An old English proverb dating back to the late 1300’s says that “All good things must come to an end.” In the world of church, some people believe that Sunday School “quarterlies,” those small booklets learners use to study their Sunday School lesson, have come to an end of their usefulness and relevance. Are you in that camp? “Who needs those things?” one person might say. “Those are for my grandma, not for me” says another. A church staff member might say “I had to trim the budget, so I trimmed the quarterlies out to save money.” Those decisions can be based on emotion and experience…which often betray us. So let’s ask the question “Why should we provide Sunday School learners with a booklet ?” (which I am now going to refer to for the remainder of the blog post as a Learner Guide). Has the Learner Guide really “come to an end”? Here are four phrases that sometimes prompt church leaders to discontinue providing Learner Guides, and why those reasons really don’t make sense when you think about it.
1. “Just give me the Bible” – On the surface this seems to be a very spiritual approach to teaching in the Sunday School! A teacher simply wants to teach lessons straight from the Bible (it worked for Jesus and the apostles, right?). While no one would dare challenge the sufficiency of Scripture, I would like to point out the deficiency of this approach to Bible study: it will lead to imbalanced lessons over time (the teacher will gravitate to favorite passages, topics, or doctrine), and learners won’t get the full counsel of God’s Word. In this approach to learning, the teacher determines what to study and how long to study it, usually lecturing and telling us what he’s learned through his study. We, the learner, play the part of a passive learner. We are simply sponges, absorbing the work and insights of someone else. No thinking required. Big problem. It also says that there is no expectation of me, the learner, to read and study on my own each week…just come and listen to my teacher, maybe answer a question or two in class, and come back the next week. That’s setting the bar pretty low as far as expectations of learners is concerned. Most people, especially Americans, like being challenged. There is no challenge in this approach to teaching. And by the way, when have you ever been in an institution of higher learning where teachers and class members determined what they were going to study? Never! That’s because the dean or other person who has dedicated their lives to education determines the proper course of study over time so that learners receive the very best education while in the school…and that’s exactly what “ongoing curriculum” can do for a group of learners…give them the hope of a balanced Christian education over the long haul. Learner Guides are the “textbooks” that learners draw from as they study outside of class and mature in their understanding of God’s Word. Ongoing curriculum is created for the long-haul…with scope and sequence in mind at all times so that learners can become balanced, mature believers.
2. “Nobody reads ‘em” – When I was in school, I was taught how to take tests, and one of the cardinal rules is whenever you see the words never, always, no one, etc., you probably have a false statement, so respond to the question or statement accordingly on the test. When I hear a teacher or church leader say that “no one” reads the Learner Guide anymore, my antennae go up. That is not a true statement! If you provided 300 Learner Guides for the adults in your Sunday School, your perception may be that no one reads them, but that isn’t reality! Of course some people are reading the Learner Guide…it’s simply a statistical fact! The real question should become “how do I get more people involved in using this discipleship tool?” Teachers can coach their class members to use the Learner Guides in class by referring to specific elements in the lesson each week, and they can e-mail class members during the week, directing them to a specific statement, quote, or illustration in the Learner Guide that will be discussed in class, which will get groups talking and make for a much more robust classroom experience for everyone. You might be surprised how many adults actually do read their Learner Guides each week, using them to guide their quiet times.
3. “We needed to cut the budget” – I love this one! This is one of the most short-sighted cost-saving measures a church could ever take. It’s horribly expensive to the Learners in the long-run. Did you know that most Learner Guides that are created at LifeWay for adult learners cost around $2 and are used for 13 weeks? Do the math. That’s $.15 a week per learner to provide them with a discipleship tool that challenges them to read God’s Word every day, prepares them to participate in class, and sets the expectation that they are going to be “life-long learners.” It also is a great tool that classes can use to invite people to attend their class (“Hello, glad you visited our church…here is a copy of a learner guide that we use in our class…would you like to visit our class next week when you come back?”). There is no other tool that churches can provide for 15 cents a week that does all a Learner Guide does…none. I’ve looked around. Take my word for it. And those are only a handful of reasons to keep Learner Guides in the budget. In my estimation, a church can’t afford to not have Learner Guides in the budget.
4. “We are going to study the pastor’s message” – This is called the “sticky church” approach because of the writing of Larry Osborne, a California pastor who wrote a book by that title and advocates using sermon-based small groups. The idea is that there is no more important message for the church each week than the one the pastor delivers, so it should be talked about in small groups after it is delivered from the pulpit. Again, on the surface this sounds reasonable (someone on staff writes the questions based on the pastor’s outline, saving the church’s budget from being used to buy Learner Guides), but is it really? Do you want your entire education experience to be based on one person’s work? That’s like buying a car designed by one engineer…I don’t think I want to buy that car! I want teams of engineers designing my car because there is less chance of error, and I get a higher quality vehicle. In a sermon-based small group philosophy, “curriculum” is reduced to a set of 5 questions that are all based on the pastor’s message…and there is a better approach through the use of Learner Guides and ongoing curriculum that provide a balanced and systematic way to study the whole Bible, not just the parts that the preacher wants to focus on. And by the way, if my pastor is a good preacher, why do I need to attend a small group anyway? I’ve heard the message…I get it…so I can by-pass the Sunday School experience because we’d just repeat what I’ve already heard and understood the first time.
So let’s wrap up and ask the question: “Why provide learner guides for the adults in my Sunday School?” Because people are spiritually transformed by God’s Spirit as they study His Word, and that transformation is advanced as they study with other believers in a group. Learner Guides provide a discipleship tool that is inexpensive and affordable by churches of every size, created by education experts with a “big picture” view of the scope and sequence needed for spiritual balance, and can be used daily by learners as they spend time with God. A learner who has studied his or her lesson will be able to more fully participate in class, leading to a more robust class experience for everyone. Ongoing curriculum provides another view of Scripture, topics, and doctrine that are not covered in the pastor’s sermon series.
Have Learner Guides become that good thing that’s now come to an end? Not even close!