My wife and I recently spoke with a woman from a church in town. “I don’t have any idea how to study the Bible,” she complained. “It’s so difficult to understand.” What’s worse, she concluded by saying, “So I don’t really read the Bible much.”
I’m fairly familiar with this church and know it to be one that cares about the Bible. I also know for a fact that, for the last three years, this woman has been sitting in a Sunday School class that studies the Bible. Every single week.
She is an example of a phenomenon that I’ve seen a lot around the country. The people are faithful to attend Sunday School each week before the service. Yet, they aren’t learning that much.
Now, I certainly don’t want to accuse your church of a problem that it doesn’t have. The quality of your Sunday School time is something for you to assess, not me. I only ask that you pose to yourself the question, “Are the people really learning?”
My great grandfather used to say, “You haven’t taught them till they’ve learned.”
In many cases, they don’t.
Why is This Happening?
There are many reasons for this lack of learning and every church is unique. Plenty of churches don’t even attempt to study the Bible in their Sunday School hour, for instance.
But, aside from this, one of the biggest contributors to the problem is lecture-style teaching. That may surprise you, but I think it’s true. Let me paint the picture. One willing and perhaps gifted person spends a lot of time at home preparing during the week. On Sunday, he marches to the front of the classroom to speak at the group for an hour. Maybe a few minutes are given for discussion at the end and the listeners file out to go to the worship meeting where they will listen to a speaker again.
The problem with this is that it doesn’t teach the people how to read the Bible. It just serves up a finished product that they think about for a few minutes. Most likely, unless the teacher is an exceptionally good speaker, they’ll forget it rather quickly. It’s kind of like inviting someone over for a meal once a week and expecting him to learn how to cook.
In other words, there’s too much teaching and not enough learning.
If you’ve ever taught Sunday School, you know that it’s the teacher who gets the most out of it. Why? Because the teacher is the one who is doing the work, going through the process of learning. And so, he learns.
What if we all could get as much out of it as the teacher? What if we could all experience that process of learning together?
Try Something New
Start with a new goal for your class. The goal of a class that produces true learners should be something like this: to take the group through the same process that a teacher would go through as he studies the Bible in order to teach.
Here is an example of what you might do:
First, print off the Bible passage. Format it with ample line-spacing and wide margins and hand the copies out to the participants. This allows each member of the group to have the same text and plenty of room to write notes, underline, and mark in a variety of creative ways.
Next, set the room up so people are facing each other in small groups of three to five, or whatever size you think wise. Maybe even bring some tables in. Six-feet long rectangular tables keep the people the closest. All this signals to the group that this is not a spectator event.
Then, guide the group to wrestle with the text together. Have them spend time observing it. Read it several times together. Use colored pens and pencils to mark repeated words and phrases. Have them try to observe potentially thematic elements. Get them to discuss and mark the natural divisions of the text. Put them in small groups to discuss and then turn the discussion to the whole group. Do together all the components that go into observing a Bible text.
After that, you can guide them through the interpretation stage. What does this text mean in its original context? Work through and rephrase difficult sections. Understand the flow of the text together. What did this author want to communicate to these people? This is often the hardest part, so you’ll need all the brain power of the group as you discuss it.
Finally, you can move to application. Talk together about how this text should speak to your contemporary situation. This is the time when everyone reaps the benefits of their hard work with the passage. And hopefully, this is the time when the applications that have been discovered start to change their lives.
Now, you may already have a Sunday School class or two that promote more discussion around the Bible. That’s good, but remember that just because we have discussion doesn’t guarantee that we’re accomplishing the purpose. It needs to be thoughtful and well-guided, not just a free-for-all.
One other thing. This probably will not all happen in one hour. You may spend a number of weeks on one section, set of chapters, or book. You may even want your group to read that section outside of class during the week. After all, it takes a teacher more than an hour to really learn a passage, doesn’t it?
As you begin to try this out, I believe that two things will happen. First, the people will be more deeply affected by the content of these texts because they have interacted with it, thinking and discovering. They will walk out of that class carrying something with them.
Second, they will learn how to study the Bible for themselves. The principles that they learn are principles that will bring the Bible alive to them at home. And so, the effects become life-long.
The Sunday School hour offers us an incredible opportunity. Don’t just do it. Think about how to do it best.