By Russell L. Meek
I’ve been in education nearly my entire life. I started kindergarten at age five and finished my Ph.D. when I was 32, with an 18-month break in there somewhere.
Since then I’ve been teaching at the college and seminary level. I’ve also taught Sunday School classes for toddlers, teens, and adults. And I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of sermons and Sunday School lessons. Suffice it to say I’ve heard (and delivered) my fair share of duds.
I’m working at my church now to develop its education program. It’s a pet project of mine because I believe the church is best served when its people are best equipped. In thinking through what my local church needs, I’ve come up with some broad principles for recruiting and training sound—and engaging—teachers I hope will be helpful in your local church context as well.
1. Know Your People
This likely goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway: Know your people. You should first of all know the general level of education in your congregation.
The last church I was part of was a church plant in Kansas City. I think every adult had a college degree, and more than a few of them had masters degrees or doctorates. The church I grew up in was in a poor part of Arkansas, and the majority of congregants were working-class people with high school diplomas.
Neither is better than the other, but the starting place is different in each of those contexts.
Second, know the individuals in your congregation who may already be gifted or interested in teaching. This means we have to spend time with the people God has placed around us; otherwise we won’t likely know their unique talents and callings.
Our inclination is to seek out people who teach as their profession, and they of course are likely better teachers than a lot of people. But we should also be diligent about looking for people who may teach in other contexts.
Are there grandparents in your congregation? Those folks have many years of experience teaching. What about retail managers or small business owners? Carpenters or mechanics? These jobs require a person to teach skills to others.
All that said, the Bible is clear that teachers first and foremost possess a certain set of qualities—things like humility, gentleness, self-control, generosity, holiness, and uprightness, among others (see 1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–9).
If the person we’re thinking of to teach Sunday school is a greedy jerk, we should keep looking.
2. Have Good Content
No heresy! Seriously, no heresy.
We want to make sure the people we recruit know the Bible, know it well, and have access to the resources they need. This could mean using a curriculum such as The Gospel Project, which is a great tool that my church uses.
Additionally, if your church has the means, what about developing a way to train your teachers that shows them how to exegete Scripture for themselves? That, in my opinion, is a key way to retain the teachers you’ve recruited because it gives them some skin in the game—they own the content.
I’ve been toying with the idea of a bi-weekly “Feasting and Feasting” event, where we come together for a meal (I love to cook), and then we feast on the Word.
This gives me the chance to get to know the teachers in my church (strategy one), and it gives me the chance to work through things like the book of Job, theodicy, suffering, eschatological hope, ecclesiology, Old Testament theology, and Christology in a non-lecture format (strategy two).
There would be readings beforehand and open dialogue during and after the meal. Maybe it wouldn’t work, but I think it gets closer to what Jesus was doing than simply passing out curriculum and hoping for the best.
3. Change the Teaching Culture
Good content is of course essential, but our people can get great content pretty much anywhere. There is no shortage of books, blogs, and podcasts that will teach them sound biblical doctrine. What they need—and what we can give—is a localized, incarnational learning experience.
If you’re like me, you’ve been through some rough Sunday School experiences. And rough classroom experiences in general.
I’ve been there both as a teacher and a student. The only thing I like less than sitting in a relatively uncomfortable chair and listening to someone talk for an hour is standing in front of a bunch of people in relatively uncomfortable chairs and talking for an hour.
Some may think this is an effective teaching methodology: one teacher, and a large number of minds into which to pour information. But really it isn’t effective, if we’re being honest. It transfers information, sure, but like I said, our people can get information anywhere.
So let’s change the culture. Remember the “Feasting and Feasting” idea? What else can we do to turn our church’s education program into an opportunity to transmit information, impart life, and have fun?
In my classroom, I incorporate mini-lectures (no longer than 10 minutes), crafts (dorky, I know), question-and-answer sessions, short videos, debates, playacting, and whatever other crazy method I can think of.
It requires more of the students—they can’t just come to class and turn on the cruise control. They have to engage, both physically and mentally. And it requires some risk-taking on my part. I can’t control everything; I can’t present the perfect lecture with all of the perfect words and perfect theological formulations.
But—and this is key—it helps to create a real learning environment in which we are engaging each other as humans created in God’s image. We’re learning together, growing together, and getting to know God together.
This gets us back to strategies one and two. We know our people. We’re teaching them ourselves, and now we’re aiming to change the entire culture of education in the church—at least education in the church as I’ve seen it done.
I think these three things—over a long time and done with a lot of grace—will help us to recruit and train teachers for the glory of God and good of the church.
RUSSELL L. MEEK (@russ_meek) s a writer, editor, and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio Theological Institute, and earned a Ph.D. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. When he isn’t working, you can find him spending time with his (much) better half, Brittany, and their three sons.