Start with Why

I’m a member of a cohort of folks actively engaged in Christian educational ministries for local congregations. Some of us are gainfully employed to lead the educational programs for adults, youth, and children. Others of us serve (have served) by teaching at the seminary level and developing curriculum for our denomination (Presbyterian Church USA). We meet every month by Zoom conference to encourage one another in the exercise of our vocations.

At our last meeting, one of our members expressed a desire to talk about the challenges of doing church work during a pandemic and wondering if this is in fact a new normal for the church. She asked, and we all nodded, “How do we do educational ministry for a new and strange reality”?

I wonder whether we might be asking the “how” question prematurely, without first asking why we do educational ministry in the first place. Simon Sinek has famously reintroduced many of us to the “why.” In his Ted Talk, Sinek reminds us that every organization operates on three levels: what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Further, most people can tell you what they do within an organization, some can tell you how they do it. However, very few if any can tell you why they do it, aside from citing desired outcomes, like making money. The why is caught up in words and concepts like purpose, calling, and vocation. Why do you do what you do?

Simon Sinek

Like the teacher who tells the student “what” (read this book) and the “how” (you’ll find it in the library; the English language is written from left to right and top to bottom on the page; there are several metaphorical frames of reference you’ll need to know to understand the author’s intent), the Christian educator can get caught up in the “what” (read the Bible) and the “how” (insert higher critical methods of biblical study and the like).

The “why” is the more difficult question and is seldom asked, except by honest kids who wonder why they need to read the Bible at all. If we don’t have a compelling, ready response to the “why” for Christian education, then what do the “how” and “what” matter?

What is your why? This is mine:

When my son David was a child, we had a regular bedtime routine (liturgy?). Following his bath and after his teeth were brushed, he would snuggle up in bed and I’d read a story or two from his children’s story Bible. David couldn’t get enough of the David and Goliath story. He loved the blood and guts of it, but as we would later learn, he also saw himself in the shepherd boy.

When he turned 20 years old, David was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a deadly bone cancer. Over the course of ten years, he endured six surgeries, including the amputation of his right leg, and several rounds of chemotherapy. During his first round, and before his leg was removed, David wrote a blog post about his experience. In it, he recalled David and Goliath, and likened his challenge to that of his namesake. The story gave my David courage, comfort, and strength as he faced the enemy that would ultimately take his life. That was not a small thing.

I teach people to read and understand the Bible because life is hard. I do it because the words and stories have provided me and my loved ones succor and strength, resolve and renewal. Especially now, when so many people are hurting and looking for help, the word and words of God hold promise for us all.

What is your why? Tell your story to those you teach. Let them see the Bible through your eyes, your heart. As they encounter the text, tell them what it means to you, why it matters to you.

Now let’s talk about “how.”

Advent 4: “Love” Face-to-Face Gatherings

The lessons focus on significant words of the season. They are arranged: 1. Hope, 2. Peace, 3. Joy, and 4. Love. However, feel free to arrange them according to the Advent practices of your congregation.


Ready the videos; gather an Advent wreath with candles and matches; provide Bibles and refreshments, paper and colored pencils. Provide a pail, water, and towels.

Getting Started

Welcome all guests. Conduct a brief time for introductions of new participants.

Briefly review the scope of the study and The Bible Project. Revisit expectations regarding group dynamics, such as honoring one another with respect.

Offer an opening prayer. Light four Advent candles.

Prompt discussion: When you hear the word “love,” what comes to your mind? What feelings or memories are evoked?

Digging In

Make available paper and colored pencils and invite participants to doodle or draw as they watch the video.

Introduce the video: The word “love” is one of the sloppiest words in our language, as it primarily refers to a feeling that happens to a person. In the New Testament, “love” refers to a way of treating people that was defined by Jesus himself: seeking the well-being of others regardless of their response.

Watch the video.

Following the video, note key ideas such as the Greek word “agape,” meaning self-sacrificial love; the love of God and the love for one another are entertwined; we receive God’s love through Jesus and give it away to others. 

Invite participants to offer comments and observations on what they saw and drew. Discuss: Love is a spiritual practice and not something you fall into. It is through loving that we experience the love of God. You can’t love others until you truly love yourself and acknowledge that God loves you with a love beyond anything you can imagine.

Introduce Deuteronomy 10:17-19a. The covenant people are in the last stages of preparation before they enter the land of promise. God through Moses extols the people to make love the law of their new homeland.

Invite volunteers to read Deuteronomy 10:17-19a. The people were to be like the Lord who shows no partiality, accepts no bribes, defends the fatherless and the widows, and loves strangers and immigrants, giving them food and clothing. After all, they had been aliens in Egypt.

Discuss: What does love mean for the Lord? Why do you think love is focused on actions and behavior and not feelings? How does being like the Lord compare to the creation story where God creates human beings in the image of God? What obstacles do you face when trying to love others as God loves us?

Invite volunteers to read John 13:34-35. These words of Jesus follow the footwashing. First he shows them what it means to love one another and then tells them. What does it mean to live like Jesus in love, not just feel it or talk about it? How does loving one another show the world that we are his disciples?

Watch the video “Foot Washing” from Chuck Knows Church:

Concluding Options

1. Discuss: In Jesus’ time, servants washed the feet of others. When he knelt and washed the disciples’ feet, they were startled that Jesus would take the stance of a servant. What does that mean for us? What if, instead of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the church observed a footwashing during worship services? What would giving and submitting to foot washing in a worship service say about the way we love each other?

2. Brainstorm ways you can be signs of God’s love in the world. Choose a project to live out your commitment to love, preferably one that will outlast the Advent-Christmas seasons.

3. Wash one another’s feet. Provide a pail, water, and towels. For those squeamish about showing their feet, wash each other’s hands. Say aloud John 13:34-35 as the group participates: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.


God of love, open our hearts and hands to extend your love to all the world, starting with those who are near. Thank you for sending Jesus because you so loved the world. Amen.

Sunday school, Yes or No?

I’ve been thinking about the problem of Sunday school as two related yet distinct realities.

It seems to me that the original Sunday school was more of a tutoring strategy than a school as we imagine it. It was a wonderful strategy for teaching street children and others how to read (the Bible). Poor children who worked six days a week could not attend day school, so Methodists created SS.

Over against the SS as a strategy is the so-called schooling model. The first half of the 20th century saw the church’s dedication to the schooling model, including teacher professionalization/certification, school accreditation, parent commitments, and so on. With a nod to the scientific method, churches adopted the broad contours of the schooling model without full-on adopting the model. In other words, the 20th century Sunday school was never a school. The burgeoning SS classrooms of post-WW II had little to do with progressive trends in education being adopted by the church. Yet today, many SS persist with little consideration of the latest advances in childhood education, with so many seeking resources for entertaining their children instead.

So as a model, the Sunday school is dead for the most part. Where the Sunday school persists, it either exists in large churches whose budgets and volunteers still prop it up or as a strategy that hearkens back to its earliest days. Some churches have found clues for the SS strategy’s fruitfulness from its early days, namely teaching children how to read. Literacy, cultural literacy, reading the times, and practicing ways to respond motivate the SS strategy. 

How might recovering the SS as strategy, tutoring children and others how to read—how to read their lives, the world, and the Scriptures—affect the church and its prophetic call?