The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

GROWING IN FAITH

Delivered 9/10/2000
Text: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Rally Day. Sunday School is back. A Sunday School teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her five and six year olds. After explaining the commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother," she asked "Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?"

Without missing a beat one little boy (the oldest of a family) answered, "Thou shall not kill."(1) Good answer.

Most people will agree that education is important and that religious education is equally important. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, "To train a man in mind and not in morals is to train a menace to society." A recent national poll shows that 92% of Americans who go to church and even 68% of those who do NOT go to church want their children to receive religious instruction. It is not unusual to see young couples returning to church after years of inactivity once a baby comes along. They stand before God and the congregation at the child's baptism, promise to raise their little one in the faith, then bring that young life to church and Sunday School from week to week because they WANT the spiritual values that have shaped our civilization kept alive. God bless `em!

Israel understood that. Religious instruction was not thought of as simply a measure of faithful piety; it was regarded as insurance against national disaster. It was a guarantee that the people would never forget God's standards for right living, and that their ancient faith would never die. According to our lesson in Deuteronomy, one of the most sacred duties the people of God have is that of passing on the faith from one generation to the next. "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children..."

The early church understood the same thing. Paul wrote his son in the faith Timothy: "If you point these things out to the brothers [and sisters]"...if you instruct them..."you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus."(2)

The church TRIES to do the job. All but the tiniest of congregations offer some sort of Sunday School program. But we would have to admit that much of what passes for "education" in Sunday School would never be tolerated in the public school.

Two lawyers were bosom friends. Much to the amazement of one of them, the other became a Sunday School teacher. He protested, "I'll bet you don't even know the Lord's Prayer!"

"Everybody knows that," the other replied. "It's `Now I lay me down to sleep!'"

"You win," said the other admiringly, "I didn't think you knew so much about the Bible."

A few years ago an alarming study of Sunday Schools in mainline churches was released.(3) It was entitled, "Effective Christian Education: A National Study of Protestant Congregations." It surveyed 11,122 people (including 1,923 Presbyterians) in 561 congregations in six denominations - the Evangelical Lutheran Church, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church, USA (us). The three-and-a-half year study found that "Effective Christian Education is the most powerful, single influence congregations have on maturity of faith." In fact, one of the authors of the study said, "Christian Education matters much more than we expected. Of all the areas of congregational life we examined, involvement in an effective Christian Education program has the strongest tie to a person's growth in faith and to loyalty to one's congregation and denomination...this is as true for adults as it is for adolescents."

What do they mean by "maturity of faith?" The researchers listed eight components. A person with mature faith ---

  1. trusts in God's saving grace and believes firmly in the humanity and divinity of Jesus;


  2. experiences a sense of personal well-being, security and peace;


  3. integrates faith and life, and sees work, family, social relationships and political choices as a part of religious life;


  4. seeks spiritual growth through study, reflection, prayer and discussion with others;


  5. seeks to be a part of a community of believers in which people witness to their faith and support and nourish one another;


  6. holds life-affirming values including a commitment to racial and gender equality and affirmation of cultural and religious diversity, which includes a personal sense of responsibility for the welfare of others;


  7. advocates social and global change to bring about greater social justice; and


  8. serves humanity consistently and passionately through acts of love and justice.


These are the eight dimensions of a mature faith according to the study. Does that sound like you? If it does, you are one of the few. The study reports, "For most adults faith is underdeveloped, lacking some of the key elements necessary for faith maturity."

All is not lost though. The study concluded that some congregations (although not nearly enough) do help people grow and mature in their faith. The research mentions a half-dozen factors. Listen to them and see if they describe your church. Here they are:

1. Members grow in a congregation that encourages questions, challenges thinking and expects learning. Do we do that here at First Presbyterian? I hope so. My only concern is that phrase "expects learning." I expect you to learn, but do you expect you to learn?

2. The congregation successfully recruits members to volunteer to help people in need. Do we do that here? Is there any ongoing mechanism to encourage people to serve those who need help? We feed folks at the Sharing Place every week. There is the Farmers Market, our new Hope Tutoring Center. I doubt that we have any lack of willing workers, but I wonder if we have been offering enough opportunity. After I have been here a bit longer, I will find out.

3. Members perceive that their Sunday worship is of high quality. I hope so. We who are charged with arranging things try to make this a worthwhile hour. But can it be improved? Probably.

4. Members see their congregation as warm and friendly. Is First Presbyterian GENUINELY friendly? Do newcomers really feel welcome? Truth be known, this congregation has had the reputation of being a COLD church, but that is changing FAST! Congratulations! You are a very FRIENDLY bunch, and more and more people are finding that out. Keep up the good work.

5. Members personally experience the care and concern of other members. Is that the case here? If a member of this church finds his or her life tumbling in, can that one count on you and you and you and you for support? I hope so.

And 6. The congregation has an effective, formal Christian Education program including Sunday School classes, Bible studies, adult forums, family events, music and drama programs and new member classes. According to the study, this factor - formal Christian Education - has twice the impact of THE OTHER FIVE COMBINED in helping someone grow in the faith. In other words, if you are serious about Christian discipleship, there is NOTHING that can do the job better than being a part of a class. How about that! We have them here for you. We offer a variety of opportunities - Sunday School kicked off today, Kirk Nite gets underway this Wednesday - and by the grace of God, we will be offering even more. Christian Education is the responsibility of each one of us - both as life-long students and life-long supporters.

Emphasize LIFE-LONG. One of the myths about Christian Education that absolutely must be stamped out is that this is a ministry for children. I remember visiting a parishioner of one of my former congregations in the hospital. Bill was a member of a men's Sunday School class, and he and I were talking about another class member who was also in the hospital - Bill wanted to know how Ken was getting along and was telling me about the wonderful dinner Ken had cooked for several friends (including Bill) not too long before.

A nurse walked in during our conversation, heard that both these men were part of a Sunday School class, and laughed. "At your age?" she chuckled.

Bill, who was 70, replied, "You're never too old to learn." Amen! If mainline folks are going to grow in their faith, more and more will have to understand that.

No doubt, many of you have read Robert Fulgham's wise and witty, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.(4) I think that when it comes to faith development, we could paraphrase that and say, "All I really need to know I learned in Sunday School." I have an article in my files with that title(5) and it points out several things that you and I learned that were basic to our faith from the time we were able to understand the mother tongue.

We learned that "God is great and God is good." God is big and strong and mighty and there is nothing my God cannot do. God made this world. God made the animals and the birds. God made you and me.

We learned "Jesus Loves Me." You have probably heard the name Karl Barth, probably the best theologian of the twentieth century. He was asked near the end of his remarkable career to state the most significant truth he had come across in his lifetime of study. After a moment of thought he is reported to have answered, "Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Sunday School taught, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son..." We learned that Jesus is living and dying proof of God's love for you and me.

We learned, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world." We who lived through the sixties remember the Civil Rights struggles of the decade. We remember the assassinations. We remember the race riots and the tear gas. But if we ever gave thought to that Sunday School song that we sang, we knew that things had to change. Fortunately for all of us, changes have come - not finished yet, but on the way.

We learned "The B I B L E, yes, that's the book for me. I stand alone on the word of God, the B I B L E." There are many good books in the world, but there are none like THE good book. It has been called a Christian's Owner's Manual. That was one of the lessons of Sunday School.

We learned, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." We believe, because of what we learned in Sunday School, that we have a mission in this world. The gospel is good news and it demands to be shared - it deserves to be shouted from the housetops, printed on balloons, slapped on billboards, chanted at ballgames, scrawled across the sky. Can't do all those things? We learned in Sunday School that one of the best ways to share the gospel is by the way we live.

Sunday School taught us so much. "The Lord is my Shepherd," Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath, perhaps even "Thou shalt not kill thy little brother." Basics. But there is more to life, more to Christian discipleship, than just the basics. There is so much more we have to learn if we want to grow in faith. And I know just the place. See you Wednesday at Kirk Nite and next Sunday in Sunday School.

Amen!


1. http://lists.spunge.org/funny-bone/archive/msg00488.html

2. 1 Timothy 4:6

3. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, "What Makes Faith Mature?", Christian Century, 5/9/90, pp. 496-499

4. (New York: Villard Books, 1989)

5. from Presbyterian Survey, 9/90, pp. 22-24

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