Monday, February 21, 2011

On Sunday School - Diversity

This is the latest in a multi-part series on Sunday School. For more, click on Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

There's a little sign as you walk into our classroom, put there by the church, to denote a bit about who we are. It simply says, "Co-Ed 30-40, Wade Phillips, The Loft." The sign is simply there to give us some simple identifying marks of the people who are in the class. We are both men and women, between the ages of 30 and 40, I'm the teacher, and we meet in this room, the loft above the kitchen. There's only one problem with it. It isn't really true.

I mean, most of it is. I'm the teacher. We meet in the loft. Men and women are both welcome. But there's one little problem. I have people who range from their early 20's, all the way up to their 50's in my class. So the 30-40 thing is really not true. They come in all ages. And frankly, despite the misnomer on our sign, I'm pretty pleased with this fact.

As long as we have been a class, we have really made strong efforts to have diversity in our class. Now, I know this is a word that brings up some strong connotations, some positive and some negative. But we have felt from the very beginning that the more different kinds of people we have in our class, the better. To that end, we have people, both black and white, married and single, single again and married with husbands who don't come to church, couples with "full quivers" of kids, and couples with no kids at all, people who have lived in our area all their lives, and others who just moved here. We have people who are well-off financially, and people who are struggling, and people in between. And all different kinds of ages. It's something that we feel very strongly about.

Now, if you are familiar with church growth strategies at all, you may look at this with some amount of concern; maybe even a bit of horror. For many years, a strategy called the "homogeneous unit principal," has held sway in many church circles. There are a lot of different ways to define that very large term, but the basic idea of it, I think, is that people like to be around people who are like them. People will naturally gather with other people who are like them, so we should just use that fact, and grow with it. Now, there are obviously some ways in which this almost has to be true; it's hard for people who speak different languages to worship and study together regularly. I can even see a need for some age segregation in a Sunday School class; it would be difficult for an 8-year old to get the things we are talking about (though we've seen a few of those in class over the years, too.) But the bottom line is this: I believe diversity is not only acceptable, but that it is good and should be encouraged.

Here's what I mean. The Bible has a lot to say about the right kind of diversity. Revelation 5 talks about how God "ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation . . ." God made a point, not just to save as many people as possible, but to make sure they represented all of these different kinds of people. God made the diversity, he likes it, and he wants to redeem all of it. We should embrace it too.

Maybe the most important verse when we talk about the subject of diversity is this one: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) What's the point here? It's simply that the differences that we see on the outside, those differences in race and gender, social and economic status, marital status, and age, among others, aren't really that important as compared to the similarities we have as people ransomed by Jesus. We all unite under the Cross. We all possess the same Spirit. And those similarities are infinitely more important than any differences we might have.

Now, I don't think it's enough just to say this: we must believe it in a way that it actually makes a difference. We must welcome people who don't look like us or act like us, or think like us. We must make sure the people in our class know that this is not a class for one particular "people group." We must teach on the importance of this kind of diversity, when it comes up in the texts we are studying together.

And here is what might be the most important thing: when we study the Word, those barriers come down. God's people unite around God's Word. This is why our studies are centered on the Word. It applies to everyone. It pierces hearts and minds, and cuts through joints and marrow, and gets deep inside people. And it shows us our similarities, while helping us appreciate our differences.We are not perfect at this. We're still working on it. But it's important to us.

Let me end by making something clear: the sign on the wall doesn't bother me. I'm fine with it as a guide. I just hope it never becomes a fence. I hope the common theme of the Gospel continues to help unite all kinds of people in our classroom, and for that matter, in Sunday School classrooms everywhere.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Sunday School - Let's Stay Together

This if the third of a multi-part series. For the first two parts, see here, and here.

Four of us stood on the carport; an empty house in front of us, and a U-Haul behind us. We'd just spent the last couple of hours loading up that U-Haul with furniture, clothes, and five years of memories. Now, all that was left to do was say goodbye. This was the unfortunate scene I was faced with several weeks ago, as one of the charter couples in our Sunday School class prepared to move to a different state; forced out by the closure of his plant. Over the last five years, we had built a bond that was so close, so tight, so important in the lives of both them and us, that I didn't really know how to say goodbye now. They're leaving was  more than about some our friends going away; it really felt like a part of us was leaving also.

These are the kind of relationships that are built in real, Christian community, and I've found that the best place for that to happen is in a small group/Sunday School class. We weren't close with this couple because we'd shared a few fun times together, or a few laughs with one another. We'd shared our lives. Each had let the other in on their joys and pains, successes and failures. And though the parting was terrible, it was worth it to have had the time together. This is really what church is supposed to be like and about. And we've managed to find these kind of relationships through our Sunday School class; not just with that couple, but with several others in our class.

So the question becomes, how do you do this? How can a Sunday School class cultivate these kinds of relationships? What are the things that bring people close together, and allow them to share their lives with one another? I am no expert at this, but I have seen it in action over the last five years, and I want to suggest some things that make it happen. Some of these we have done better than others. I list them in no particular order of importance.

1 - Bible Study - Okay, so I do list this one first for a reason, and I think it's very often forgotten when we talk about how we develop community and intimacy with other people. This is one of three things that the church in Acts was described as doing.  "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching . . ." (Acts 2:42) If you want to have real, Christian fellowship, it must be fellowship centered around the Word. That has to be your jumping off point.

2 - Prayer - We pray together. I would like to say we did better than we do on this. But we find out what is going on in the lives of one another, and make it a point to pray together and pray for one another. The more you pray for one another, the more intimacy you can develop with them.

3 - Fellowship - We get together, hang out and take part in one another's lives. It's really that simple. Now, let me confess. We don't have class-wide "fellowships" every month. We've tried not to be dogmatic about it. But here's what happens. The men meet monthly for breakfast on a Saturday morning. The ladies will meet together for an evening of fun every few weeks. Random members of the class meet with one another for a night out or a night in, or a few minutes of just hanging out. And once every few weeks, maybe every couple of months, we all get together for a night of fun, with all of the class members and their kids. With nearly 80 people on the roll, you can understand how this can be hectic. It normally has to be done at the church multi-purpose center. We've also held more baby and wedding showers than I can count.

4 - Service - We serve one another. As I mentioned last week, my grandmother recently passed away. And though she was buried in a town 50 miles from Meridian, I had several class members come visit us at the funeral home. In addition, more than a week after her passing, people are still bringing us meals every night. I say this, to brag on the people in my class, but to also say, this is what we do. We love to serve one another. We go above and beyond the call of duty. I mentioned baby showers earlier. I have not mentioned that our class seems to be a particularly fertile class. We've had more babies over the last five years than I can count. And in every single case, class members have fed those families for two weeks after the birth of the child. When you serve one another, you show love and concern in a way that words will never do.

5 - Ministry - Now, this is the often overlooked way of developing community, especially in Sunday School classes I've been a part of before. And I'll readily admit we haven't done as well as we would have liked, at least up until recently. But we're finding that it really strengthens bonds when people come together for more than just fun, but for a common cause. We have worked with Habitat for Humanity. We have put together bags for the homeless that included Bibles, food and sanitary items. And most recently, we've started a monthly outreach Bible Study, called City Gate, in downtown Meridian. Doing these things has helped us to develop relationships with one another that would not have been nearly so close if we'd just done a monthly fellowship.

6 - Care Groups - This is something we've found particularly helpful as we've grown. We currently have our class divided up into 9 groups, with leaders who contact the members of each group week. This is a simple way for people to pass on prayer requests, praises announcements, and concerns about the class or the church. I actually find it easier to keep up with the people in my class of nearly 80, than I did when it was a class of 20, because of this system. It works really well. I can go to one of my care group leaders right now, and get a report on each member of their class, if I need to. It also helps to have really good people heading up the groups.

The growth of our class has added both blessings and challenges to our ability to fellowship with one another. It's harder for us all to get together at one time, but it's easier for us to serve one another. We just have more people who can do things. And I've found that if you expect people to serve, they will! And they'll be glad they did. So we have a very low percentage of class members who are just seat-warmers. They're willing to take part in what we have going on.

But the sheer numbers do make it harder for us to keep up with one another. The good news is this; we have tools that can help us do that better than at virtually any time in the history of the world. And we use them! There are two tools that I use virtually every single day to keep up with members of my class, and I do not know what I would do without them - text messaging and Facebook. Now, if you are like I was just a few years ago, you hate them both. And there are serious downsides to both of them. But there are also incredible upsides. If there is an urgent prayer request, I can get it to my entire class within five minutes. I simply send out a mass text message, and/or I send it out as a Facebook message. There is no need for phone trees or smoke signals. We live in an age of instantaneous communication, and we take advantage of that.

Our class also has a Facebook page. We call it "The Loft." Clicking on the link will allow you to see only very limited information, because it is for members only. We use it as a way to share prayer requests, announcements,  and links that are of interest. I also write the occasional article on a particular topic, if I feel like there were unanswered questions after a lesson, or if someone asks me a theological question that I think it would benefit the whole class to have answered publicly.

Again, some of these things we can do better than others, I readily admit. I also admit that people have fallen through the cracks. Despite our best efforts, we have several class members who we haven't seen in months. But we don't give up. We keep studying, praying, fellowshipping, serving and ministering, as a way to get closer to get closer and encourage one another. I think, for the most part, it has worked.

And sometimes, because of circumstances beyond our control, we end up on a carport with a U-Haul. These relationships, no matter how strongly built, don't always last in the same way forever. But they do last, and neither distance nor time can truly break them. That is the joy of true, Christian fellowship.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Sunday School - Bible Study

This is the second of a multi-part series. For previous post, see On Sunday School.

It was November 2005, a Sunday. It was a Sunday I had been looking forward to for several weeks. It was the Sunday we began our new Sunday School class. We had been birthed from what was, at the time, one of the largest classes in the church, and I was excited about the prospect of several of the couples in that class joining me for a new adventure. I'd already confirmed that two couples and another woman would be joining us. I was excited to see who else would do so.

My excitement was tempered by reality that morning. No one else decided to join us, and one of the couples who would be a part of us, could not be there that Sunday. So including Crystal and I, there were five of us. It let the air out of my balloon just a little bit, to be honest. But looking back on it, I believe it was exactly what should have happened. More on that later.

I tell this story to tell you what I told those four who joined me that Sunday.  We were few in number, and our church had been in a state of plateau/decline for several years, so there was no real guarantee that we would ever grow. For all I knew, it would be us seven and no more until they finally shut us down. But I had made a commitment then, and I told it to them on this day.

Here's what I said, (paraphrased): "We're going to be committed to studying the Bible. I believe it is our only hope and our only chance. The things we read here are the most important things in the world, and we will study them. If we never grow larger than we are right now, that's fine. We are going to grow spiritually, if not numerically, because studying the Word will do that."

I'm actually certain I wasn't nearly so eloquent at the time. But that was what I believed then, and it's what I believe, even more so now, because I've really seen it in action over the last five years. I have seen people grow spiritually, and God has also grown our class numerically, exponentially even. Let me be clear; I take no credit for that (well, in my lesser moments I might). But I believe the commitment to study the Bible, deeply and systematically and in an expository way, has been blessed by God.

Looking back five years, I see now how ignorant of what I was saying that I actually was. I had spent a fair amount of time in Bible study classes that were that in name only. In other words, though they (usually) opened their Bibles, the lesson and the conversation often veered off into personal feelings and opinions, and psychology instead of theology. I had been in one class that I thought had really been serious about studying the Word, and I had watched that class shrink, rather than grow, because people thought it was "too hard." So my experience had been that classes that grew were classes that were light on the Bible. I was convinced that it could be otherwise, and even if it wasn't, that I must try anyway.

So that was my commitment. I was very fortunate to have fellow members who were in agreement with me, and who wanted to study the Bible with real depth, and ask real questions about meaning and theology and how that applied to their lives. We didn't know what would happen, but we all wanted to find out.

So our first commitment was to study the Bible, every Sunday. We weren't going to take weeks off to do testimony time, or read books on marriage, or do Bible trivia games. (Let me be clear; I'd not only done these in classes before, but recommended and supporting doing them. But not this time.) The Bible was going to be our guide.

Here's what I've learned though, since that time. It's not enough to say you're going to study the Bible. There are right ways and wrong ways to do it. Over the last 5 years, I've learned a lot. Here are some of the things that we have tried to do as we study, every single week. Admittedly, I do better some weeks than others, and many of these things, I have learned over the years.

1 - We study the Bible systematically. I'm not one to skip around the Bible a lot from week to week. My preference is to go through the Word, book by book, one at a time. But I've actually found in recent years that using the Lifeway literature (as a loose guide) has helped a lot. Whether we are studying a particular book, or a particular topic, I'm able to help people keep common themes and thoughts in the minds of my class over a several week period.

2 - We study expositionally. I'm no Biblical scholar, and I have no degrees in theology. But I do believe the best way to study scripture is to study it verse-by-verse, with the goal of trying to figure out what the passages mean. All too often, we decide on a topic we want to teach on, and then try to throw all the verses together that support what we already think. There is no growth in this. There is growth in looking at themes, and interconnections between verse and passages. In short, when you study expositionally, you study in context, with the goal of finding what God is saying.

3 - We explore the tensions. In every passage you can study, there are going to be phrases and words and sentences that, at least on their face, don't seem to make sense. Maybe they don't seem to fit with the rest of the passage. Maybe they seem to contradict something else that we know, or think we know, about God and about the Word. Whatever they are, we don't ignore them. We embrace and we explore. And in doing that, we grow, because we find more meaning and deeper nuances and connections that we didn't previously realize existed.

4 - We look for Jesus. I have come to realize over the years, that Jesus is the main character in every story and every passage that we study. He's not always standing center stage, but he can always be found, if you search hard enough. And this searching is always fruitful. The finding is even better. I try to make Jesus appear in every single lesson, sometimes from the beginning, sometimes riding in on his white horse to save the day, sometimes bubbling up from the surface over the course of the class. But he is always there, and he is always the main character.

5 - We center on the Gospel - I wish I'd realized this sooner than I did. I guess I always knew it, but I'm not sure I always really "got it." If we don't look at every part of the Bible through the lens of God's redemptive plan to save his people through Jesus' death on the Cross, then we will fall into empty moralism and legalism. We will tell people what they must do, without helping them understand where they find the strength and ability to do it. This is what too much of our Bible study and preaching has become. And it does no good. Even if it does manage to change some actions, it never changes hearts. Only the Gospel of Jesus, which rips out hearts of stone, and replaces them with new hearts that love God, can cause us to be the kinds of people we must be.

So these are my goals, every Sunday. To reach them, I spend hours in Bible study every week. It's a long, difficult, but incredibly rewarding process. I'm certainly imperfect, and have to admit my imperfections, and confess my lack of knowledge often. But we ask the questions together, and grow through the process.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Sunday School

I have had the great honor, for the last five or so years, to be able to teach a Sunday School class of young adults at my church, Northcrest Baptist, in Meridian. Yes, we still call it Sunday School here in Mississippi. I guess it really doesn't matter what it's called. It's what you're doing there that counts. Over these five years, it has been, for the most part, one of my greatest joys. I believe I am called and gifted to be a teacher, and I have taken the job as seriously as I know how. It's my hope and prayer that I get to continue leading this class for many years to come.

But things inevitably change; we're probably going to see some changes in our class soon. Frankly, we have gotten very large. We started the class five years ago, birthed from another class, with a mere 5 people there on our first Sunday. We now have almost 80 on the roll, and have lately been running close to 40 in class. It really has been remarkable to watch the class grow and change over the years. We began meeting in the smallest classroom at our church; a couple of years ago, we moved to the largest one, and we are growing ever-close to outgrowing it.

It looks like we're about to start another class out of our class; we've gotten so large, and I have some people who are really qualified to teach in my class. I'm certain one of them is going to step up and take on a leadership role in the new class. Most Sunday School/Small Group experts would tell you we should have already started another class, but we've just been having so much fun, and we've just been growing so fast. It's been a wild ride, to say the very least. We have visitors and new members almost every single Sunday. It's really a lot to keep up with. So I think a new class is probably best, though I do not look forward to losing some of my most faithful members.

A lot has happened over 5+ years. We've studied thousands of verses of scripture, gathered at dozens of homes, held numerous baby and wedding showers, fed multitudes of sick people and new parents, done multiple mission projects, and even started a brand new downtown Bible Study for young people, called City Gate. I've been in a lot of Sunday School and small group classes, and this has been by far the most active and most mission-oriented. We've also formed bonds that I believe will last a lifetime, bonds that are stronger than just friendship; they are bonds forged by fire, strengthened by service, and bonded by the Gospel of Jesus. We are truly brothers and sisters, in a way I've not always been able to say about fellow church or Sunday School members.

The fact that I'm probably about to send some of my friends off into a new adventure of their own has gotten me thinking a lot about our class lately. I think I'm going to spend the next few days blogging about what it's been like, specifically what I think we've done well, and what I think we could have done better. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thoughts on Dying

As many of you already know, my grandmother passed away Monday. We buried her yesterday. She was a great, Christian lady, a wonderful grandmother, one of my biggest cheerleaders, with a spitfire of a personality to go along with a heart and a smile as big as anyone I’ve ever known.

We watched her die. She had been sick for some time, but seemed to recovering, until early Monday morning, when she fell, and developed a large bleed on her brain. It was just a matter of time at that point. She died about nine hours after she fell. Most her family, daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, and grand in-laws were there to wish her farewell. It was difficult, but not without it’s joys, as we all shared stories about her life, and her last days. I’ve spent the last couple of days thinking a lot about her, and also a lot about the subject of death itself. I guess times like this do that to a person.

It’s hard to know exactly how to feel at a time like this; you just lost someone you love, so you feel sad. But when it’s someone who has lived a long, full life, and has been sick for so long, there is also some relief, because you know they are no longer in any pain. I think both emotions are appropriate, especially in light of what the Bible says about death itself.

Let’s make this clear; despite our sometimes romantic ideas about death and dying well, it is our enemy. Death is a result of sin. If there were no sin, there would be no death. Paul described death as “the last enemy.” (1 Corinthians 15:26) So it is an enemy. It is not, as Forrest Gump’s mom said, “just another part of life.” It is terrible, and no amount of comforting words will change the fact. Neither should we want that fact to be changed. Death is bad and death is the enemy. End of story.

But that’s not really the end of the story, is it? Because the same Paul who described death as the enemy also said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) He said that he was torn between wanting to go and be with Jesus, and to stick around and live for him. I think that is probably as appropriate a feeling about death as I can come up with.

The Bible really gives us a mixed view of death. Sometimes it may be hard to figure out how to think correctly of it, because we’re told both that for the Christian, death is an enemy and death is gain. I guess the only thing that is proper to do here is to embrace that tension. Death is terrible. It hurts. It should not be. But it is also the beginning of something much better.

The resolution to this tension is found, I think, as so many things are, at the Cross. Here is where the badness of death meets the goodness of eternity. Jesus’ death on the Cross was one of the worst, most tragic things, that ever happened. The perfect God-man, completely innocent, murdered for crimes he did not commit. It was the most tragic death in the history of the world. Yet, out of his death, great good comes, and through his resurrection, death is dealt a decisive blow. Though death is still around, it is badly wounded, and it’s defeat is assured.

That’s why I’ve imagined my grandmother this week, standing triumphantly at the gates of Heaven, echoing the words of Hosea and Paul: “O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54,55) As terrible as death is, it’s sting and it’s victory are gone, because those who believe are forever triumphant over death, as they reign in Heaven with Jesus. And this is another important point. We spent the last few days making little jokes about what my grandmother was going to say to my also-departed grandfather when she arrived. And we often think that Heaven is this great place, because our loved ones are there, and because there is no more sickness and pain and sin. And that is true, as far as it goes. But that kind of Heaven will never be ultimately satisfying unless Jesus is there. The reason death’s sting doesn’t affect us is because of what Jesus did, and because we get to be with Him when death comes. All other pleasures are secondary. My grandmother is getting the greatest pleasure that a person can possibly know right now; real, lasting, eternal fellowship with the God of the universe, who redeemed her, bought her with a price, and has promised her great reward forever.

And so we mourn our loss, but “not as those without hope,” because we have hope, not only that we will see her again, but that will see Jesus with her. And that will make it all worthwhile.