When it comes to what we in the Church typically call “adult Sunday School,” I’m a big fan. Thus, I write this endorsement of adult continuing education in the faith.

A few years ago, when I served as Associate Pastor of a good sized Presbyterian congregation, I celebrated the fact that we had at least four choices for adults who opted to add a class to their Sunday morning routine. Over the years, the church’s leadership had realized both the need for such classes, and the willingness of church members to invest an hour’s time in educational opportunities. The church was large enough to have a Church Educator on staff, and a Christian Education Committee with vision and no little creativity. Add to that, the church had a good number of strong volunteer teacher-leaders.

Thus, Sunday mornings brought a variety of ways for “grown-ups” to continue growing…in the faith. One class was left over from the old days: a men’s Bible class. Another choice would be a semester-long class exploring a social issue in the news. A third option might have been a class in some area of spiritual growth, such as prayer, the Psalms, the arts, or journaling. And the fourth choice could have been a study related to parenting, marriage enrichment, or mission work. Except for the “men’s class,” each semester brought new choices, fresh leadership, and Christian nurture that led to refreshing and reforming one’s faith.

From that larger church, I was called to a very small rural congregation, but one that highly valued its “adult Sunday school class.” It was a Sunday morning Bible study, led by a lay person, but with a retired pastor and me both there each week. Sometimes the “curriculum” was not much more than the questions provided in the margin of a study Bible, but discussion was active, well-informed, and helpful. Those participating didn’t always agree, but the conversations were respectful. And, for a church that had only 70 members when I arrived, we could easily count at least fifteen adults there every week.

During the summer, with many seasonal residents faithful to the church, sometimes there’d be upwards of 25 men and women in a circle of chairs in the “room” behind the last row of sanctuary pews. Further, since there were some visiting ministers in that region of beautiful Vermont, we could have as many as five or six ministers in that circle. Frankly, when the study centered on the Old Testament, not at all my area of expertise, I dreaded the occasional factual question aimed in my direction. I assumed many of those folks, lay and ordained, knew more than I about minor prophets and obscure kings. (“Please don’t call on me…please!”)

My last parish, a “big steeple” in a small town, hovered around 190 members for much of its life. I arrived to find that the adult class, maybe up to 12 members, was led by two opposing forces: one elderly man who was as fundamentalist as they come, and the other an elderly man who had been provost (I think) at a nearby and well-respected college. The latter gentleman was progressive in his thinking, and might well have been a fan of the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan. Imagine the sparks. And the victims.

Eventually the class leadership fell to me. Honestly, I didn’t force anyone out; both men continued to be quite verbal class members, but had relinquished teaching duties (somehow). I may have offered to “spell” them, or maybe suggested a new direction for awhile. And the “while” became quite a while. The class had been shrinking, and members had voiced no little frustration that the previous yin-yang format was not helpful.

This is getting long, isn’t it? So, let me cut to the chase. I am now in retirement, and the church in which I currently worship had no adult class when I joined its fellowship. A previous teacher had resigned for reasons I never heard. So, being a strong advocate for updating one’s spiritual growth and nurture in the faith, I offered to lead a weeknight discussion group, using the “Thoughtful Christian” curriculum. My denomination had developed the content, other denominations had bought in, and this now ecumenical study model drew a faithful core group of folks for our weekly hour. With some studies designed to provide content for just one hour’s conversation, if the topic was particularly interesting, attendance might increase just for that study. Over time, we decided to move our meeting time to the traditional hour before worship on Sunday mornings.

In my next post, I want to review The Thoughtful Christian approach. And then move beyond it. This idea of adult education in churches is critical, I believe. If our computers need updates frequently, so do our human minds. If only we could convince more grownups to join their kids in class every Sunday.

[Oh, I know…even the kids aren’t coming any more. Sigh.]