Sunday School Escapades

I’ve decided to break new ground and journal my adventures in Sunday School class. There are several reasons for this. I don’t really have a prime motivation but many small ones. Mainly, I simply wish to chronicle the more interesting and challenging discussions we have over the bible texts we study. I must admit it is a challenge to perhaps be the lone Calvinist in a class full of ‘free-will’ adherents. I anticipate much lively dialog in the coming months if God so emboldens me to speak out.

I have only been at this church for a short time and the Baptist culture is new to me. Over one year ago I left my old Pentecostal church because it had been consumed with the Church Growth/Purpose-Driven way of doing ministry. In other words, they made the gospel appealing to the flesh and doctrine shallow and essentially unnecessary. The Lord directed my steps and I ended up at my community’s largest Baptist congregation. I started attending Sunday school about 5 months ago. The classes are divided into age groups. I first attended a 30’s group, (a natural selection given that I am in my 30’s). I enjoyed the fellowship with the members, many of whom I had actually gone to high school with. I thought the teacher did a fine job of teaching. However, I didn’t much care for the curriculum. My church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, so we use Lifeway materials for Sunday school lessons. Lifeway publishes a wide variety of material, custom designed for people in different stages of life; children, youth, young adults, old adults and really old adults. The curriculum used in my class (Life Truths) did not impress me much. I felt it was written basically for a fifth-grade audience. I also sensed that the authors wrote the lessons by looking at the bible through the lens of life rather than life through the lens of the bible – a subtle yet important difference.

One morning during worship service I noticed a Sunday school lesson book laying on the pew in front of me called Explore the Bible – Matthew. I thumbed through it and liked what I saw. It essentially gives a survey of the entire book of Matthew and appears to expound the texts instead of using them to further an agenda. Also, it is the first in a series of studies through all 66 books of the bible. The plan will take 8 years to complete but I think it will certainly be a profitable exercise for my wife and I.

I found a class that teaches from the Explore the Bible curriculum and have settled in to it – for now. The class is a 40’s group and I don’t really know anybody – save two or three people. It is a large class of 30+ people, which can be a disadvantage for an extremely shy fellow like myself when discussing the lessons. The teaching tandem of the director and designated instructor is sound, even when the curriculum isn’t.

We recently just finished the Matthew quarterly and my opinion on it is mixed. On the one hand I thought the verse-by-verse exploration (I fall short of calling it exposition) was pretty informative yet several great sections of Matthew with some rich doctrine were completely overlooked. In passages that were addressed, the author would sometimes focus on things that I thought were not the intent Jesus had when he spoke it.

For example, when we studied the eschatological passage in Matthew 24-25, the lesson writers glossed over the glorious doctrine of Christ’s victorious return to the earth to judge the world and instead focused on the believer’s ministry of feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. I thought he truly missed the point – the glorious final victory of Christ over all evil. Instead of spotlighting the glory of Christ, the lesson zeroed in on our works of righteousness. I’m not saying we should neglect the needs of the poor, but that Christ-centered doctrine and theology so richly understood and felt in our spirits should set us ablaze to go out into the world and do what Christ commands us to do. Not out of the drudgery of burdensome duties but because we have beheld the majesty and glory of God through Jesus Christ. We need doctrine to set our hearts aflame for the kingdom work God has fore-ordained for us to complete. My experience thus far is that doctrinal issues outside of the bare essentials are purposely avoided. The priority of sunday school centers around fellowship and unity while doctrine and theology take a back seat to a ‘what does god tell us to do’ kind of teaching.

I am curious if any of my readers attend an SBC church and use Lifeway materials. If so, what are your thoughts on the quality of the lessons? Do you find Sunday school edifying and beneficial? Do you agree or disagree with my observation that doctrine and theology take a back seat to other priorities in Sunday school. Finally, are there any fellow Calvinists who attend an SBC church dominated by Arminian/free will/semi-Pelagians? If so, how do you handle yourself in Sunday school settings?

I’d appreciate any wisdom and insight you can offer me on the matter.

7 thoughts on “Sunday School Escapades

  1. Wow. You in a class full of Armenians? How do you keep from imploding? If I lived near you, I’d come to your class just to watch!

    I imagine your take on Lifeway is correct, but there’s one thing to keep in mind…they are forced to deal with people at all levels of maturity. To go really deep would miss most folk(obviously, that’s unfortunate, as well as an indictment on my denomination). Why don’t you ask your pastor about a SS class that WANTS to go deep?

  2. During my brief experience with an SBC church, I did attend the sunday school class. I found the curriculum there to be predictable. Nothing really deep, just get the lesson over so we can do the next one next week.

    That is sad. So many times, (not necessarily at the SBC church), I have witnessed great conversations starting where we might actually get something worthwhile, but then the leader says “Well, we’d better go on so we can get through the questions”.

    WHY??? So we’re on a quota system in these classes? Seems to me that the goal is personal and corporate growth, not checkng off another chapter in a lesson book.

    In one church I attended for four years, I was allowed to teach one class. ONCE. But it was so rewarding because I didn’t “teach” it per se. I was more of a moderator or facilitator. I kept it on track with the Biblical text but got the class to interact and discuss what was there. They Loved It!!! Sadly, those who made the decisions didn’t like it.

    Oh well.

    Anyway, I’m no fan of the lesson books. They are more like pablum. Nicey-nice stories with nice tidy lessons that you can predict. No challenges, and no accountability at all.

    Thanks for letting me ramble.


  3. I feel your pain in two ways: as a Sunday school teacher, and as a Bible-fellowship member (also SBC). I teach 7th Grade; we use Student Life materials. I felt relieved when I read that someone else had the same feelings I did about Sunday School lessons.

    At first I, too, complained that the lessons were shallow… given our mutual understanding that Lifeway as well as Student Life has to write material suitable for all levels of Spiritual maturity and Biblical knowledge. I have a question before I continue (please comment if you don’t mind; this is NOT a rhetorical question): Do you observe that the members of your class are possibly on different levels of spiritual and behavioral maturity? Maybe there are new members who are seriously eating up the material (and praise God if there are (and praise God anyway if there aren’t)). But for those people who feel like they’re ready to go deeper than that, there are some options, which I will explain at length.

    Given that the Student Life study books are as they are, I don’t teach directly out of them. In fact, I don’t even read the lessons! BUT HEAR ME OUT HERE: *Here, Chris gets up onto his soap-box. Skip this paragraph if you must.* I did used to follow the lesson. I admit, I questioned God about going into teaching. At first, I was equipped with a [newly found] love for God’s Word and a year of passive co-teaching. But that was about it. At first I thought, ‘All I have to do is follow the lesson in the book!’ But with 7th Grade boys (whom I love to death; don’t get me wrong) and no disciplinary policy within the youth ministry, as you could well imagine the hour usually boiled down to each of us thinking, ‘The sooner we get done with the questions, the sooner we can get out of here.’ So, without rambling on about how it used to be, let me just say that my co-teacher and I knew that something had to change.
    My first observation was that a list of questions didn’t cut the mustard. I can’t recall exactly how the transition happened, but I do remember a few steps: at one point I changed from going straight down the list of questions to picking out the ones that I thought would benefit my group more. (I have to thank my youth minister for catalyzing this change: he’s the one who told/taught me that I (as a leader) know my group, and that I should tailor the lessons to fit them and their needs.) Although the group still wasn’t where I would have liked it to be, I immediately saw an improvement: they were slightly more interested in the lesson at hand, though they still never let me forget exactly how long it was until the hour-long class was over. From there, God pushed me even farther: I became more interested in the string of references that each lesson suggested instead of the author’s commentary. At first I read each passage that was indicated before the class started; then, figuring that I should keep them in context, I started reading the whole chapter for each passage. And I also read all of the footnotes in my study Bible (following the cross-references in any slim-line reference Bible probably does just as well). And I’d be lying if I say that I don’t learn as much each week as my students! Then, during class, my co-teacher and I introduce the theme of the lesson, have someone read each passage, and then have the class analyze each verse or paragraph, share their understanding of what it means and how it applies to life, and ask questions that might arise in their minds. We all agree that if we get to all of the references, great; and if we don’t, we’re still satisfied with the hour’s discussion. And as I look back on this past year, I testify that I have seen an amazing change: I have to remind MY STUDENTS that it’s time to go, instead of THEM constantly reminding ME. …and that is truly rewarding.
    *Chris steps down from his soap-box.*

    Remember my question from earlier, when I asked if there are people of different levels of spiritual growth and Biblical knowledge in your class? I have dealt with that, both for the class I’m teaching the one I participate in. In the latter situation, I notice that some people are quite content with the material. Others are wanting. A simple solution I’ve found is to ask those who want more if they are willing to get together for a private Bible-study outside of Sunday School. “Surely,” I say when I make such a proposition, “we can agree on some time during the week when we’re all free; or maybe those with like schedules can get together in groups.” (The key here is that there are at least two to three people to check each other’s thoughts.)
    I’d certainly say that there are pros and cons to having a Bible study that’s not affiliated with the church. The only argument I heard was, “It’s not affiliated with the church.” -Some people (especially outside of the Bible fellowship group in question) really had a problem with that. My persisting response: “So what?” In such a situation, the leadership/facilitators would still seek advice from church staff when necessary, and it might or might not be held in the church house (depending on convenience or availability). But there is a HUGE pro: the facilitators/members can run the sessions as they see fit! …And somewhat-exclusive private Bible studies can get deeper than Sunday School.
    “Play by the rules until they don’t work anymore.” -Me.

    I encourage everybody who is able to get a study Bible. (not just a reference Bible, but one that has bookoos of footnotes at the bottom). So far I know that there are such by Zondervan, Nelson, and McArthur. (From personal experience, I’d say the McArthur is the deepest; it’s not focused on licentious assurance). It’s OKAY to disagree with the notes in your study Bible. Every time you disagree with something is an opportunity to think and consider what you really believe, and you should try to/be able to justify what you believe or don’t believe. That can spur conversations that lasts all day (maybe it can even make SBC Sunday School classes forget about where they’re gonna go for lunch!) And if you want to go further than that, follow the cross-references around the Bible… you’ll be led to things that you didn’t even know are in there!

    One last thing, and then I’ll be done:
    It’s OKAY to chase rabbits in Sunday School… as long as they’re Biblical. Chasing rabbits means that the conversation is flowing and -more importantly- that the people are interested! I’ve seen some pretty dull Sunday School classes where -due to going through a list of questions or relying on the study book’s commentary, as you’ve mentioned- the leader has to push the conversation along. I’ve also seen some classes where the rabbit trails are naturally followed as they occur; therein, people are interested and excited about the conversation, and more gets said and learned than if said rabbit-chasing was restricted.

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