In this short series of articles, we have dealt with the aims of Sunday school teaching, the principles governing the content, and the importance of catechization. But who should take on the task of teaching? What qualities should we look for in identifying those who could be appointed? What attributes will mark out the Sunday school teacher before and after their appointment to the service?
The task of teaching Sunday school is challenging, and we pray that God will provide and equip teachers. The following adjectives display some of the essentials.
It may seem painfully obvious that we ought not force people to serve God in a role they are not willing to assume. Certainly, those who serve will know a Moses-like sense of reluctance. All should feel their inadequacy but ultimately God gives us a willing heart to do His will. The Old Covenant sacrifices were to be offered “of his own voluntary will” (e.g. Leviticus 1:3). All of our service must be performed with a similar willingness; a reflection of Christ, who delighted to do the Father’s will (Psalm 40:8). Teaching children is not easy. Time is required for prayerful preparation. Faithfulness is required to teach week by week, year by year. At times there may seem to be little fruit to show for the efforts made and some days the teacher will doubt the children heard anything at all. The teacher must, by God’s grace, be committed to the work; a commitment that usually develops in a heart of one willing to serve.
If we accept that the role of teaching God’s truth is a spiritual exercise, then we need teachers who walk with God. In a sense, anybody can lead in song, read a Bible story, and listen to Bible and Catechism memory work. But the communication of God’s truth in truth requires men and women who know that truth experientially. We should never succumb to the notion that anyone can teach children. To make truth simple enough is no small challenge. But the real issue is not the hearers, but the content of the teaching. We need, and should require that, those who teach the gospel to our children have themselves been converted under that truth. That truth should captivate their hearts day by day so that they have a genuine, spiritual walk with God. That spirituality will be manifest externally in a holy walk and in a burden for the worship of God and the place of public prayer. It is vital that those who teach will pray over their class, realizing that only God can apply His Word in truth.
The qualification that an elder be “apt to teach” could be applied here (1 Timothy 3:2). The exercise of teaching requires a measure of competence. Granted it is nearly impossible to quantify that measure, but it is not helpful to our children’s appreciation of truth to sit under a teacher who cannot simply and clearly explain what is contained in the Scriptures. The objective of teaching is understanding (read Nehemiah 8 and 1 Corinthians 14). True understanding requires the illumination of the Spirit, but all who teach must strive to be understood. Church sessions should endeavor to make some assessment of competence prior to placing a teacher over the care of children.
The church must remember that the Sunday school ministry is an extension of its larger teaching ministry. Therefore, they place themselves under the submission of the pastor and elders. An implication that arises out of that is that Sunday school teachers will ordinarily be church members. Church membership is the practical step showing a submission to those in rule in Christ’s church. The oversight bears responsibility for the teaching under its watch. That responsibility extends to the Sunday school. The elders’ responsibility is complemented by a teacher’s submissive spirit. This submissive heart works itself out as teachers are prepared to receive direction as to what should be taught and receive correction if they teach error.
One of the great joys in church life is to listen to someone’s experience of saving grace. Like Bunyan’s pilgrims, we walk to heaven talking about the Lord’s dealings with our souls. Many pilgrims will bear testimony to the influence of a godly Sunday school teacher; however, the fruit so demonstrated will often not arise as quickly as the teacher would desire. A patient spirit is required that is content to serve under the sovereign will of God. The teacher must sow the seed of the Word, water that seed with tearful prayers, and then leave the matter with God. “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
Dr. Stephen Pollock is minister of Malvern FPC, PA and deputy Clerk of Presbytery.