Adult Sunday School: Teaching the Word

Patricia E. Clawson

Emphasizing the importance of adult Sunday school, Steve Doe, pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, tells about a woman who became a Christian during a class on the parable of the sower. "A host of things were working in her life, but she was very clear that she never understood the gospel before in such clarity and she credits the series with bringing her to Christ," Doe said.

For Doe and many others in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, adult Sunday school is essential, leading some to faith and building up the faith in others. "Adult Sunday school classes really do have an impact on people; it's not just something we do," said Doe. More than a quarter of Bethel's eighty-eight communicant members attend adult Sunday school. "The session would rate it as very important. We view it as an opportunity to further people's knowledge of biblical doctrine and knowledge."

Doe reports that one woman, who has been a Christian for forty years, told him that now that she is in his Sunday school class, it is "the first time she's actually grown spiritually." A couple with a liberal Presbyterian background told him they appreciate the fact that the OPC takes learning seriously. Seeing the value of adult Sunday school, Doe spends almost as much time preparing Sunday school lessons as sermons.

Brain Gesch, an elder at Bethel OPC in Oostburg, Wisconsin, agrees. "Adult education is absolutely important. For a church to be healthy, you need to have education dealing with the Word. The logical place to do that is Sunday school."

About 18 percent of the Oostburg church's 368 adults attend Sunday school. Gesch's recent class on Bethel's and the OPC's history doubled attendance to ninety. Gesch developed his own PowerPoint presentations, using material from the Internet, The Presbyterian Guardian, New Horizons, local newspapers, interviews with former pastors, minutes of presbytery meetings, and the OPC history DVD. "It cuts across all age groups," said Gesch. "Some are new to the church, so it is good for them to learn about the history of the OPC."

Unexpectedly, space limitations at Calvary OPC in Tallahassee, Florida, swelled attendance in adult Sunday school. More than three-quarters of their 129 communicant members have been attending adult Sunday school since they began having two worship services, with Sunday school sandwiched in between. "In our church, adult Sunday school serves as a time to unify, through both fellowship and teaching, what are essentially two congregations in the morning," said pastor Bill Hobbs.

Nearly half of the thirty-seven communicant members of Immanuel OPC in Medford, New Jersey, attend adult Sunday school. "It provides an opportunity for a church to look into topics that wouldn't necessarily come up during worship," said pastor David Harr. For example, "How do I minister to a neighbor who has a struggle with her marriage? It gives us a forum to talk about things that are very helpful for the church."

Teachers and Resources

Finding teachers is challenging for Harr, since many of his officers have demanding schedules. When he has a volunteer, Harr suggests resources, such as study guides from Great Commission Publications (www.gcp.org), the OPC's publishing arm, and from seminary bookstores. "The people of the congregation—the laymen—need good resources that are not too overwhelming, to help them along," said Harr.

The session discusses class topics based on studies of the Bible, systematic theology, or a practical book, such as John Calvin's Golden Book of the True Christian Life. A series on "who we (as a church) are and who we want to be" included visits from foreign missionaries, home missionaries, and the stated clerk of the OPC. Practical classes, such as one on theological issues involving Mormons, have been profitable. Curriculum-based classes promote more discussions than video series. To increase attendance, Harr announces classes in the bulletin, through e-mails, from the pulpit, during pastoral visits, and at the annual meeting.

Attendance at the adult class doubled in the Tallahassee church after it began to be held between two morning services, said Hobbs. The pastor, an elder, or an intern usually teaches. At times, Hobbs relies on "guilt!" to motivate gifted men to teach. Hobbs holds a monthly men's leadership class to help identify potential teachers.

The session chooses subjects that are areas of weakness in the church, said Hobbs. An effort is made for the subjects to complement the content from the morning and evening sermons and the Wednesday and Friday Bible studies. Topics have included the distinctives of the Reformed Faith, the Confession of Faith, the themes in Deuteronomy, and two R.C. Sproul video series. One popular study focused on great hymn writers, with teaching interspersed with singing their hymns. Teachers often develop their own biblical or doctrinal studies using commentaries.

The adult class in Doe's church has studied Sinclair Ferguson's Let's Study Mark, the book of Hebrews, prayer, how to study the Bible, the cults, and The DaVinci Code. Teachers mix lectures with questions and answers and some add PowerPoint presentations.

As one of the largest OP congregations, the Oostburg church offers two adult classes—including one for women, often taught by women. The classes focus on theology, a Bible study, or a practical topic. Materials from the PCA's adult biblical education series by Jack B. Scott and Sproul's videos have been helpful. Gesch often asks someone to teach a year in advance and encourages teachers to have an apprentice work with them. "You don't have to be a theologian to lead the classes," said Gesch.

Many find adult Sunday school well worth the effort. "Because of the degree of biblical illiteracy today, we think people need to study the Bible more," said Doe. "The session sees the adult Sunday school class as a key teaching time to help people grow in the knowledge of the Word."

Harr agrees. "It is another opportunity to investigate what we believe and how we live what we believe."