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 (Manna 61: Church Life)
Raising the Bar in Religious Education
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Raising the Bar in Religious Education

Tan Guat Kim—Cheras, Malaysia

“The youths of today will be the leaders of tomorrow.”

I have often pondered on this axiom. It is a natural process of life. However, the demands and expectations on today’s young people coupled with their own curiosity and society’s influences well surpass that of my own youth!

Today’s progressive and globalized society reflects phenomenal development. Knowledge is expanding at an exponential rate. Simultaneously, we see the emergence of children who are the product of this new age.

In this environment, it is important for religious education (RE) classes to meet the diverse and changing needs of the students. Are we sufficiently equipped to help our youths face the challenges that lie ahead of them? How do we help our students stay grounded in pure faith, church doctrines, and Christian ethics? What does it take for us to help them live a life of reverence and to serve God?

These objectives should be the core of every RE department, but this feat entails redesigning an RE landscape that may have already become outdated. It is a timely move for the RE department to diversify its programs to accommodate a new generation of children effectively.

What should be the specific goals and strategies of the RE department in the 21st century? More importantly, how are we to address the changing world while retaining the objectives of religious education? These are pertinent questions and sobering challenges that ought to be raised.

THE ROLE OF RELIGIOUS EDUCATION

At Home

RE classes can influence the values of the students, but Christian values are first and foremost developed at home. Because children will absorb values and beliefs that are modeled at home, Christian parents must not neglect their parenting responsibilities.

To be a Christian parent is a gift from God as well as a duty, and the greatest challenge is to bring up children who are able to fulfill their religious, social, and moral responsibilities.

God explicitly gave instructions for parents to teach their children His thoughts and laws (Deut 11:19-21). Through Moses, God told the Israelites:

            “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” (Deut 6:6, 7)

Children must be rooted in their faith at home and have their faith reinforced in the church.

Therefore, parents must take religious education seriously. They should lead by example and incorporate God’s word into their daily thinking, speaking, and living. Priorities should include praying together, setting aside consistent times to read the Bible, and building a close and loving rapport with their children.

At Church

The church needs to support the RE department and understand its role. Sufficient funds should be allocated to improve educational resources such as visual aids, reference books, and other classroom materials.

The church should liaise closely with the RE department. The concerns and needs of the RE department should be brought up and discussed with the church council. In turn, they must take proactive steps to provide for those needs and address problems.

When the church and the RE department work together, the church doctrines and teachings will have significant effects on students and their families and make an impact on our students’ upbringing. We cannot afford to look lightly on RE because the children who pass through church doors today will comprise the future congregation and leaders—the hope—of the church.

Ultimately, the church should remain a child’s spiritual anchor, and those of us who are given the responsibility of RE are tasked with guiding our students to God and ensuring that they will remain in the church and live a life of reverence and discipline (Col 1:28).

BUILDING A SOLID FOUNDATION

An Impenetrable Faith

While weekly RE classes can help guide students and give them Bible knowledge and life application examples, what happens during the rest of the week is out of the teacher’s hands.

An area of immense concern, particularly for our impressionable teenage youths, is their social circle. They are experiencing a plethora of disconcerting changes and challenges. For many, their Christian values and integrity will be challenged as they come into more contact with the world through their friends and the media. Can they still defend and maintain their faith?

In reality, our students cannot live an insular life, restricting their movements and debarring themselves from interacting with friends outside the church and their homes. This is not practical—we must find another way to ensure that their faith remains grounded.

I recall Daniel and his three friends, who were captured and thrown into the sinful society of Babylon. They were taken from their families as adolescents into the service of the king. They were surrounded by a pagan and idolatrous culture, yet none of them were influenced by it! How did they stand firm in such an environment?

The answer is they took their values and faith with them. They did not isolate themselves in order to keep their faith. Their faith remained deeply ingrained in their hearts, despite being exposed to all sorts of social ills.

Therefore, to nurture and prepare our students, we must challenge them to acquire an impenetrable faith. This will ensure that they are able to overcome all temptations and uphold their Christian principles in this ruthless world—just like Daniel and his friends.

Well-versed in the Bible

An essential component of maintaining a strong faith is being well-versed in the Bible. It is not possible to live out God’s words if we are not acquainted with them.

Therefore, it is disheartening to note that, for many students, their only contact with the Bible is when they attend RE classes. I have reminded my Junior Youth students (ages thirteen to seventeen) time and again that reading the Bible is not an option but absolutely critical and mandatory in their walk as a Christian, and they must never underestimate the importance of Bible reading.

Many are reluctant to read; not only do they find it boring and dogmatic, they encounter difficulties in understanding the many connotations of what they read. Nevertheless, these obstacles must be overcome.

Students must be conscientious in following a Bible reading plan. They should be encouraged to read the Bible systematically, with determination and commitment. For example, they can read in chronological order to see the significance of Bible events and accounts clearly.

Guidelines should be given on how to approach reading the Bible. They should begin with a prayer for God’s guidance and understanding (Jn 16:13). The students’ attitude is also important; they should read with a humble heart and depend on the wisdom of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Study aids (Bible concordance, church commentaries and outlines, the dictionary, etc.) can further enhance their understanding and perception of the Bible. More importantly, RE students must be made to realize that reading the Bible to gain knowledge is insufficient. They must take it a step further by applying the word of God (2 Tim 2:15).  

They must be firmly grounded in the doctrines and disciplined in their pursuit to study the Bible. Then they will be able to judge the world from God’s perspective and grow in their faith. All RE teachers should continually encourage their students in this direction of spiritual cultivation.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Having had the privilege of being a teacher for three decades, I have concluded that the students of today greatly differ in character, poise, and personality from those I first taught. Therefore, to keep up with the times, I must also change and explore new methods and avenues while retaining what has proven to be good and sound.

There is an imminent need to evaluate our teaching methods and modify them in response to the changing society. There is limited room for complacency, but what I would like to strongly reiterate is that, amidst changes, the fundamental beliefs and church doctrines must never be sacrificed. God intended that His truth be applicable at all times, regardless of changing and new environments.

For RE Teachers

Being an RE teacher is a privilege and an honor and should not become a burden or a chore.

Teaching God’s word is not merely a duty or a cerebral task—it requires our emotional and spiritual involvement. Being an RE teacher means that we should not only teach but constantly be supportive and concerned for our students and be sincerely committed to taking a personal interest in their faith and spiritual growth.

We are not teachers for an hour per week; instead, we need to make the effort to understand and bond with them as unique individuals. This is by far the most rewarding approach to being an RE teacher.

If all RE teachers constantly examine themselves, evaluate and improve their teaching methods, inject new ideas and enthusiasm in their teaching, and take time to be thoroughly prepared for their lessons, it will alleviate boredom and classroom routine. In addition, it will open doors and avenues for the students to be more motivated to learn.

We should also support seminars and workshops organized by the church on local, national, and international levels. These programs provide in-depth exposure and practical advice on teaching. These skills and knowledge are necessary and relevant, and they may prevent more experienced teachers from getting stuck in a rut!

Counseling

The RE department can consider offering student counseling sessions that are made available to all RE students as a group or on a one-on-one basis. There are students who may need individual counseling beyond the classroom to resolve personal issues. They need the privacy to share with someone they can trust to alleviate their personal burdens—a counselor, teacher, or godly adult who can lend an objective ear and offer wisdom from the Bible and the Holy Spirit.

Counseling must integrate prayers, appropriate advice from a Christian perspective, and biblical principles. Only then will the counseling sessions be truly beneficial.

Bible-based advice on topics like friendship, peer pressure, and career guidance should be discussed openly in class. Students should be encouraged to look in the Bible for answers and be prepared to deal with such issues. This will then pave the way for resilient personal development.

Evangelism

It is never too early to learn the art of evangelizing! RE students can be ambassadors for God. What better way than for the students to invite their friends to attend RE classes together with them?

RE teachers should encourage their students to be involved in evangelism. First, RE teachers should instill a sense of responsibility and the need to evangelize to their friends outside of church.

Second, they should be taught how to evangelize. The RE department should set aside time to teach the importance and significance of preaching God’s word.

Third, much preparatory work is needed. Students should be familiar with the church doctrines and key Bible verses before preaching to their friends. It is important to equip the students with appropriate procedures of preaching and to constantly remind and show them the power of prayer in spreading the gospel.

Outreach Programs

The RE department can implement programs that appeal to students to reach out and show their concern for other members. These activities, which are less didactic and more interactive, can include leading fellowship services and helping members in need.

The objective of outreach is to teach Christian living principles. Visiting retirement homes, orphanages, and hospitals provide opportunities for the students to evangelize and work with non-Christians.

The students should also be encouraged to serve other members in the church. For example, they can allocate a certain portion of their time to run errands or do some housework for senior members who are in need of help. They can also serve fellow students facing difficulties by offering their time, prayer, and support.

Participating in these outreach efforts will allow students to bond with their community as well as other church members. These efforts will help students appreciate their social environment and acquire healthy attitudes like humility, respect, commitment, concern for others, as well as responsibility. Such exposures can add great value towards their personal Christian growth. 

In an ever-changing society, RE classes pave the way for students to achieve their emotional, social, and spiritual potentials—helping each student develop and reach spiritual maturity and integrity.

There is wisdom in serving God as an RE teacher, and it is the desire of RE teachers everywhere to see their students articulate and apply God’s words in life and to utilize their talents to serve Him and make good decisions in their personal lives.

May God open for us a window of opportunity to serve with an unclouded mind, undaunted spirit, and steadfast faith. When an RE department is committed to working with the church and to adapt and make changes in line with the needs of a new generation of students, a dedicated and committed teacher can and will make the difference.

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