When we hear the term “Christian education,” many of us automatically think “Sunday school.” When we think of Sunday school, we think of flannelgraph Bible stories, teachers faithfully reading from the accepted curriculum of the church, and perhaps the workbooks we would take home and complete. The Sunday school is generally thought of as its own entity among the church’s other ministries—preaching, outreach, worship, evangelism, and more. This is mostly because culture has dramatically conditioned us to associate the concept of education with formal schooling—lectures, desks, pencils, teachers, grades, and curriculum. If education does not involve the formal transmission of objective facts, it is not technically considered to be education.
However, if we understand that education is truly about growth, experience, and movement beyond spiritual and cognitive limitations as opposed to the transmission of information, we will recognize all ministries of the church are somehow educational. For example, in preaching, the one behind the pulpit attempts to convey theological concepts in culturally and psychologically relevant ways to a faith community either hungry for growth or simply apathetic. Also, in theologically-dense worship, we try not only to connect people with Christ, but also seek to shape and teach a church community in theology through worship. Everything we do is educational in some way or another.
When we begin to view all of the church’s ministries as educative, we are encouraged to reflect not only on what we are teaching people, but how we are forming and shaping their walk with Christ. As the common cliché goes, if we do not disciple people, our culture most certainly will. With this in mind, I would like to offer a few fresh, practical suggestions for reigniting your church’s educational ministry:
1. Ask yourself or your congregation “what are we teaching our people without actually saying it”?
Education goes beyond merely what is taught explicitly. For instance, a church may suggest that they are serious about intergenerational relationships, but their ministry programs and fellowship opportunities cater exclusively to people within particular age groups. Another church may pay lip service to helping the poor, and yet allocate a tiny amount, if any, in their budget for such ministries. These churches explicitly say one thing while implicitly teach another. Questions regarding the “implicit curriculum” of church can go a long way retooling your church’s educational ministry. This may lead you to completely reject some of your practices, but this may be necessary for your educational ministry to thrive.
2. Make an effort to graft people’s personal stories into God’s Story.
By helping people to connect their stories with the narrative of God’s Story (Scripture), we can make disciples who move beyond simply knowing the facts of theology to being radically concerned about living out that theology. This can be done through small group Bible studies that provide accountability, worship that is both theologically dense and emotionally engaging, and teaching and preaching that is conversational in tone and cognizant of people’s struggles and questions. A Wesleyan-style class meeting that focuses exclusively on spiritual growth can also be a helpful activity.
3. Construct a “home-grown” catechesis.
Catechesis refers to the church’s historical practice of forming believers in the essentials of the faith through a question-and-answer format. Depending on what church tradition you come from, this may look a little different. Consult Scripture and your church’s doctrinal statement, and construct a class that teaches these faith essentials to people. Catechesis has the reputation of being a rigid practice, but attention to people’s questions and concerns about faith essentials and practical application can make sure this is not so. A home-grown catechesis can ensure that your congregation is both biblically and theologically literate, and provide an excellent introduction to Christian faith for people who are curious about the church.
4. Offer classes based on numerous topics, not on age level.
Within the field of Christian education, some are concerned that age-based education may be detrimental to generational unity and theological literacy. With that being said, it may beneficial for your church to offer classes on a wide variety of topics, perhaps on systematic theology, church history, a book of the Bible, or even Christian classics. These classes do not have to last for more than a couple of months, allowing people to pursue other interests. These types of classes have the potential to unite your congregation and get them to think deeply about their walks with Christ.
Reigniting the church’s educational ministry is a daunting task. It takes critical reassessment of ministries, the shattering of educational paradigms, and boldness to break traditional practices. However, with a few changes in the way we conduct our ministries and view the nature of education, we can make a lasting impact for generations to come.
 For more information about this, see Darwin Glassford and Lynn Barger-Elliot’s article, “Toward Intergenerational Ministry in a Post-Christian Era,” in Christian Education Journal, Series 3, Vol. 8, Issue 2, (Fall 2011): 364-378. Also, Gabriel Moran and Maria Harris’ Reshaping Religious Education: Conversations on Contemporary Practice (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1998) is an excellent resource that discusses this issue. I personally believe that developmental theory should possess a strong place in Christian education, but do agree with those who have expressed concern.