Over the next several months, I will be addressing the problem of the shallow impact of many teaching ministries in our churches and ways that we might “Teach Deeper” for greater openness to God’s transforming work. In this first blog I pose some questions about why some of our teaching ministries seem to bear limited fruit and how we might better approach our teaching ministries.

Introduction: The Problem of Ineffective Christian Education

One of the persistent problems within the field of Christian education, at least within the North American context, has been the inconsistency of results seen in various teaching ministry efforts in churches. Too often we find that young adults who have spent much of their lives attending Sunday School and youth groups where Bible instruction is taking place have so little to show for it, either in biblical knowledge or in spiritual growth and maturity.

On the one hand, it is common for Bible and theology faculty in Christian colleges to report that entering classes of freshmen students, even those who have grown up in the church, display great ignorance regarding the content of the Bible. They often do not know where different books of the Bible are found, much less what a particular book is about or who different people in the Bible are and what they did. Why is it that some students who have spent so many years in educational ministries in churches know so little about the book they have been studying?

On the other hand, too many times we find that students’ lives do not seem to be impacted by what they have learned. In many cases they exhibit neither a vitality of faith commitment nor consistency of faithfulness in their life decisions. Two examples from my own experience drive this concern home. The first is from my own youth when my church held confirmation classes for those of us in 9th grade. Around a dozen of us who had been involved in the church most of our lives attended these classes and became members of the church. However, a little over a year later at the beginning of 11th grade, only two of us were still coming to church or youth group on any regular basis. Most had dropped out of church all together. The second example is from my ministry as a youth pastor in a local church. One Sunday morning a college student who had been very involved in student leadership in the high school youth group in previous years, and had attended Sunday School and youth group all his life, talked with me about how some from the old youth group were now sexually active and encouraging others to be so as well. Why is it that some students who have spent so many years in educational ministries in churches show so little of the faith and faithfulness they have been learning about and encouraged to make their own?

In answering this question we may be tempted to put the responsibility on the students. Certainly students bear a major responsibility for what they do with what they learn. If they remember so little of the content of what they have been taught, it may be that they have not invested very much in learning. Likewise, students bear the responsibility for living their lives in light of what they learn about what God desires of them. But to put the blame on the students is to miss a larger issue. Students are indeed learning from their experiences in Christian education settings in the church, maybe learning too well. We may also be tempted to blame the teachers for not teaching as they should, but in most cases teachers are simply following the curriculum they have been given and teach as they have been taught to teach. To blame the teachers for carrying out the Christian education program they have been given to do is unfair to them.

Now I do not want to sound overly pessimistic about the results of Christian education efforts in churches today. There are many young adults who have come up through their church and Christian education experiences and now exhibit a vital faith and faithfulness in the way they live their lives. For them, their involvement in the educational ministries of their churches provided the kind of instruction that revolutionized their lives – that challenged them to an intimate walk with God and to be faithful in their life choices. I don’t think that all of our Christian education efforts are fruitless, I just wonder why there is little fruit in too many cases. Why, for so many, does their involvement in Christian education in their churches have so little effect in their lives? What is it about what we teach or how we teach it that is not as impactful as we would desire?

Inadequate Attempts to Address the Problem

Historically, Christian education efforts seem to have been shaped by three different visions of the learning outcomes that count. These three visions are not mutually exclusive, but our educational ministry efforts have often displayed a dominance of one over the others. These three visions are described below, along with some of the problems encountered as each has been carried out.

Christian Education for Orthodoxy

This vision of Christian education emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to correctly describe and define the Christian faith and/or the biblical story. Educational ministry efforts focus on students learning the content of the Bible and the doctrines of the faith community. This vision is shown in the basic elements of two different educational ministry models: catechism and programs built around Scripture memorization. When these educational ministries are done well, leaders emphasize more than just rote learning of information; they encourage the personal understanding and faithful appropriation of what is learned into daily life. However, in too many instances these educational efforts are not as productive as desired, and in some cases they degenerate into students simply learning the content of the lesson with little change in their own attitudes or actions as a result of what they have learned. It is very easy for this approach to produce knowledgeable Pagans, that is, people who know all about the Christian faith and its story in Scripture, but without any personal investment or response of faith to what they have learned.

An example of this from my own experience is when our oldest daughter joined a Scripture memorization team at our church when we lived in Canada and competed in tournaments. Students were learning passages of Scripture for these events, but when quizzed about how these passages applied to their lives, or what God wanted them to know and do as shown in the message of the book they were learning, there was little evidence that any of it was making a difference in their relationship with God and neighbor. In fact, some of the students who were most competitive showed little humility or grace in their interactions with others.

Christian Education for Orthopraxy

This vision of Christian education emphasizes the development of right behaviors, actions that demonstrate obedience to God and a faithful lifestyle. Students learn from Scripture what they are to do and how to do it, and are encouraged to make sure that their lives conform to the pattern shown in the Scripture. This vision is shown in educational models that have teachers and students work through the biblical material looking for principles for present behavior and then have the students learn and carry out these behaviors. Unfortunately this kind of “moralistic/behavioristic” teaching, teaching for specific behaviors, can overlook the central message of the biblical passages in their efforts to have something for the students to do in response to the lesson. For example, some curricula in the past have had preschoolers learn from the story of Jesus’ using a small boy’s lunch to feed over 5,000 people that God wants them to share with others. “Share with others?” What about learning from the compassion that Jesus demonstrated toward those in need? What about how this miracle showed Jesus’ disciples that He had power and authority over creation? Using the “personal behavior” filter for teaching can lead to some bad hermeneutical practices. Even when this kind of teaching is fair in its use of the Scripture, it can tend toward a legalistic understanding of the Christian life. This emphasis on right behavior can so easily be taken in and reinterpreted as some kind of “works righteousness.” God loves me when I do the right things and is angry or displeased when I disobey. One of my great fears is when this kind of teaching is very successful and students become modern-day Pharisees. They may end up with great pride in their righteousness, leaving them little room for receiving God’s grace through Jesus Christ, and little compassion on others who live in disobedience to God’s commands.

Christian Education for Orthopathy

This vision of Christian education is mainly concerned with the fostering of a heart response of love and worship toward God and an intimate relationship with Him. With roots in traditions that emphasize personal piety and Christian mysticism, educational ministry approaches of this type focus on the formation of attitudes and a close personal experiential walk with God. Bible lessons hold up exemplars of people who walked closely with God, and students are encouraged to examine the condition of their own hearts. Personal devotional practices are encouraged and various spiritual disciplines are promoted to nurture a strong, vital faith experience. The contemporary worship movement in North America is one manifestation of this emphasis, with the worship experience of the congregation being central to the life of the church and a strong experiential emphasis in the worship services. Praise choruses abound with a focus on “my feelings.” Another example is the popularity of study materials like Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby and Claude King (1990). Even youth Sunday School classes have worship bands and take extensive time in corporate worship before turning to their Bible study. The study itself is often limited in scope of Bible content, but strong on personal reflection and examination of the heart. Teaching for heart response is important to avoid either a dead orthodoxy or a legalistic orthopraxy, but in itself it can degenerate into feeling good or feeling close to God without a more careful examination of whether one’s life is conforming to God’s will.

Efforts to Combine the Three Visions

Most writers and leaders in the field of Christian education have recognized that one vision alone, excluding the other two visions, is not enough to shape a faithful and fruitful educational ministry. These three visions have been combined in different ways to give direction to the development of the teaching ministries of the church. For example, Les Steele, in his work, On the Way: A Practical Theology of Christian Formation (1990), presents faith as having cognitive, physical, and emotional aspects. These three interrelated aspects of faith are to be pursued together in our ministry efforts. From this perspective, teaching ministries that seek to promote growth of faith include teaching for:

  • right belief(if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved – Romans 10:9)
  • right practice(If you love me, you will keep my commandments – John 14:15), and
  • right passions(abhor what is evil; cling to what is good – Romans 12:9).

All three elements are needed to promote transformation of the person toward maturity in faith, toward Christlikeness.

Many Christian education leaders recognize these things, and various educational approaches have been developed to address the “head,” “heart,” and “hands” of those we teach. This understanding has become fairly commonplace, and it is almost an excepted truth that good Christian education addresses all three aspects. It is common practice for curriculum for Sunday School and small group Bible studies to have learning objectives in the knowledge, attitude, and behavior domains. Some of my earliest training utilized the “Know, Feel, Do” approach to lesson design, moving from cognitive to affective to behavioral objectives.

However, even with this three-fold vision of what Christian education is to address, our understanding of how to bring these three together in a productive, fruitful way has not always been clear. What is the relationship between these three aspects of spiritual growth: right belief, right passions, and right behavior? Do we always begin with the knowledge objectives, move to the affective objectives, and then the behavioral objectives? It sounds logical, but people do not always act or learn in logical ways. How do we create educational ministries that encourage growth in all areas in an integrated fashion, not disconnected or disjointed? Much of what is done in the “Know, Feel, Do” model is still disjointed, lacking the necessary transitions to move naturally from one type of learning objective to the next. We seem to expect that if people know Biblical truths they will then value them and want to put them into practice. The truth is that in our teaching practice we tend to major on the knowledge objectives, and in too many cases assume the affective objectives will take place on their own, building a bridge to the desire to act. The reality is often far from this. Too many students have heads full of biblical facts but little heart for living them out.

I believe there are two missing elements to this three-fold vision of the Christian education endeavor that, if recognized and addressed, could be critical for genuine life transformation. One is foundational to any genuine spiritual growth at all; the other is a necessary bridge that facilitates the full outward expression of the faith that is being nurtured. Together with the other three components they give us a more complete understanding of the teaching task, and call for a different pedagogical approach. A discussion of this more complete vision or model will be the focus of my next two blogs. For now it is enough to reflect on our own teaching ministries to determine if we need a better approach.

Questions for Reflection:

As you think about your own church’s teaching ministries, what evidence do you see that people are growing in knowledge of God through the Scriptures? How is this knowledge transforming them?

  1. For those who have been a part of your church’s teaching ministries for many years, do they demonstrate a knowledge of the Bible and of the faith that is foundational to their walk with God?
  2. How are their attitudes toward God and neighbor demonstrated? Is there evidence that their heart attitudes are representing well what they have been taught? Is genuine transformation happening on the inside?
  3. Are people’s behaviors changing, coming more in line with what they are learning through your church’s teaching ministries? If so, are they a result of genuine change within, or are they mainly conformity on the outside only?
  4. What are you seeing as a result of people being involved in the teaching ministries of your church? What are they actually learning? What would you like to see?