Sunday School stinks. Case in point: I used to be able to evangelize with ease, only later to feel I’d been wrong about how I was sharing my faith through church classes that taught me “the contagious way” to witness. I feel pressure from curricula that have taught me the “right way” to read the Scripture. The same is true for discipleship, pathways to God, spiritual gifts and everything in between. In this sense, Sunday School stinks. (There, I said it. About time someone did.)
But…that doesn’t negate the great respect I have for this extension of the church and its intention to disciple and grow believers. How many people began their relationships with Jesus through a class setting? Or what about those who finally decided to tithe because the principles of stewardship were explained clearly? Not to mention the many families and individuals who found direction in life because they spent 40 days in the pursuit of biblical purpose.
So maybe Sunday School doesn’t stink. Maybe we can just make it legalistic at times…just like everything else.
Take preaching, for example. Preaching classes helped me, but they also ruined me. Granted, the professor only has so much time to get so many people through a semester; so there’s probably only one way he or she is able to pass along theory to the students. Then those students head out after graduation into churches only to find their cookie cutter formulas not only don’t fit, but they’re 10-years-old and falling apart.
Is there a right way to preach? This would imply, of course, that there’s a wrong way of some sort. If so, how do we gauge such things? Is good preaching based on the number of points? Or is it dependent upon how many outlines get filled out? Perhaps the church’s audio-tape ministry dictates a successful sermon if the duplicating machines go into overdrive. Or maybe it’s all about how many pats the pastor gets on the back.
At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I’d submit there are only a few guidelines when it comes to preaching, and those rules are simple enough that any preacher can adapt them to his or her situation.
Skeleton—the principle of connecting through biblical truth.
If I preach my opinion of something, there’s no guarantee I’ll feel the same way about it tomorrow. So why would I waste my time (and everyone else’s) doing so when I can stand on the truths of Scripture that never change? This means I must surrender my egotistical desires to connect through my charisma, humor or personal thoughts. If in the end I’m nothing more than the loudest voice in the room and all I do is convince students to believe because of my shouting, what happens when I’m not in their lives anymore? Do they enter college looking for the next loudest voice, or have I successfully given them the tools they need to engage God in a biblical manner?
It’s my hope and calling to let the living, sacred words of the text breathe life out of me in the same way they’ve given vivacity to my soul. This must be the skeleton that gives backbone to the message as a whole, ensuring that everyone in the room (whether Christian or not) gets to hear the hope and wisdom of God. Someone may not agree with the Bible, but at least they’ll know what it says and can take their argument up with the Lord instead of me.
Flesh—the principle of connecting through identification.
Having established that what I’m sharing is biblical, the next step builds on that skeleton to flesh and connect these truths with the lives before me. How do I take something from an ancient text and share its significance with someone who just walked in off the street with major life issues? What does the story of King David have to do with Bob in the second row who just found out his family will have no income for the next month? How does the conversion of Saul impact the life of Sue who found out she has a life-threatening illness at such a young age? Or perhaps on a more tangible note, is there something in my own journey with God that will help flesh out a little color and texture on top of the bones of the Scripture?
What I’ve found is that teaching principles that people write down on paper is one thing, but giving them veracious examples of what it means to live out the treacherous words of God is a completely separate issue. Why do I want someone writing down the outline of my sermon when they can be paying attention to God with their hearts? So I take it a high calling to give whatever illustration I can of biblical truth and context along with more current testimonies and stories of local and foreign Jesus Freaks in action.
Clothes—the principle of connecting through adorning (re)engagement.
Who says I need three points? Can’t I just have one? Or 50? Or half of one? Or none? After all, is it my job to give a pointed talk or to point people to Jesus? Isn’t He the one who does all the conversion work anyway? Do I really need an introduction and a closing story, or can I just jump into the Scripture and leave them there with God?
When preaching to students, this connecting process is probably even more important than when preaching to adults. So much clamors for their attention, so we should take the time and energy to engage kids creatively with the truths of Scriputre. Why not grab an everyday object and weave your message around it? Or go Seinfeld and have four things happening at once that somehow all get connected in the end. It’s not so much about being flashy, but it is important to make the intangible describable.
This needs to come all throughout the message—not just in one place. It may be that we engage with a lot of noise and then reengage the students five minutes later with strategic silence. Perhaps this is a time when we push the envelope at Christmas and bring live animals in to the room to walk free while we teach, all while the smell of actual animal feces lingers in the air (because you put a huge pile of it in a bucket by the door through which everyone has to walk). Or give each person a bag of items and instruct them to wait to open it until the time is right.
In any event, all of this is designed to give people another reason to engage God. Some churches pursue this last stage as their most important one, foregoing any biblical skeleton for the sake of being flashy. Others, however, stop at the skeleton stage and never move on to the latter two, stifling the life contained within God’s Word. I believe each one builds on the last in the same sense that you can’t have clothes on without flesh, which of course needs a skeleton to encompass. Instead of relying on what we learned in class to preach a sermon the “right way,” how about having our talks be the strongest boned, muscular built, dressed up they can be?
That includes Sunday School, too.