Adult Education and the Challenge to Make Disciples

By Tom May

Just before ascending to Heaven, Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and make other disciples—a word that implies teaching and mentoring (Matthew 28:18-20). He also used the word teaching in those verses. With the blasting trumpet of an elephant’s screeching cry, the church is challenged to teach in such a way that the result makes disciples.

It’s been the elephant in the room for years.

For decades, churches have interpreted Jesus’ final instructions to mean “cookie-
cutter” programming—Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening service, Wednesday evening service, and an adult Sunday school program that mirrored the activities for children. But across denominations, adult Sunday school attendance has declined for several years. Churches across the country, including many megachurches, have abandoned the program as archaic and ineffective.

Driven by congregations like Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, church programming morphed into a small group program. A smaller, more personal setting would provide a gentle atmosphere for trust and community to develop. The setting would be perfect to replicate the teaching and mentoring relationship that Jesus fostered with the disciples. But in Reveal, a book published by Willow Creek in 2007, the results of an in-church survey disclosed that although small groups built personal relationships and loyalty to the local congregation, they did nothing to deepen the understanding of and application from biblical content.

And the elephant? He’s still standing, having knocked over a table and a lamp or two. Recently at lunch, Dave Hastings, senior minister with Eastside Christian Church near Louisville, Kentucky, summarized it succinctly: “I just am not sure we do this discipleship thing very well.”

There is no cookie-cutter, one-plan-fits-all answer for this elephant. My experience working with churches, in banking, and in the college setting helped me identify six important concepts about adult education that would seem to have value for the church today.


One of the few upsides to an economic recession is a resurgence of interest in education. The facts support the beliefs: more education translates into more money. Long lines to enroll in GED classes, bulging enrollment in community colleges, for-profit colleges springing up like dandelions, and high school dropouts returning to earn their degrees are but a few signs that education has become a priority.

The church needs to take advantage of this interest in education. There are two concrete ways to accomplish this. Stuart Jones, minister with First Christian Church in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, puts it bluntly: “Like it or not, if we want something to have a priority in our congregation, it has to come from the pulpit.” Connecting to God more deeply must be embraced by leadership and preached on Sunday mornings in order to stand a chance of impacting the priorities of the congregation.

Second, improve the quality of the educational experience. Upgrading the equipment and supplies of classrooms will not only enhance the teaching, but will speak volumes about your church’s priorities. Address the untrained, underprepared individual who is already teaching by instituting team teaching. Provide experiences that sharpen facilitation skills. Offer courses just for teachers that deepen content understanding. Select new teachers based on content knowledge and passion for the subject and the ability to facilitate groups.


The old adage “fail to plan and you plan to fail” certainly applies to the education program of the church. Plan first by understanding the learning needs of the congregation. Demographics (age, gender, marital status, parental status, church experience) and the circumstances of life (job loss, health, death, suffering, success, and finances) will provide the foundation for understanding the needs that should be addressed through teaching.

Once you understand the needs, it’s time to plan a course of study—the kind of classes to offer during a certain period of time. The foundation should be biblically based—books of the Bible and doctrine. It should be supplemented with classes that touch the specific needs of the congregation. If there is no one on staff who can compose such a course of study, use material developed by a publisher. Instead of letting each teacher pick his own material, help the teacher see that his class is part of a bigger vision.


An area where the business world outshines the church is in the marketing of its products. A church’s traditional means of advertising—bulletin blurbs, newsletter, onstage announcements, drama, and letters—will work for the older segment of the congregation, but will be almost overlooked by the younger members.

Bryan Halfaker, an elder at Plainfield Christian Church on the west side of Indianapolis, confessed that the church’s traditional Sunday school class has strong participation among those older than 40, but very few among those in their 20s and 30s. An informal survey revealed that many of the younger people did not even know what classes were offered.

Multimedia methods—video, onscreen slides, Web sites, Facebook, Twitter, texting, and e-mail—will reach that younger audience. A detailed course of study and an understanding of the demographics of your congregation will allow you to target market—connecting your class with the people who may need it the most.


Adults are motivated to learn as they develop needs and interests that learning will satisfy. In the secular world, adult learning is either life-centered or work-centered. In the church, the teacher needs to connect biblical truth to daily living. The teaching experiences should involve methodology that centers on active participation in a planned series of events. Instead of staying in a large group and reading five Scripture passages, divide the class into five smaller groups, assigning a passage to each group. Allow the small group to report back on significant content and life applications to the entire class.


We live in a world driven by quality—in manufacturing, product management, and customer service. The newest smart phone is faster and sleeker than what came before. It has more features, is easier to use, and has a guarantee—and we simply cannot do without it.

The perception of adult education in the church—whether deserved or not—is that quality is often lacking. Inadequate classroom facilities, unpolished or nonexistent teaching skills, and poorly developed or selected curricula lead to a negative impression. The image of adult education in the church needs a face-lift.

Here are three tangible objectives that can improve the quality of your program. First, the knowledge base of the instructor should be superior. We would not ask a history major to teach physics. Work toward finding teachers who have an understanding of the content and the insight to develop proper applications of that content. The teacher should have a passion for both the content and the student.

The instructor’s facilitation skills should be superior. Encourage team teaching. Rotate teachers to avoid burnout. Provide positive, encouraging, and practical training. In classroom settings, demonstrate discussion-leading skills, small group management, and application of truth.

Finally, make sure the curriculum and supporting materials are superior. Make use of visuals and multimedia tools. Handouts should be professional and timely. Offer out-of-classroom experiences to reinforce learning. Make additional resource and reference material accessible for those who want to pursue further study.

Innovative Learning

The day of the teacher repeating words from the lesson book (i.e., lecturing) or everyone in a circle reading a Bible verse and reflecting (i.e., small group participation) has to be over. Understand the learning styles and preferences of your students. Provide a variety of opportunities for learning—different styles, a selection of times and places, longer and shorter classes, and more and less advanced classes. Provide a variety of teaching methods rather than just lecturing or discussing. Action, experiential, and project-based learning allows a student to learn, participate, and discover for himself.

Provide a variety of circumstances for learning. My congregation offers traditional classroom experiences on Sunday mornings in two-month cycles. The classes are advertised by topic—but the congregation can meet and talk with the teachers during a two-week sign-up period prior to the first class. Extended courses on finances, parenting, and marriage are offered on a weeknight. Large group women’s and men’s studies take place throughout the week. Mentoring situations occur—connecting a leader with three to four students. Two classes will soon be offered at the church Web site, similar to online college classes; this will allow for a more self-directed learning experience.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if within this next decade the problems of discipleship—of adult education in the church—were relegated to nothing more than a white elephant sold for next-to-nothing at the neighborhood yard sale? To that end, we’ll keep on teaching.

Tom May is discipleship minister at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana. He serves as adjunct professor in the communication department at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany.

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  1. May 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    I very much appreciate the sentiment in this article. I have struggled with the idea of ditching adult sunday morning classes. I think it is an option, but whether Sunday morning or in a small home group what happens in the groups (regardless of time or location) is way more important to discipleship that anything.

    Discipleship needs to be defined and clarified in order for it to happen.

    Along those lines, the only exception I take to this article is that is this:

    We have to be careful NOT to think that Adult Education and discipleship are synonymous. You can have great teachers that follow the principles above and still have people who don’t know how to grow on their own. We can “educate” and simply create a generation that are dependent on the “educators.” Ultimately, discipleship creates self-feeders.

  2. John McArthur
    May 18, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks Tom for your wise insight. I especially liked your assertion that Sunday school works well for the over 40 crowd but adults in their 20s & 30s often don’t even know it is offered. The last church i served had a very strong Sunday School but looking back i realize that most of those who stayed were over 40 (and their children). I believe having classes on Sunday morning in conjunction with worship can still be a very effective method to teach & grow disciples, especially considering how busy everyone is during the week. The key will be in how it is advertised and how it is handled. I appreciate your insight to think outside the box!

  3. May 19, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Lots in this article I track with. I have so appreciated how our small groups and our campus Sunday morning midsize groups foster discipleship. I have struggled with going to a “small group only” model because I believe it devalues the spiritual gift of teaching. Most small group leaders have “heart’ gifts like shepherding, mercy, exthoration but not a teaching gift. Teachers like to teach and struggle with a facilation oriented small group.

    I must say we have lots of 20s and 30s involved in our Sunday morning campus groups. We have 3 midsize groups that each average 20 to 30 people. One group has about 30 couples overall. They then have small groups in homes. What we find is the small groups last for a one to three years then die. These couples still are connected to their midsize “neighborhood” on Sunday mornings where they eventually find others to start a small group. The midsize group is developing the spiritual gift of teaching in group members that helps disciple the group in the Word at a deeper level. Also, this deeper teaching is done in the context of group relationships not an elective. Electives usually lose have their audience at the halfway mark because there is no relationships or natural follow up. Who cares, we are all just there for the teaching?

    If we did not have the broader campus midsize group when the small group disbands where do people go to find others to do small group with? Hang at the nursery to meet potentials? We at Hope Church have found that both small and midsize groups have a role in discipleship, belonging and missional living and causes. Midsize groups provide many hands to do ministry!

    See for some of my DVD and other trainings and articles in this area.

  4. May 19, 2011 at 10:42 am

    I would agree with, and echo, Jason’s comment. The first-century disciple (talmid), in the Judean culture was not simply a student. A student wants to know what his/her rabbi knows. A disciple wants to be what his rabbi is (note: in Jesus’ case, not to be divine, but to live and act and think like Jesus). Discipleship is 24/7/365, which is why talmidim left their homes behind and lived with their rabbi.

    Discipleship is not something that can be simply taught, or picked up, in one-hour Sunday School or mid-week Bible Study sessions. It requires a fire in the belly (But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.) and a lot more commitment than most Christians are willing to give.

    Education (knowing the Word) is a component of discipleship, but if we treat it as the key component of discipleship, we’re setting our sights miles too low.

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