Improving Adult Sunday School classes

From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2015. Used by permission, all rights reserved.

My purpose in the first article was to call churches back to the priority of adult Sunday School classes because I believe they can do everything small groups can do and more and can provide the best format for discipleship. In short, adult Sunday School has the greater potential for benefit to a church. In this second article I offer some suggestions for how we adult teachers can improve our adult classes so they reach their full potential.

1. Commit to using printed curriculum that covers the Bible systematically.​

One of the advantages of adult Sunday School classes over small groups is they can cover all the Bible systematically. This kind of coverage will not happen if adult teachers are allowed to choose their own studies. Systematic coverage can only happen when teachers follow a printed curriculum that covers the entire Bible. And if a church has more than one adult class, this kind of coverage can only happen when all the adult teachers in a church follow the printed curriculum.1 For adult classes to reach their full potential, printed curriculum that covers the Bible systematically is essential.

As a corollary, teachers should know how to use printed curriculum. It is not meant to be slavishly followed or used as a substitute for the Bible. Rather, it is a guide to help adult teachers prepare their lessons, much like a pastor uses commentaries in his sermon preparation.

2. Care for the needs of the class members.

Ephesians 4:11 speaks of the pastor-teacher.2 This hyphenated title means that the pastor of the church is also the teacher. He cannot separate one duty from another. By application, if the pastor is to have a teaching role, then perhaps the teachers should have a type of pastoring role in caring for their portion of the flock.

This analogy may help. The pastor is the undershepherd of the church. He is responsible for the entire flock. One man, however, cannot take care of the needs of the whole flock, even in a small church. He needs help. Think of the American rancher or shepherd. Who helps him? Sheep dogs! We adult teachers should think of ourselves as the sheep dogs of the church who care for a portion of the flock under the authority of the pastor. Now how do we carry out our sheep dog role?

  • Make a list of all your class members and pray for each one regularly by name at least once a week. Praying for our class members will prompt us to care for their needs.
  • Try to connect with each class member every Sunday morning. We should be in class and ready to go when the first member arrives. That way we can greet each one and inquire briefly about the person’s situation.

You may say your class is too big to connect with each person every Sunday. Size can be an issue, which is why I recommend a class size not exceed 25 adults. Also, no matter what the class size, if we really want to connect with each adult, we will find a way to do so.

  • Take time at the beginning of each class to ask for prayer requests. Often these requests will reveal needs and special situations. Then we need to follow up on those situations in the weeks and months ahead. They want to know we care for them.
  • Spend some time outside of class talking to the class members. A greeting on Sunday morning is not sufficient. Engage the adults in conversation before and after other church services and during the week.
  • Be present at critical times in their lives. When a class member or a member of his family (children or parents) is in the hospital, let’s make hospital visits. When a family has a special need, let’s arrange to take in meals. When a death occurs in the family, we should be present at the visitation and/or the funeral.
  • Check on why a person is absent from class. If we don’t know where the person is, we should make a phone call. If a person misses several times and no one makes any contact, he will think no one cares and may not return.

To help us know what to do, think of the kind of care a pastor gives to his people. That is the way we should care for the members of our class. That’s all part of being a sheep dog!

Some classes recruit a person or a couple to organize the care for the class members. Such an arrangement is quite helpful, especially for a larger class, but we teachers still need to stay in touch with people and care for their needs.

3. Involve the class members in interactive Bible studies.

Too many adult teachers use the lecture method as the primary means of communication in their classes. Lecture has a place in adult Sunday School classes—just not all lecture every Sunday! Rather, we need to utilize an involvement format.

Moving away from a lecture format to an involvement format first requires a change in our mind-set. Think of these two approaches to teaching adults the Bible. In the first approach I study the Bible text thoroughly and then tell my students all I have learned. In the second approach I still study the Bible text thoroughly, but then I plan ways for my students to discover what I have found during my week of study. Which approach do you think will be more interesting and valuable for our adult learners? When we adopt this mind-set, we are well on our way to involvement learning.

So what are the ways we can plan for adults to learn what we found from the text? In this brief article we cannot explore all the different teaching methods available to us as adult teachers, but let me name three basic methods.

  • Question and Answer—Prepare a series of questions that lead the adults through the content of the passage. These questions will explore the “who, where, when, and how many” questions of the text. You will find it helpful to put these questions on paper.
  • Discussion—Discussion is the next step up from Q&A. Good discussion questions explore the “why and how” issues of a text. Discussion questions require more than identifying information from a verse; they require an analysis of what the text says.
  • Paraphrasing—Ask adults to put the Scripture text in their own words. Such an exercise is a great way to involve them and help them explore the meaning of the text.

Where do you find ideas for involvement teaching methods? Look first in your printed curriculum, but don’t just take what the teacher guide gives to you. Be creative. Think of ideas on your own.

I have one word of caution. Be sure the teaching methods we use actually get people into the Bible text. I have seen some printed adult lessons where lecture is the main method and the suggested discussion questions deal only with peripheral issues and not the text itself. Every teaching method should get the adults into the Word in some way.3

When you have tried some of these methods, start adding other activities such as crossword puzzles and interview of characters from the text. A whole new world will begin to open up to us.

I have only mentioned a few teaching methods. Many more methods are available to us. Once we change out mind-set, we will be able to think of a lot more. The guiding question in choosing a method is “what will help my students discover what I learned this week from the Bible text?”

4. Lead the students in making meaningful applications.

Too many lessons on Jonah have left Jonah in Nineveh and never brought the truths of Jonah to our 21st century. No wonder people look for something else more relevant.

We need to spend the majority of our time in interactive Bible study, but we must also lead the students to make meaningful applications. A guiding verse for me for several decades has been James 1:22. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” We must lead our students to be doers of the Word and not just hearers of it.

Notice I said “lead our students to make meaningful applications.” I did not say, “tell the students meaningful applications.” If we can lead our students to see how they should respond, they will be more likely to make the responses. How do we help our adults see the responses they should make from the text?

First, we need to consider the response we need to make from the Scripture. Only when we have attempted to respond to God’s Word can we lead our students to do so.

Second, we need to allow time in class for application. If we allow only 30 seconds at the end for application, not much is going to happen.

Third, we need to ask our adult learners a key question that will bring out several ways to respond to the text. A question such as, “What do we learn from our study of Jonah?” is probably too broad. Better to ask, “How can we Christians show that we care about people and their spiritual needs?”

Your adults will give several answers to your question. Encourage them to choose one way to respond during the week. Will everyone respond in some way? No, they won’t, but as we begin to focus on application each week, our students will begin to think in terms of application and will make it a part of their lives.

5. Take advantage of training opportunities.

We adult Sunday School teachers can better lead our classes if we take advantage of ongoing training.

  • If a Sunday School or Christian education conference comes near you, plan to attend. Even if you have to pay your way, do it. It will be a good investment in your ministry.
  • Read some teaching books. Four helpful tools are Impact Teaching by John and Daria Greening (Regular Baptist Press), Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur by Ken Hemphill (Broadman Holman), Effective Bible Teaching by James Wilhoit and Leland Ryken (Baker), and Teaching to Change Lives by Howard Hendricks (Multnomah). These books will encourage you and give your new ideas and renewed enthusiasm for your teaching ministry.
  • Bring in a trainer. Ask your pastor if your church can bring in a Christian education specialist to provide some training. The trainer may be a person from the area, from a Christian publishing company, or from a nearby Christian college.

The adult Sunday School class can offer so much to a church. If we adult teachers give this ministry our best efforts, we can see it meet the needs of our adult learners. They will grow in their knowledge of the Scripture, they will become “doers of the Word,” and they will mature in their discipleship.

Notes

1 I recommend the adult materials from Regular Baptist Press. The adult curriculum covers all the Bible from a fundamental Baptist perspective.

2 Ephesians 4:11 reads “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” Many Bible teachers see the last two listings as the duties of one person—the pastor-teacher.

3 I also sense that discussion in small groups often does not involve a thorough study of the Scripture but rather the members’ thoughts about the passage and how they should respond. I believe in responding to the text, but we can do so only after knowing what the text says.

Don Anderson Bio


Don Anderson teaches at Faith Baptist Bible College, Ankeny IA and chairs the Department of Local Church Ministries. He has more than 30 years experience in local church educational ministries and served for 23 years at Regular Baptist Press, gaining insight into local church ministries from the viewpoint of both practitioner and publisher. He and his wife, Elly, live in Ankeny and are active members of Ankeny Baptist Church.

605 reads
13463 reads

There are 15 Comments

pvawter's picture

Although much of what the author says is helpful and good, I think it is a mistake to prioritize the role of the Sunday School teacher over that of the deacon in the church. In my mind, much of the ministry (outside of the actual teaching) that he advocates here, is the biblical responsibility of the deacons of the church. Let's not replace a God-given office with a man-made one.

T Howard's picture

Quote:
This analogy may help. The pastor is the undershepherd of the church. He is responsible for the entire flock. One man, however, cannot take care of the needs of the whole flock, even in a small church. He needs help. Think of the American rancher or shepherd. Who helps him? Sheep dogs! We adult teachers should think of ourselves as the sheep dogs of the church who care for a portion of the flock under the authority of the pastor. Now how do we carry out our sheep dog role?

Why create an unnecessary role of "sheep dog"? Why not use the biblical model of plurality of elders to provide soul care for the congregation? Deacons aren't the answer either. Deacons care for the material needs of the congregation.

Jim's picture

The adult SS is in crisis because of confusion about its focus:

  • Is it mini-church? Another lecture-style message? (And of course the preaching-monologue is appropriate for a large lecture hall (ie the church auditorium)
  • Is it about food? (often called "fellowship" but really pastries and coffee (which I enjoy by the way!) 
  • Is it about extending care? 
  • Is it about prayer?
  • Is it about clique? The super cool in one class .. the duds in another
  • Is it about personality (the speaker)? (Anecdote: friend tells me that if ____ is not the the teacher of his ABF, he will leave the church) 

Since we are adults and most of us have been to college or we think at that level:

  • I personally want depth of teaching in the ABF
  • Speaking of college: Way back when in college classes were not about food, prayer (as good as prayer is!), or care. And not even about personality

I suggest that if the focus is on teaching and not the other sideline issues, that adult SS (or ABF) will be more effective. 

 

 

Bert Perry's picture

Part of me (perhaps the more immature part) notes that while RBP is better than average, I've received and discarded a huge amount of Bible study materials for Sunday Schools, ABF, and small groups alike.  A lot of what is out there is just really, really bad, or if good, is often targeted at a different demographic/place in life than what you've got in your church.

On the flip side, Tom Howard's comment inspires another part of me (perhaps more mature, you decide if you like) to take a look at the basic premiss of ABF, SS, and small groups; it is that the congregation does not receive sufficient instruction and fellowship in weekly meeting/sermon to sustain them and help them grow.  I would concur with this opinion, FWIW.  Nothing against sermons or pastors; it just ain't enough.

So the very premiss of meeting outside the meeting of the full body indicates a need for multiple groups and multiple teachers--as Tom would point out, this is in effect multiple elders.  We might also posit that outside materials function effectively as elders, and that the church ought to take screening very seriously.

In other words, the pastor has a choice to make; he must either spend a fair amount of time screening materials (possibly involving others--not every error is obvious), or he must spend a fair amount of time screening the men who will lead ABF, SS, and small groups--and presumably also train them.

My experience is that not too many pastors do either, but if you have to choose one over the other, screen and train the men, because it's more like what Paul was doing with Timothy, Titus, Onesimus, and others, and because it's more like what Christ did with the Apostles.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry Nelson's picture

 

Jim wrote:

Since we are adults and most of us have been to college or we think at that level:

  • I personally want depth of teaching in the ABF
  • Speaking of college: Way back when in college classes were not about food, prayer (as good as prayer is!), or care. And not even about personality

In many, if not most, educational settings, the members of the class are generally on the same intellectual level.  First Grade?  You're all probably still learning how to read.  Senior High?  The same math, literature, and other classes are typically being studied by most.  College?  You're likely surrounded by your intellectual peers.  Medical School?  You've all taken similar biology and science classes, and have all achieved a high score on the MCAT.  My point is that in other educational settings, you're likely surrounded by others who have similar backgrounds and abilities.

Now consider a church ABF.  A highly intellectual, highly literate PhD might be seated next to a minimally literate high school dropout.  [Added: I'm not posing this scenario from a purely hypothetical perspective.  My church has examples of both.]

What are some thoughts on keeping all levels of listeners engaged in such a class, when all are listening to the same teaching & discussion?

Jay's picture

On the flip side, Tom Howard's comment inspires another part of me (perhaps more mature, you decide if you like) to take a look at the basic premise of ABF, SS, and small groups; it is that the congregation does not receive sufficient instruction and fellowship in weekly meeting/sermon to sustain them and help them grow.  I would concur with this opinion, FWIW.  Nothing against sermons or pastors; it just ain't enough.

So the very premise of meeting outside the meeting of the full body indicates a need for multiple groups and multiple teachers--as Tom would point out, this is in effect multiple elders.  We might also posit that outside materials function effectively as elders, and that the church ought to take screening very seriously.

I've been working through Haggai with our adult SS class, and I've found that I've had to put a lot of thought into how I actually present the material.  We don't use a printed book or anything like that - it's just me opening up my Bible with some PowerPoint slides.  I do record the classes for those who miss it and I make all the notes available via OneDrive. I tell the class that I want them to drive the pace - we'll spend more time discussing a topic (or moving through it) if they are interested (or not).

That being said, I'm really dissatisfied with the lecture style method of teaching - I feel like we need to move more towards an interactive style.  Is anyone else out there doing things differently, and if so, has it seemed to work better for you?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Mark_Smith's picture

Take your Haggai example. An interactive style assumes that the people know something about the context already. They know the basic outline of Israel's history. They have read parts/most of the Bible. This is necessary so they have some context to pull interaction from. Add to that my observation that too many people are barely awake... How do you get meaningful interaction out of that?

 

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Mark_Smith wrote:

Add to that my observation that too many people are barely awake... How do you get meaningful interaction out of that?

I'll let Jay answer how he handles that, but I would note that in a scenario where people are barely awake, an interactive style will have more chance of keeping the class members engaged than using lecture style.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

One way of waking people up, besides coffee and pastries, is to talk directly to someone.  I once had a young lady in Sunday School class--junior high so not quite directly applicable here--who was there in body only until I made a wisecrack comparing something in the Scriptures to the old Motel 6 commercial saying "we'll leave the light on for ya."  Little did I know that she was pretty much the only kid in the class who liked to listen to the radio--she came alive like nobody's business.  

That's one reason I like to use study guides very loosely, if at all--it really can crimp your ability to address people personally.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

  • Don addresses a good strategy above: "Prepare a series of questions that lead the adults through the content of the passage. These questions will explore the “who, where, when, and how many” questions of the text. You will find it helpful to put these questions on paper."
  • Important to ask open ended questions that people cannot easily answer "yes" or "no"
Mark_Smith's picture

How do you know that the series coming out in 2024 is good? Smile

Mark_Smith's picture

Speaking from much experience teaching... if you think something is going to take 15 minutes...plan for 30 or more. Most people will show up, oops I forgot my Bible. I was supposed to read something? Where is Ezekiel again? Reread passage three times. Well I think this means...no, what does the text say? Remember what happened to Moses...etc.

Meanwhile, the PhDs that someone mentioned earlier are bored and frustrated, while the people who barely graduated high school are feeling stupid and intimidated. "Hey I don't want to be back in school again."

All is not perfect.

Jay's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:
Take your Haggai example. An interactive style assumes that the people know something about the context already. They know the basic outline of Israel's history. They have read parts/most of the Bible. This is necessary so they have some context to pull interaction from. Add to that my observation that too many people are barely awake... How do you get meaningful interaction out of that?

Mark, 

When I started through Haggai, I spent a full session covering the history of the OT to bring everyone up to speed, starting with King David through Jeroboam, the Israel/Judah split, and the subsequent declines into apostasy and then submission to a foreign ruling power [Israel - Assyria, then Judah - Babylon].  I briefly reviewed it the second week, but then I launched into the book itself.  I'm hoping to wrap up Haggai by the end of April, and am eyeing either Joel or Habakkuk for the next 'course'.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.