I have the privilege and challenge of attending a different church almost every week, but this past month I was able to attend my home church two weeks in a row. The first week, at the end of our Sunday school class, our teacher announced that he and his wife would be gone the following Sunday, and asked if any of us were available to substitute.
Our eyes met, and he smiled and said, “I don’t guess you will be here next Sunday.” I replied that actually I would, and a few minutes later I was walking out the door with his teacher’s book under my arm.
I love teaching Sunday school. I’ve done my best to learn to preach over the years, but I’m really more at home in a classroom setting. I love the process of studying and organizing a lesson, of thinking through its most relevant, real life applications, and then planning creative illustrations or exercises that will help everyone take home some practical help.
But it’s more than just the teaching process that always made me love leading a Sunday school class. It’s living life with a small group of people week in and week out. It’s coming together outside class for fellowship and ministry. It’s doing missions projects together. And it’s making our class so fun and inviting and loving that we have lots of opportunities to welcome others in, and even send some of them out to do the same thing elsewhere.
That one week I got to teach Sunday school, I really only got to do the teaching part. Most of the rest of those benefits only come with consistent, loving investment in a group of people over time.
But the Lord did give us a special moment during that lesson. Our text in 2 Corinthians spoke of the burdens and hardships that Paul was carrying for the sake of the gospel. It wasn’t in the curriculum, but in my notes I had simply written the question, “Are we carrying any burdens or enduring any hardships for the sake of the gospel?”
When I framed that question for the group, I made it clear that I wasn’t just looking for a list of minor inconveniences, or for the self-absorbed whining in which we can readily engage. I asked them what burdens or hardships they were currently facing because they longed for someone to know Christ.
Frankly, I didn’t expect a lot of response. Sometimes teachers ask questions simply to create reflection or allow for conviction. But in the hallowed moments that followed, several in the class shared with quiet emotion the difficulties they were currently facing while trying to lead someone they loved to Christ, or back to Christ.
After a few minutes of sharing, we encouraged one another, and urged one another “not to give up,” as Paul had written. Paul labeled his own afflictions “momentary” and “light” compared to the glory that is waiting for us. And as our class shared our own burdens with one another in the context of God’s Word, we felt them get lighter as well. We walked out of that class with renewed determination and optimism. Now that’s Sunday school.
My one week back in teaching Sunday school reminded me again how powerful and transformational small group Bible study can be. And it gave me a renewed appreciation for my own Sunday school teacher, Matt, and for the thousands of faithful men and women that lead Bible studies in our churches every week.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.