Top Six Things to Consider before Starting a New Christian Education Ministry

You might think that the first things to consider when thinking about the feasibility of offering a program for adult spiritual growth would be: “Is there adequate space in our building?” or “Do we have enough teachers?” But these obstacles can usually be solved. If the proper training is available, teachers can come from very unlikely places. And Sunday morning classes don't need to happen on-site. I have had classes meet in rented conference rooms and the front room of a class member's apartment. Nor should your first question be: “What curriculum should we use?” There will be a time for that question, but it will come later.

The questions a church needs to ask in starting a new Christian education ministry are more foundational—and honestly ought to be asked periodically about existing ministries, as well.

Why do you want this ministry? Ministries are often started for the wrong reason. Unfortunately, if the “why” question isn’t answered properly you will always be evaluating the ministry from the wrong perspective.  If a ministry is started to satisfy a denominational executive or a powerful elder, then the way the success of the ministry will be measured is by the satisfaction of the elder or executive (and the likely hood that they will be thrilled with your efforts is pretty slim).  If a ministry is started to increase attendance at the morning worship, then the ministry will always be gauged by the number of visitors and new attenders that it generates.  (Having new attenders and visitors is a good thing, but certainly shouldn’t be the only criteria of defining a successful education ministry.)  If an adult education ministry is started because the senior pastor wants to start a ministry in order to gain status in the community, an educational ministry probably won’t be thought successful unless it makes a big splash.

The problem is that most of us are never self-aware enough to recognize our true motives or honest enough to accurately state them.  For instance, I was in one church where it became apparent that every ministry event was evaluated on an unstated set of criteria.  People felt a ministry was a success if: 1) it attracted a lot of people, 2) there was a visible emotional response from those attending, 3) there was an out of the ordinary result that could be reported (e.g. thirty families cut up their credit cards because of a class on finances), and 4) the church gained recognition and prestige in the community.  Many of the leaders were surprised (and maybe a bit offended) when I presented my findings, but most recognized that they had been unconsciously measuring the success of a ministry by this unspoken standard.  When the unspoken standard was brought out in the open they could then determine how they really wanted to evaluate ministries.

How will the education ministry fit into the church's overall vision for ministry?  There are a number of things to consider when answering this question, but I’ll just address just two here.  First, you will need to consider the style and content of the morning worship and preaching.  Most churches find that people will not go to a second program on Sunday morning unless it offers something different than what they have already received.  So, if a church has been built on the verse-by-verse exposition of the Bible using all the Greek and Hebrew, an adult education ministry that tries to replicate that will probably not be well attended.  (For one thing, volunteer teachers will probably never do it as well as the senior pastor.)  But there is a Catch 22: even though the congregation will not attend a ministry that delivers the same kind of teaching they receive in the sermon they will still believe that the only right way to teach the Bible is the way that the senior pastor does it.  This means that the senior pastor will need to value and affirm the different approach to teaching that is taken in the education ministry.

Second, you must consider the needs of the congregation.  Will the ministry that you are designing impact the greatest unmet needs of the congregation?  To determine this, you will have to hear from the congregation.  This may seem obvious, but many leaders assume they know what needs are being met by the worship service, and what needs are left unmet. (And perhaps a few vocal people have expressed their unmet needs, which may or may not mirror those of the larger congregation.) The leader then builds a ministry based on those assumptions and is surprised when the ministry doesn’t thrive the way they thought it would.

Are you willing to value the education ministry as a true partner to the Sunday morning worship and preaching? Of course, most pastors would say, “Yes,” to this question.  But the reality is that many times their actions communicate something different—and most congregations are pretty smart at picking up the message.  For instance, if the time set aside for worship and preaching is too valuable to use making announcements about the educational ministry, people will recognize that the educational ministry isn’t really important.  If success stories are told about people coming to Christ and lives being changed, but all of the examples come from the senior pastor’s activities and none are taken from the educational ministry, the congregation will gather that the educational ministry is not making an impact.  If the word “church” is always defined in terms like “Where God is worshiped in Spirit and in Truth,” or “Where the Word is Preached fearlessly” the congregation will soon realize that you are not defining it as “where the people are being educated” (although I think you could make a pretty good biblical argument for that definition (see Matthew 28:20 and 2 Timothy 2:2)).

Are you willing to eliminate obstacles to the success of the education ministry?  The tricky part about answering this question is that many of the obstacles will be unseen until the ministry gets rolling.  In one church the education ministry was doing well being offered between two worship services.  Some adults came to the first service and stayed for the education block.  Some came to the education block first and stayed for worship.  A decision was made to start a third worship service during the middle block, the time the adult classes met.  The leaders assumed that people would continue to come at the time they usually did, and leave at the time they normally left.  So, the middle service was going to be for those adults who didn’t attend the adult education ministry.  But the first day of the new worship service the adult education ministry attendance was cut in half and the new service became the largest.  One class went from an attendance of fifty the week before to five. 

People who had happily attended both a worship service and an adult education class previously, decided to skip their class in order to stay home a little longer and get home a little earlier. The appeal of being able to worship at an optimum time—not too late and not too early—was overwhelming.  So, to have a successful adult education ministry you need to be willing to remove any unforeseen obstacle, and you need to commit to that ahead of time.

Of course there are a number of obvious obstacles too, and they also need to be removed.  For instance, don’t plan a new ministry at an inconvenient time.  Plan it at an optimum one.  Make sure that the youth and children have quality offerings during the adult education ministry.  Otherwise parents and grandparents probably won’t be able to attend.  On the other hand, don’t put an adult program up against a successful children or youth ministry that needs a lot of adult volunteers.  One evening program was designed to instruct the parents of children coming to the midweek children’s ministry.  But it turned out that all the parents had been recruited to volunteer in the children’s ministry—so there were no adults left to be instructed! 

Why would people spend their time going to this ministry?  Often we leaders think that our ministry will be like a Field of Dreams: “If we build it they will come.”  And the fact is that some of our congregation will come to any ministry simply because we offer it.  But that isn’t going to be true of most people.  Time is valuable and people are busy.  So, ask yourself honestly, “What value will people get by coming to this ministry?  Will it be worth their time?”  If you can answer that question succinctly, your answer will form the foundation of the promotion you will need to do for the ministry.

Is God truly calling you to do this? You might think that this should be the first question—and if you don’t have some sense that God is calling you to start an educational ministry you probably wouldn’t spend the time answering the first 5 questions—but there is some clarity that the first five questions bring that allows you to answer the last question more honestly.  You hopefully will have a good idea of your true motives and of the cost involved in making a decision to go forward.

That said, this last question is the most important.  When you are in the midst of making hard choices because some unexpected obstacle has surfaced, it would be easy to quit fighting and give up if you weren’t sure that God had called you to start this ministry.  In addition, we want to make sure that we are cooperating with God—working in line with his will—since we have the admonition of Psalm 127:1a: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.”