Bible Studies for Life helps church connect with members and answer life’s big questions
By Megan Sweas
On a Sunday morning, you’ll find Grace Apiafi either in church or in her car. The longtime Sunday school teacher drives 45 minutes or longer to get to St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in La Puente, California.
And Apiafi isn’t alone. St. Stephen has transformed from a community church to a commuter church in recent years as the neighborhood around it has changed.
The African-American church has retained its vitality, though, by adapting to the community and providing spiritual sustenance that keeps long-term members returning.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Apiafi insists. “This is my church home.”
La Puente once had a vibrant African-American population, but the small city east of Los Angeles is now 85 percent Hispanic.
Many of St. Stephen’s African-American congregants have moved further east into the Inland Empire, where they can buy more real estate for their money even if it lengthens their commute to both work and church, Pastor Anthony Dockery says.
While longtime members like Apiafi are loyal to the 51-year-old church, convincing people to make the drive on their day of rest can be a challenge.
A vibrant Sunday school helps bring them back while attracting and retaining new members, Dockery says. “Sometimes the hardest part is keeping people,” he maintains, “so when you’re really feeding people, they also stay.”
In 18 classrooms behind the church on Sunday mornings, congregants balance on their laps paper plates full of breakfast treats and Bible study workbooks. On an average Sunday, 800 of the 4,000 church members participate in Sunday school.
St. Stephen, which has used LifeWay curriculum for decades, adopted the Bible Studies for Life curriculum two years ago, using it across all age groups, from preschool children to senior citizens.
When life gets messy
Bible Studies for Life has encouraged more discussion on topics that are relevant to people’s lives, says Barbara Ray, the Sunday school director. “It’s teaching like Jesus taught—in conversation.”
In the past, Sunday school curriculum could be “too churchy,” Dockery says. “And the world we live in is not churchy.”
One Sunday in February, for instance, the groups turned their attention to homosexuality.
Apiafi’s class of 31 group members read Scripture passages from Romans out loud together, then ran through a series of questions. The questions started basic, asking what the passage said. Another question asked people to share how they felt talking about homosexuality.
Both Ray and Apiafi believe the questions and relevance of the topics encourage people who typically don’t speak up in class to participate.
“I’m going to relate this to my family,” says one man in Apiafi’s class, introducing a question about children whom he said he believed were gay at a young age. “Does God hold them responsible for being that way?” he asks.
Apiafi addresses his question by returning to the Scripture. It’s the act of homosexual sex that is sin, she says.
“People have very legitimate questions,” Apiafi says after class. “Those confusing ideas are kind of resolved right there.”
The lesson also pulls out what’s going on in people’s personal lives or families, giving the class the opportunity to pray for them. “As a teacher, you sit back and say, ‘Wow, this is the Holy Spirit working,’” she says.
The man’s question helps move the conversation away from condemnation to how to share Christian beliefs with love and compassion.
The lesson plan also guides the discussion in a hopeful, compassionate direction. “Verse 11 reminds us there is hope for all in Christ. How do we reflect that hope to people impacted by homosexuality?” says a group member, reading the last question from her workbook.
Beyond the classroom
Before the church started using Bible Studies for Life, Apiafi used her own creativity to make lessons relevant. The new lesson plans are easier to teach, “to the point where I started thinking, ‘am I getting lazy or what?’” she laughs.
“We always encouraged the teachers to do less lecturing, but sometimes that was a little hard,” Ray says. The lesson plans help every class be interactive, no matter who is leading it.
But the format also means the group shapes the conversation. Across the hallway, another class starts its conversation with compassion, with members sharing how they handle personal encounters with LGBT friends and neighbors.
Across the parking lot, high school students sit in a circle to discuss the same topic. Typically, all age groups cover the same Scripture for the week, allowing the whole family to come back together to discuss their various lessons.
But the curriculum adjusts content based on maturity levels. On this particular Sunday, the children’s classes are studying a different topic.
The goal is to help church members take their faith beyond the classroom to discussions with family, friends, and co-workers. In Dockery’s words, Bible Studies for Life helps people with apologetics—being able to know and defend the faith.
Deborah Barber, a member of Apiafi’s class, said she appreciated tackling homosexuality in Sunday school. As a teacher, she has colleagues and parents of students who are gay.
The discussion was a good reminder of the need to “love them, but continue to pray for them,” she says. “I have to walk the walk, I have to talk the talk, and I have to model it.”
To support this effort, many church members are also part of “Synergy” groups that meet in people’s homes during the week. The groups help the church extend the conversation to the outer communities where some of its members live.
“Church starts from the Sunday school class,” Apiafi said. “And when they come in here, what do they do? They take what they’ve learned to their friends.”
MEGAN SWEAS is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, California.