Three Kansas pastors believe the church must be actively engaged in discipleship and Sunday School can continue to play a vital role -- but Bible knowledge must be applied to life.
"We want Bible study," members of First Baptist Church of Turner, Kan., an American Baptist congregation, told Pastor Steve Neal. Although he has used multimedia-based studies and sees value in them, members "are not really into the glitz and smooth presentations," he said.
That request led Neal to develop an adult Sunday School class that studies the Bible chronologically and in depth. Each session focuses on a Scripture section, which is read a couple of times. Then attendees discuss the culture and context of the time in which the portion is set. Neal leads the discussion to bridge and apply the biblical truth class members glean to contemporary culture.
"We are very Bible-based here.... The foundation is to get people to have a deeper understanding of the Bible and to apply it to life," the pastor explained.
Neal hopes other small groups, including other Sunday School classes, will adopt a similar approach. Currently, he also leads the church's praise team in an hour of Bible study and prayer before each practice. Because the praise team leads worship, its members must have "heart preparation," the pastor explained.
In the study session, praise team members examine the Scripture to be used in the worship service. As he does in Sunday School, Neal leads them to pay particular attention to the biblical context and then to apply it to the present day.
Mike McKinney, pastor of Leawood Baptist Church, sees discipleship as the key to growth as individual believers and as the congregation. For that reason, all church activities and programs first must be grounded in discipleship and then must develop disciples as an outcome.
While discipleship has been the church's focus for several years, about five years ago, the congregation "nailed down" their purpose -- to love the Lord, to love their neighbors, and to go and make disciples. Members asked themselves two questions, McKinney explained -- "How can we help people embrace how God loves them? How do we express our love for God and our neighbor?"
The pastor led the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri-affiliated congregation to develop a discipleship model that is now incorporated into all aspects of church life -- worship, training (which includes Bible study and spiritual formation), community, ministry and witness. "We have been trying to design 'church' around the model," McKinney said.
The congregation's Sunday morning study is designed around interest or affinity groups with "more intentional Bible study" and application. "We see it as discipleship training," the pastor said.
To apply truths learned, each class takes on a mission project, and members work together in corporate mission activities.
First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kan., also an American Baptist congregation, has emphasized discipleship through its Sunday School program for several years.
"Classes are all over the board" in options they offer, according to Pastor Matt Sturtevant.
One multigenerational class, the Sojourners, attracts people from 30 to 80+ years old with its topical approach. One couple recently joined the church because of the class.
Since "there are multiple ways to learn and multiple ways to study the Bible," Sturtevant said, most Wednesday evening sessions "tend to focus on shared discipleship."
For several years, the congregation has enjoyed a multigenerational approach to Vacation Bible School, as well. The last two years, they have spread VBS over five Sunday mornings in the summer, setting up their multipurpose building as Egypt in 2010 and as Nazareth last year.
The three pastors believe emphasizing discipleship contributes to Bible literacy. "It's literacy in the fact that they are understanding the context -- how does it theologically relate to me," Neal explained.
"We've got to create ways for the Bible to come alive and make people fall in love with the Bible again," Sturtevant emphasized.
Helping members discover how to apply Bible truth is the core of discipleship and literacy, the three believe.
"It's not just knowledge, but application," McKinney said. "If you don't ever get to the application...then all the knowledge doesn't hit the mark."
Study "becomes discipleship...if people come out with a tidbit...and apply it to their life," Neal explained.
Application leads to growth and leadership. "I constantly remind members: 'I'd rather grow slow and deep, rather than fast and shallow,'" he said.
"That helps church members develop relationships with one another.... I see them grow and then become willing to step into leadership."