The use of our Lifeway quarterlies remains one of the older Southern Baptist Sunday school traditions. A quarterly is “the handbook” for the Sunday school lessons that provides key points, illustrations, background information, each week’s focal text, and devotional material throughout the week. The use of the quarterly, however, varies. In some classes the quarterlies are shoved in the corner, covered in dust. Other classes pass them out each quarter, the material vanishing from sight and never used. In still other classes, however, teachers actually teach from the quarterly itself and not from the Bible. One of the clearest indications of such, by the way, is when the members bring their quarterly to class instead of their Bible. The quarterly has, therefore, become the primary means in such instances for the people’s interaction with God’s word. I write today to discourage such misuse of the literature.
2. Teach the Text
No matter what you think of the particularities of Lifeway’s or any other publisher’s quarterlies, the material is not and should not be a replacement for the Bible. It should not be the focus of the teaching time. Neither should it be the focus of the individual’s private, devotional life.
For the same reason that we do not stand up and teach the latest self-help book in a Sunday school or Bible Study class, we should also not teach quarterlies from the lectern. It is the Word of God that binds and mends the human heart. It is the Word of God, the Bible itself, that the Spirit of God uses to bring dead men to life. Scripture compels people to take up the cross and die to themselves. Mere books do not. Even well intentioned Christian literature, such as Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life or Bunyon’s Pilgrim Progress, cannot or at least should not replace the actual task of reading and understanding the Bible. Such literature has some value and can be addressed in other venues. Sunday school and Bible Study, however, should center on the teaching and learning of the Word of God as one of the core disciplines of a Christian’s life for the equipping of ministry throughout the week.
Two main points: First, teachers should teach the Bible and not other material because Scripture is what gives life and helps the class (and the church as a whole) to focus itself on God’s mission and not someone else’s mission. When the Bible is taught book by book, part by part, verse by verse then God’s ideas of who He is and what He did and does frame the discussion and ministry. When any other material becomes the focal point, God’s ministry is relegated to second-fiddle in favor of the designs of a teacher, publisher, or author.
Second, when a teacher teaches the Bible he must not depend on the outline or main points provided by a quarterly or commentary. He must, instead, learn to do the hard work of determining the meaning on his own. Each teacher must honor the Lord to the best of his ability in his own study. Not every teacher will have the same depth of ability, but every teacher should be willing to grow from where he is to where God wants him to be. The teacher must consider not only what the points of the lesson are from Lifeway, therefore, but he must also work to understand for himself what he believes the Word to be through his own personal study.
How can a teacher equip his students to study the word on their own when he will not do the same? More to the point, how can a pastor lead his Sunday school teachers to teach through a book of the Bible and to do the work of study on their own unless the Pastor is doing it himself? In other words, the Pulpit and the lectern exist not merely to provide information but also to model how the growing Christian may learn for himself this information. The teacher teaches his content and models Christian learning also. He teaches how to fish as he is also providing the meal. As he provides the Word of God, he also shows how to properly handle it.
One big problem, however, emerges with such a vision. Most churches do not have enough godly, equipped men to teach all the classes in a local church. I believe that churches and their leaders must work to equip these men because this problem is a real limitation. If a man cannot handle the Word of God well, he does not need to teach. Scripture places teachers under a stricter judgment. Church leaders must work to equip these men for the task. Such a direction may mean a church limiting the number of classes for a season. More likely, however, it means that the current batch of teachers needs to be better equipped immediately. Church leaders must devote their time in teaching Sunday school teachers on how to interpret the Bible and then communicate its message properly. Instructions on the mechanics of leading a class or in the style of teaching are useful but superficial when compared with the more difficult task of learning how to interpret. In other words, I want to suggest that most Sunday school training, therefore, is mere window-dressing, a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.
Teach the text, teacher. Study it for yourself. Learn from the text and communicate its message to your people. Admit when you don’t have all the answers and seek ever harder to learn what you’re lacking (and we are all lacking). The helps are good, but wrestling with the Bible is so much better. Don’t shortchange yourself or your people from the pleasure of hearing God’s voice.
Next post … Guideline #3 … Teach the Authorially Intended Meaning