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Many of us came into The United Methodist Church in a world very different from the one in which we now live. It appeared to be a world of sure values, a coherent world view - at least among white, middle-class Americans, the Americans who formed the majority of United Methodism. Above all, as mainline Protestants, we felt as if we were in control. At one time, we Methodists were the largest denomination of the Protestant majority. This was "our" country, the place in which the Wesleyan revival had experienced its most astounding success. We were called, with much justification, "the most American of all American churches." We, therefore, assumed that the surrounding culture affirmed and confirmed our values. We felt that we did not have to work too hard to train our young in the Christian ethic; we did not have to belabor the distinctive quality of the Christian vision. After all, this was "our" country. Having a church within a democratic American environment was formation enough.

If we were ever justified in holding such a view of the church and its surrounding culture, few Christians believe that we can hold it today. We have learned, quite painfully, that our youth will not grow up Christian, will not embrace this faith by simply watching television and living in the "right" neighborhood. Powerful social forces are at work in us and in our world, necessitating a renewed commitment to the task of Christian formation if we are to survive as a particular people in contemporary America.

Actually, this is much the same conclusion as that reached by John Wesley in eighteenth-century England. The Wesleyan revival was never a matter of simply attracting great numbers of people by great preaching. Methodists were "methodical" in their approach to Christian renewal. They knew that the church must devise methods to insure that latter-day disciples understood the cost of discipleship and were willing to pay. The Conference was the agency Wesley devised to enable the Christian pastors, teachers, and people to define the faith and to guide their ongoing communal life. The agenda of Wesley's Conferences focused on the basic questions of:

  1. What to believe (the understanding of the gospel);
  2. What to teach (the proclamation of the gospel);
  3. What to do (the activation of the gospel).1

While the Christian faith may be simple to accept, it is not easy to understand. Religion is necessarily complex because it deals with values by which the individual finds meaning in life and standards of conduct. To understand the Christian faith still requires conscious and disciplined effort. The importance of instructing people in the faith is illustrated by Jesus' telling his followers to make disciples by "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20).

Many people in the contemporary church, including many committed Christians, do not have an adequate understanding of their faith. Biblical illiteracy, of the sort that John Wesley would have deplored, is rampant. This occurs despite the fact that the Bible is central to United Methodism's understanding of the faith. This lack of understanding comes at a time when the level of formal education of United Methodist clergy and of most of the laity has never been higher.

People do not become Christians by doing what comes naturally. The way of Christ requires conversion, discipline, formation, a lifetime of response, and constant attention. Wesley knew this. His was not only an experienced "religion of the warm heart," but a religion of the mind as well. Wesley had little patience with preachers or society members who would not devote themselves to constant study, continual formation, and a lifetime of disciplined growth - sanctification. There are some Christian denominations that are suspicious of intellectual endeavor, seeing study, reflection, and the application of reason as threats to faith. These churches inculcate sets of rigid beliefs and narrow principles into their members. The United Methodist Church has never been afraid of intelligent examination, exploration, and study of the faith. Wesley believed that such study made better Christians, and Christian education was a primary focus of his ministry. Therefore, in the Wesleyan tradition the pastor is always the chief Christian educator in the congregation.

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Why Knowledge of the Faith Is Poor

No one single factor has caused the lack of knowledge about the Christian faith, characteristic of this generation of church members. Instead, a combination of factors has brought about the present situation.

The church now provides a wider variety of curricula, but far fewer regular opportunities for lay people to study than a generation ago. The Wednesday evening prayer meeting and Bible study has, for the most part, long vanished from United Methodist churches. Attendance at this service helped the participants become familiar with the scriptures. Likewise, the now defunct Sunday evening service was a time when pastors often preached a special series of sermons on a book of the Bible. The Sunday evening service was more often than not a learning as well as a worship experience.

The Sunday school (some establishment types persist in calling it "church school," but it is time to acknowledge what everyone knows: the semantic innovation never caught on) which has been the major teaching activity of the church, has had a long-term decline. In the period from 1974 to 1984, the total enrollment in the church's Sunday schools decreased every year. The total decline during the decade was 14 percent. The adult enrollment also decreased every year, but at a slower rate. The 1984 figure was 5 percent less than that in 1974. A smaller proportion of United Methodist children and youth are participating in the Sunday school than was the case a generation ago.

Part of the decline in religious knowledge is due to changes in the larger society. The increasing concentration of the population in urban areas has provided people with more options for their free time. The church simply has greater competition for the members' time and attention. The local church, and particularly the adult Sunday school class, is less the center of the individual's social life than was the case in the past.

Despite the decrease in some of the traditional educational activities of the church, people are still interested in learning about their faith. Each year every local church reports the average attendance in short-term classes conducted in that congregation. Every year during the past decade, this figure increased. In 1974, the average attendance in short-term classes was slightly over one million; in 1984 it was a million and a third. This represents a gain of 29 percent. This increase may show that the traditional Sunday school format is giving way to short-term study groups. Without a doubt, it shows that a substantial number of United Methodist people are obviously interested in learning about their faith.

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Why Pastors Do Not Teach

Teaching has not been one of the customary activities for large numbers of United Methodist pastors. There are several reasons why this has been the case. One primary reason is the particular history of Methodist clergy. The Methodist movement began as a revival. It had a strong emphasis on preaching and calling people to repentance. Nurture and discipline were provided in the small groups, the classes, and the bands, which were led by laypersons. John Wesley provided materials to be studied and expected that they would be used by the local groups.

The Methodist pastor was an itinerant. His appointment was to a circuit. While the traveling preacher was moving from church to church, the day-to-day oversight of the congregation was the responsibility of the local preacher, who was a layperson. Even after the time when clergy appointments tended to be for two or three years in the same charge, a large proportion of clergy served a circuit of two or three churches. Preaching in more than one community every week or alternating between communities every other week was not conducive to systematic, ongoing teaching.

The lack of emphasis on teaching is seen in the historic examination for a minister's admission into full connection of an annual conference. Of the nineteen questions, only one makes any reference to teaching. This asks, "Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?" (Discipline, par. 424.14). In listing the pastor's responsibilities, the Discipline states that the minister is "to give oversight to the total educational program of the church and encourage the distribution and use of United Methodist literature" (par. 439.3) and "to instruct candidates for membership. . ." (par. 439.4).

One might assume that the increased educational requirements for the clergy would have resulted in an increased interest in teaching. United Methodist clergy are now expected to have completed four years of college and three years of theological school. The charge is sometimes made that this training produces pastors who are too academic. In fact, there is virtually no expectation that the clergy will engage in serious teaching by either the denominational leaders, clergy peers, or laypeople. The annual report contains the number of weddings, funerals, and baptisms conducted. It lists the number of members gained and lost and average attendance at worship, and it shows the amount of money the congregation contributed to virtually every denominational cause. It does not ask if the minister has done any teaching during the past year.

Teaching requires time and disciplined effort. It is hard work. The average pastor is busy and is not likely to expend the effort on a task that receives no recognition from either peers or superiors and is not demanded by the local church members. Hence, energies will be directed to those tasks for which the minister perceives there will be some pay-off for his or her efforts.

Certain aspects of theological education may tend to make the pastor shy away from serious teaching in the local church. One is the increasing sophistication of the seminary subjects the pastor has studied. Some ministers may feel that it is impossible to instruct the laypeople at the level the ministers have attained. This is particularly true in biblical studies. Many pastors seem to feel that their understanding of the scriptures, particularly the historical-critical method they learned in seminary, has created an almost unbridgeable gulf between them and their lay members. One pastor, commenting on his local church, said, "I just could not teach my people the understanding of the Bible that I have learned in seminary." He chose to avoid the subject altogether.

Another factor that may hinder the minister's willingness to teach is the current emphasis on pastoral counseling and clinical pastoral education. This discipline has contributed much to the minister and has enhanced his or her ability to assist persons in dealing with problems and the crises that occur in life. However, the person whose primary interest is in pastoral counseling is less likely to want to instruct the laypersons in cognitive matters, such as Bible and theology, since counseling has put so much stress on psychological and experiential insights rather than on cognitive insights. For some clergy, a devotion to the psychological processes can be a way of not having to deal with the difficult biblical, theological, and ethical questions the Christian faith would have us confront.

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Why the Clergy Should Teach

Regular teaching by the clergy would be a significant step toward the revitalization of The United Methodist Church. There are at least three specific benefits. First, a number of laypersons would become better informed about their faith and about their church. Obviously, this would not be a large group, because the average pastor could teach only a limited number of people.

Second, the teaching pastor would provide a model for laypersons to emulate. By the pastor's teaching regularly, he or she would communicate to the lay members that the church was convinced that understanding the scriptures and the faith was important. Laypersons, following their pastor's example, would be encouraged to engage in serious study. The pastor's teaching would also model good pedagogical methods for the lay teachers within the congregation. While the Sunday school is not the only occasion for a pastor to teach, one of the characteristics of a growing Sunday school is that the pastor is a regular teacher. A pastor's presence in any activity is always a signal to the congregation of the importance the pastor places on that activity.

Third, preparation of courses would be a valuable form of continuing education for the clergy. The United Methodist Church has in recent years expressed increased concern over the need for its ministers to update continually their knowledge and to improve their skills. Every pastor is required to engage in some appropriate form of continuing education annually. The denomination, as well as many local churches, provides funds for this purpose. Continuing education courses on teaching methods could be provided, but the best training for the minister is preparing and teaching a particular subject.

The crisis of faith, which is felt by many modern people, is, in great part, a crisis of meaning. Over a decade ago, Dean Kelley, in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, argued that some churches grow because they take seriously the intellectual function of the church. They explain to people "the meaning of life in ultimate terms."2 People cannot live without meaning, without some belief structure that gives life coherence and substance. If our church neglects the intellectual task, we can be sure that people will search elsewhere.

We are convinced that there is a desire among laypersons for serious study of religious subjects. The number of adult courses offered by the public schools and community colleges is substantial. Subjects will range from bicycle repair to Russian writers. Public institutions rarely offer courses on religious subjects. The most significant issues, such as ultimate values, matters dealing with the meaning of life and death, and ethical decisions, can be seriously studied only within the church. If The United Methodist Church is to experience revitalization, the clergy must give leadership by dealing with these issues in greater depth than can be done in the twenty-minute sermon on Sunday morning. Regular, substantive courses taught by pastors is the way to begin.


  1. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church l984 (Nashville:The United Methodist Publishing House, 1984), par. 67.
  2. Dean Kelly, Why Conservative Churches are Growing (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 37.

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Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press

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