials, conferences, books, and seminars that can enrich your educational program. Great Commission Publications, for example, can provide such assistance. Of course, each church is unique, and so a franchise approach, where every program looks like it has been cut out with the same cookie cutter, is not appropriate. Corinth was not Ephesus, and Ephesus was not Thessalonica. The resources of others must be adapted to local needs; you can't force every idea to work just because it may have worked elsewhere. On the other hand, you should not automatically respond with "That will never work in our situation." Instead, ask, "How can we use or adapt this in our church?"

7. Cooperate with other churches. As Presbyterians, we are part of a regional church, and your presbytery probably has a Christian education committee. In addition, we are part of a national church; our general assembly has a Committee on Christian Education that stands ready to help you with a wide variety of resources. Also, don't forget to look at other churches in your area—both within and without the denomination. They may be looking to you for assistance, too. Perhaps you can work out solutions to problems that you have in common.

8. Evaluate what you have been doing. In one sense this is being done all the time, but in another sense it is probably rarely done. How often is time scheduled for the purpose of considering how effectively we are accomplishing what we have set out to do? Your educational program must be based solidly upon biblical objectives that are clearly defined, and this calls for ruthlessly honest evaluation!

Yes, we do have weaknesses and face difficulties at the level of the local church, and yet, significant results do continue to be accomplished in the lives of our people. Why? How? Because we don't do the educating—God does! This should encourage us in our task of Christian education. Christ not only told his church to teach, but added, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." He who has mandated the task will see to it that it is ultimately fulfilled.

The author is the associate pastor of Covenant OPC in San Jose, Calif. This article was first published in the April 1991 issue of New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2000.

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