Grow a strong church

Is preaching without teaching enough? Or is teaching without preaching enough? If you re among the majority of pastors, who spend nearly as much time concerned with the church's janitorial services as with its educational work, we challenge you to rethink your priorities.

Charles Betz is officially retired but continues to produce Sabbath school curriculum materials for the Far Eastern Division of Seventh-day Adventists. He spent thirteen years as director of the Sabbath school department of the Northern California Conference prior to his retirement.

You probably have heard the story about the man who rushed up to a bystander and asked, "Have you seen a group of people wandering around here? I'm their leader!" Pastors and denominational administrators sometimes find themselves separated from those whom they are supposed to lead. It is easy for pastors to get so involved in parish responsibilities that they forget about Sabbath school, Vacation Bible School, Pathfinder, and youth society leaders. Consequently, these lay educators sometimes feel a distance between themselves and pastoral leadership.

I know the stresses and pressures of the pastorate. Sermons, administrative duties, evangelism, counseling, and visitation all cry for attention—and there are only twenty-four hours in a day! I confess to having said to myself, "If Sabbath school is not in trouble, let it alone. On Sabbath morning the laymen can do their thing at nine-thirty, and I'll do mine at eleven."

This situation is not unique to Adventists. According to surveys, most ministers remain indifferent to Sunday school affairs unless significant problems arise. One study indicated that "pastors spent less than 5 percent of their time on the educational work of the church, or little more than they have to give to janitorial services. . . . Scores upon scores of Sunday schools in urban and rural areas function, as they always have, in relative separation from the rest of the church. The typical Sunday school teacher today receives about as much help and training as did her grandmother." 1 As we shall see, this situation has some interesting historical roots.

My question is Do we realize what a great thing we have going for us in our Sabbath school and other lay-led educational functions? My purpose is not to lay more guilt on you, but to suggest that a little more time spent with lay educators will yield enormous returns. Your nurturing ministry will be greatly enhanced. Consider some of the theological, historical, and practical implications of religious education in the local church.

The church was called into being by God's revelation of Himself. God revealed Himself, not just factual information about Himself. He revealed Himself through His Word, and His Word has been entrusted to human agents to be proclaimed and taught to their children, to neighbors, and to friends. Worship is a natural outgrowth of this process. Two of the most important gifts God has placed in His church to communicate the good news are preaching and teaching.

Kerygma and didache

Speaking of the early church, Luke says that "they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ" (Acts 5:42). Paul advised Timothy: "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Tim. 4:13, N.I.V.). C. H. Dodd declares: "The New Testament writers draw a clear distinction between preaching and teaching. The distinction is preserved alike in the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse, and must be considered characteristic of the early Christian usage in general." 2 Teaching is mentioned as a distinct gift in each of the major listings of the spiritual gifts. While preaching and teaching are separate gifts, their content is the same.

In the New Testament, preaching usually refers to the proclamation of the Word of God to man in his unbelief. It is the call to man in his sin to repent and receive the good news of the gospel. Alan Richardson suggests that "in the New Testament preaching has nothing to do with the delivery of sermons to the converted, which is what it usually means today, but always concerns the proclamation of the 'good tidings of God' to the non-Christian world. As such, it is to be distinguished from teaching (didache), which in the New Testament normally means ethical instruction, or occasionally apologetics or instruction in the faith." 3 Preaching is the prophetic voice (kerygma). The word of God's revelation must be proclaimed. The good news is worth shouting about. Man in his unbelief and pain must hear and live.

What would you think of a farmer who prepared the soil, sowed the seed, and then abandoned it? After man has responded to the gospel, has repented and been born again, he must be nurtured. As Paul says of children, "Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4, N.I.V.). Believers must be "rooted and grounded in love" and "grow up into him in all things" (chaps. 3:17; 4:15). Teaching is the perennial task of the church. God's plan for nurture is preaching, teaching, and sharing.

God said concerning Adam: " 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him'" (Gen. 2:18, N.I.V.). As a husband and wife complement each other, so it is with preaching and teaching.

But preaching has its weaknesses. Educational theorists tell us that the average person will remember only 10 percent of a lecture after three days. 4 Ellen White confirms this: "The people will listen to sermon after sermon, and they can retain but a very few points in the discourse, and these lose their force upon the mind; other things come in to choke the seed of truth." 5 A person may remember his feelings during a sermon for a lifetime, but he will not remember many facts. But in a good teaching situation, one in which the learner is directly involved in the learning process, he may remember 90 percent of the factual information three days later. Preaching and teaching must stand together in ministry.

A sickness of both preaching and teaching today is that they are so consistently moralistic in character and lack the depth and power of kerygma, that indispensable essence of the church's original preaching. James Smart says: "A gospel that calls men to repent and believe, sending them down into the death of their old self in repentance that they may rise into the new life of faith, seems out of place. Salvation becomes a quite simple matter of having the right ideals and measuring up to them as well as we can. Teaching, without a kerygmatic preaching alongside it to remind it of the common origin and common task of both, can very easily become a total falsification of Christianity." 6

God the educator

God began the process of education and redemption at the Fall of man. As a good educator God began with a question: "Where are you?" Increased pain in childbirth, the cursing of the ground, thorns, clothing of the sinful pair with skins, and exclusion from the Garden of Eden were all important steps in the educative process. Animal sacrifices were dramatic and powerful visual aids representing key aspects of man's redemption. God said of Abraham, " 'For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord' " (Gen. 18:19, N.I.V.). Abraham was a faithful teacher; he passed on his knowledge and values to his son Isaac and to his large household. Isaac communicated the precious truths about God to Jacob and Esau, and Jacob did the same in turn to his twelve sons.

In terms of his influence on history, Moses is undoubtedly the greatest educator of all time—other than Jesus Christ. The sanctuary service with its priesthood, its sacrifices, its special days, was one of the greatest teaching devices ever devised. There was cognitive input, curiosity was aroused, and children asked questions. There was learning on the affective level in the offering of animal sacrifices. As the worshiper chose an animal for sacrifice, brought it to the Temple, and took its life there was visual reinforcement and direct involvement.

Notice Moses' appeal in Deuteronomy 6 to parents and leaders in Israel: "And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.. . . Then beware lest thou forget the Lord, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (verses 7-12). Israel's tragic ups and downs, the pain and anguish the people suffered in captivity, might have been avoided had they followed this counsel.

What about us? Do we take seriously Christ's command "'Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you'" (Matt. 28:20, N.I.V.)? Are we passing on the faith of our fathers in our homes and schools with zeal and earnestness? It is a life-and-death question. Our church has an enormous investment in Christian education. But educational institutions do not guarantee the trans mission of the true faith.

Education's pitfalls

After the Babylonian captivity Nehemiah and his associates determined that Israel would never again be led astray by the surrounding heathen cultures. To them education seemed to be the answer. They established special houses of learning. Regular instruction in the law was given in the outer halls of the Temple. The scribes became the learned and legal class and the leaders and teachers of the law. The heads of the schools were called rabbis. But that which began with noble purpose under Ezra became after four hundred years encrusted with human opinions and ideas. The scribes largely lost the spiritual meaning of their religious observances. Rabbinical ideas and traditions grossly distorted the gospel inherent in the Old Testament.

What can we learn from this tragic history? The intertestamental period teaches us that it is not good for education to stand alone. Education in the church or society must have the corrective message of the prophets. The prophet must mount his watchtower and scan the life of the church to detect the fatal drift. The voice of the prophet must rebuke unfaithfulness and sin and sound the warning before it is too late.

Nicodemus said to Jesus: "Thou art a teacher come from God" (John 3:2). Jesus is recognized today as the greatest teacher the world has ever known. His methods were superb—even by today's standards. Jesus was person-centered in His orientation to teaching-learning. He taught to the felt needs and hurts of people. He knew how to get attention. He used curiosity and visual aids. When He talked to the disciples about their need of a childlike faith, He held a child in His arms. "What do you think?" was a favorite expression. He knew that a good thought-provoking question could get attention and interest and engage the mind for learning. He seemed to prefer discussion to the lecture method. Jesus always taught with a purpose. He taught for change.

"Teach as Christ taught, study His example, His methods of teaching. He preached few sermons, but wherever He went, crowds gathered to listen to His instruction. The ministers must be educated to work more according to the divine pattern. You have not yet taken up the work of educating." 7

During the Dark Ages the spiritual vitality of the church was lost. The voice of the prophet was not heard. And both general education and Christian education sank to very low levels. Then came the Protestant Reformation. Luther, Calvin, and the other great Reformers thundered against sin, they preached the true gospel, and revival broke out. Teaching was given its rightful place as schools and colleges were organized. "The history of the Christian movement from apostolic days to the present reveals that every great period of revival has been accompanied by a fresh emphasis on teaching." 8

Modern Christian education in the local church

The roots of our modern Sabbath school/Sunday school go back to the Wesleyan revival. The leaders of the established churches in England and America bitterly fought the Sunday school idea. Sunday school classes were called "nurseries of fanaticism." But Sunday school was an idea whose time had come. Pastors gradually gave up their resistance and accepted it as a reality. "If you can't whip them, join them" was their philosophy. The Sunday school movement began as a layman's movement outside of denominational organizations. The growth of Sunday charity schools was phenomenal in the 1780s. Enrollment reached about 250000 by 1787.

In America during the 1830s the American Sunday School Union took on a staggering task. "Within two years, and in reliance upon divine aid, the organization resolved to establish a Sunday school in every destitute place where it was practicable, throughout the Valley of the Mississippi." 9 Their purpose was to "bring every child and youth ... under the influence of the gospel." 10 Though they never fully realized their goal, they forged a tremendous movement.

Stephen Paxson was a great Sunday school evangelist. In twenty years he established more than 1,200 Sunday schools, many of which survived and evolved into congregations. "Paxson outlined the stages in the process from Sunday school to congregation: 'A few papers, books, and personal efforts gather in the children; . . . the parents follow, then the prayer meeting, then the preacher.' " 11 Sunday school was probably the greatest evangelistic agency of the mid-nineteenth century.

Sunday school has become big business. Despite a decline during the past two or three decades, about 33 million people still attend Sunday school weekly in the United States. In the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, approximately 350,000 gather each Sabbath morning in Sabbath school.

But Sabbath school is still a layman's movement. Sabbath school remains Sabbath school, and church remains church. A Southern Baptist leader writes: "There is often a wide separation between a church's educational work and its other functions. Frequently the work of preaching and the work of teaching are allowed to drift apart instead of being recognized as two very closely related ways of communicating the gospel. ... A great day has dawned for any pastor when he realizes that a worthy educational program with the right kind of curriculum, far from being a side issue in his work, is a major part of it and will do more to make his church true and strong and effective than almost anything else to which he can give his attention. 12

Are the teaching-learning experiences conducted by laymen in the local church—such as Sabbath school, Vacation Bible School, Pathfinders, and youth meetings—really taken seriously by church administrators, pastors, and the academic community? From the vantage point of high administrative office and the lofty professionalism of our universities and seminaries, it has been easy to overlook the Sabbath school. But let us remember that this school places the first and perhaps the most permanent mold on the Adventist mind. The development of adequate curricula and the training of lay educators for leader ship in forty-nine thousand schools with more than 5 million members are a colossal task.

Consider the pastor's role as an educator. He may well be in charge or a part of a weekly pastor's Bible class, baptismal classes, Revelation seminars, Five-Day Plans, stress clinics, weight control classes, and. one-to-one Bible studies. And add to that the responsibility for oversight of the Sabbath school. In light of this, the small emphasis in colleges and seminaries on religious education in the local church seems odd.

An editorial in Christianity Today laments this situation: "The day has passed when the minister can devote himself exclusively to preaching and ignore the fact that he is the overseer of the church and its educational functions." Competent church supervision "presupposes an expert knowledge of Christian education in the local church. Unfortunately many pastors have had little opportunity to study the subject either in church colleges or in theological seminaries. . . . The pastor who finds himself in the predicament of being illiterate in this field needs to equip himself by reading the best books available." 13

We have considered some significant aspects of teaching and preaching in the light of theology and history. We have seen the importance of maintaining a proper balance and relationship between these two roles in ministry. Sabbath school, Pathfinders, Vacation Bible School, and youth ministry deserve an honored place in your work—right along with preaching. Let your lay educators know that you consider them partners in ministry. Train them, encourage them, and, above all, let the kerygma—the proclamation of the saving message of Christ—permeate every lesson and sermon. By the grace of God you and your laymen can grow a strong evangelistic and worshiping church.

In our next issue Charles Betz continues his Sabbath school theme with practical suggestions for making the 9:30 A.M. service meaningful.

1 Robert W. Lynn and H. Elliott Wright, The
Big Little School (New York: Harper & Row, 1971),
p. 71.


2 Charles H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and
Its Developments (New York: Harper &. Row,
1964), p. 7.

3 Alan Richardson, ed., A Theological Word
Book of the Bible (New York: Macmillan Company,
1950), pp. 171, 172.

4 Roy G. Irving and Roy B. Zuck, eds., Youth
and the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), pp.
181, 182. This has been substantiated by many
studies: University of Texas, Mobil Oil Company,
et cetera.

5 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p.
442.

6 James D. Smart, The Teaching Ministry of the
Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954),
p. 22.

7 White, op. cit., pp. 441, 442.

8 Howard P. Colson and Raymond M. Rigdon,
Understanding Your Church's Curriculum (Nashville:
Broadman Press, 1969), p. 14-

9 Lynn and Wright, op. cit., p. 18.

10 Ibid., p. 20.

11 Ibid., p. 29.

12 Colson and Rigdon, op. cit., pp. 150, 151.

13 Christianity Today, Aug. 31, 1959. We believe
that the situation described in this editorial has not
changed appreciably since it was written.

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Charles Betz is officially retired but continues to produce Sabbath school curriculum materials for the Far Eastern Division of Seventh-day Adventists. He spent thirteen years as director of the Sabbath school department of the Northern California Conference prior to his retirement.

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