Skip to content

The Church and Education: Words Can Be a Problem


I can remember a question that I had to answer for my master’s degree comprehensive exams in English. It related to assessment in the teaching of composition. I distinctly recall saying to myself that I wished I could teach something that did not require me to “give grades” for the learning. I also distinctly remember that I felt as if I were exactly where I belonged being a teacher (communicator). But I also felt that I was not passionate enough about any one subject matter to get excited about really teaching it as creatively as I would like to. I wanted to communicate about (teach) spiritual things, but in those days few women were Bible teachers in formal education, let alone pastor-teachers in a church.

Eventually God led me to the field of (Christian) Religious Education. That was a field in which I could not only specialize in how people learn best, but also in the Bible, which was the textbook for how to learn about God and apply His principles to the living of our lives. Many of my personal anxieties were put to rest when I realized how much I loved that discipline, and the teaching of it. I soon learned, however, that the discipline can be a minefield of misunderstanding, and sometimes even prejudice in our denomination, often based on the connotations of words and clichés that we don’t think deeply enough to reject.

Why is it that, at least on a gut level, the word education and the word church seem to come together only in the context of “church schools?” And why is it that, when our purpose here on earth is to accept God’s redeeming love, and Their desire to transform us back to the Image of Themselves that They created us in, education and teaching don’t hold their places strongly alongside the terms ministry, preaching, outreach, and worship in a local church context?

When I made the professional change from formal secondary education to being a creator of non-formal religious curriculum (Sabbath School lessons), I looked around at what we call “ministries” in our denominational administration structure, and realized that ministries were quite similar to various formal educational disciplines, or departments, or fields in the context of education. For instance, Stewardship Ministry provides educational materials for our church members on appropriate use of their resources. Health Ministry attempts to teach church members to foster health through lifestyle, and to teach others those principles. Why are those “ministries” and not forms of teaching for discipleship? I wondered if we might even function more effectively in these forms of outreach if we used educational principles and methods rather than attempt to apply the word “ministry” to what we were doing.

The definition of “to minister” as a verb is to attend to the needs of (someone). The example of usage is “her doctor was busy ministering to the injured.” The definition of “to teach” is to show or explain to (someone) how to do something. The example of usage is "she taught him to read." I wonder why we choose to minister rather than to teach, or even teach to minister. And even though you may think that I am quibbling over wording that is inconsequential, I truly believe that this type of sloppy nomenclature has an impact on what we are trying to do as a church on many levels.

Jesus left His followers, disciples of all ages, with a commission. It is good to analyze just what the commission is and to evaluate how well the various “ministries” of the church are carrying out their part. The verbs we associate with Christ's Commission to His disciples are go, make disciples, preach, baptize, and teach. Matthew 28:18–20 (KJV) speaks of making disciples and teaching, which indicates that we are to instruct and mentor. Mark 16:15–18 gives a version of the Great Commission that uses the word preach with the implication of being a public crier of the truth (of telling people things, telling the whole world).

Although they might be hard-pressed to explain it, most parents and teachers know the difference between the activities of teaching and telling. Teaching implies that some type of plan or method repeatable by the learner exists, that the needs of the learner are taken into consideration, that some type of two-way communication continues, especially when mentoring is involved. Telling is more of a one-way street. So is preaching.

In our current working structure, however, it seems as if we prefer Mark’s record of the commission over Matthew’s, and actually put much more intentional effort into “publicly crying the truth” (telling) than we do in instructing and discipling (teaching).

We have done very well at codifying, training, implementing, and supporting the functions of going, preaching, and baptizing. We have also set up an inspired and continually growing teaching system by way of our international and unparalleled Christian system of formal education. But here our fulfilling of the commission breaks down.

The Problem

Stated simply, we have divided the commission into two parts: go, preach, baptize (i.e., the church) and go, teach (i.e., church school). Although both are laudable attempts at fulfilling the Commission, we now experience a greater and greater disconnect between the two functions as our international church membership (God's growing family) rapidly outgrows any hope of their having access, physically or financially, to our Adventist school system.

Teaching, in the Great Commission, refers to training, equipping, and empowering people to be well-informed, maturing disciples of Christ. The function of teaching must come after baptizing, as well as before, not left exclusively within the function of church schools (in our current understanding of what those are). Some of this teaching does come to the local church members through preaching. But to a church organization that has so much light on the subject of education, we cannot see preaching alone as the complete fulfillment of the commission to teach and make disciples.

Discipleship author Bill Hull[1] has described the on-going life of following Christ as happening in three stages:

1. Deliverance―to introduce people to Jesus Christ, to baptize them, delivering them into the new birth experience (evangelism). 

2. Development―to help them develop character and capacity―teaching them to obey (Christian religious education).

3. Deployment―sending them to go out to make other disciples (ministry/mission).

Discipleship describes the on-going life of the follower of Christ―the broader Christian experience. It is the state of becoming a disciple (not instantly made a disciple). This process, happens “until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19), until you are “conformed” (Romans 8:29) to the pattern of Jesus, until you are “transformed” into His likeness (Romans 12:2). These are functions of growth and development (teaching/learning), not being ministered to.

Let’s look at the development and deployment aspects in light of our Adventist culture and message. In the book Education, in the very first paragraph, we read:

Our ideas of education take too narrow and too low a range. There is need of a broader scope, a higher aim.

True education means more than the perusal of a certain course of study.  It means more than a preparation for the life that now is.  It has to do with the whole being, and with the whole period of existence possible to man. It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers.  It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.

Obviously, God could not have meant all the wonderful counsel on education that He sent through Ellen White to be for only the small portion of His children on this earth who get to attend formal education at a church-sponsored school. This advice is much bigger—it is for all His children. So where in the church do we see this teaching and learning taking place? What are our mechanisms for non-formal Christian religious education?

Some time ago, an article by Rex Edwards was printed in the Adventist Review, which outlines the unique gifts each member of the body has to minister within and without the body. He maintains that each member is a co-minister―a minister in development. He wrote: “The pastor’s role is not merely to keep people with Christ, but to develop them for Christ’s service in the church and in the world. A pastor is the head of a ‘seminary,’ a training school for workers. The pastor is the dean, and the members are his colleagues in ministry.”[2]

The “clergy” minister is there to equip and empower the “laity” ministers to function well as ministers. They are not just to be cajoled into taking up some kind of ministry to help out the local church organization, the local organization is there to help them grow and flourish in the ministry with which they have been gifted by God. This calls for intentional training, teaching, education, mentoring.

The veteran discipler, Bill Hull, posed the burning question: “Does the gospel we preach produce disciples or does it produce consumers of religious goods and services?” When we, as Seventh-day Adventists, ponder that question, we realize that sometimes what should have been framed as education or opportunities for learning in our church have instead been framed as marketing pieces for various publishing houses or ministry departments. There has been no urgency or rhyme or reason for connecting individual members to the resources and events that would help them grow. It is almost as if our very stellar formal education system, of which we are denominationally proud, has blinded us to the learning needs of the majority of God’s children sitting in the pews of the churches from week to week.

For other denominations, Christian education resides only in the church. “Christian education is a learning function of the church, which is tied with worship and mission in a climate of fellowship. These functions are interrelated and supportive of one another. . . . Learning, worshiping and mission overlap in a fluid manner.”[3]

In the years that I have been pondering these things, trickles of progress have been made. The Adventist Learning Community was launched (, and became a continuing education resource for pastors and teachers and other church workers, but squeezed into their “story” is the fact that there are also resources for those in the pews who want to be better trained for their deployment as fellow ministers of the gospel in their local community. This initiative is part of the North American Division Office of Education. Formal education is finally reaching across the divide and grasping the hand of non-formal education in the interest of growing disciples in the local church. That is described in these words at the very end of the purpose statement of The Adventist Learning Community: “we support ministry efforts of believers and seekers.”

The question now is this, do we “in the pews,” want to be educated, mentored, grown, discipled, enriched for deployment in ministry? Or do we want to continue to be “consumers of religious goods and services,” hunkered down comfortably until the Second Advent?


Notes & References:

[1] Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship, NavPress, 2006.

[2] Rex Edwards, “Celebrating Uniqueness,” Adventist Review, October 10, 2006.

[3] Robert Banks & R. Paul Stevens, “An A-to-Z Guide to Following Christ in Every Aspect of Life,” in Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, InterVarsity Press.


Kathy Beagles Coneff is a retired religious educator and editor. She continues to use those skills doing contract work with NAD Youth and Young Adult Ministries and others.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash



We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.