Adult Spiritual Formation and Catechesis: Can Sunday School Help?

Missing Sunday School

The small groups are made up of students with varying aptitudes and abilities. Inevitably, my students who are weak in a subject such as algebra gain enormous help when they are allowed to work with students who have a more highly developed skill in this area.

As a former Protestant Christian, I can tell you that one of the main things that I miss most since becoming Catholic is the opportunity to interact and relate with other adult laypersons about faith issues at an Adult Sunday School class. At the Lutheran churches that I attended there were, in most cases, two or more Adult Sunday School classes that one could attend — either before or after our church services. These groups allowed very close relationships to form between parishioners and we discovered that many of our fellow lay believers had enormous gifts of prayer and devotion to our Lord — much encouragement was given and received by all present.

As a Lutheran, all I had was about 500 years of writings and experiences from which to draw any type of spiritual direction and wisdom — and this in an environment severed from the apostolic ministry of the sacraments. Still I learned a great deal about Christian doctrine, the Bible and the practical application of biblical principles in my life. Since becoming Catholic I have been exposed to a depth of spirituality and a closeness to Christ that I have never before experienced. I have access to an immense sea of prayers, writings, and books that contributed, not only to my conversion to the faith, but will also help with God’s grace to keep me growing in the faith. This large volume of Church resources is the perfect material to use in developing small discussion groups that could meet either between or after Sunday masses. There is a great irony in that the most equipped Church in the world for providing material, both spiritual and academic, for the religious formation and education of all people, provides very few opportunities for small group discussion and adult formation at the parish level on a weekly basis.

In order to address this need for Adult Catechesis and Spiritual Formation in our own parish, my wife and I asked our priest if we could lead an Adult Sunday School class during Lent. We did this in January so that we could plan the class well before we entered the Lenten Season. Being new to the parish, we did not know when would be the best time to hold these classes or promote them so in these areas we yielded to the knowledge and wisdom of our priest. Father Tom was very open to this idea of picking a few Sundays in Lent for meditation on some spiritual or religious topic and when I told Father that I would be willing to lead the group discussion, he was even more open to the idea.

The Leader’s Role

I know that many lay Catholics do not feel able to lead an Adult Sunday School class. In reality, the role of a leader of an adult group discussion is really to facilitate discussion. It is not the role of the discussion leader to have all of the answers to everyone’s questions. Of course, the more familiar the leader is with the information contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Bible, the better that person will be able to lead. Therefore, the leader of the group should be willing to prepare for the class beforehand. He should be familiar with the Catechism and Scripture citations applicable to the discussion topic and if these are made available to other participants in the group so that they might read them before, during, or after the class, so much the better. Having a copy of these books on hand during the Adult Sunday School class is also helpful because there will be times when the class will want to refer to them to answer a question. I can tell you from my experiences in leading Adult Sunday School classes that the benefits of leading are worth the extra planning and reading that must be done because your faith, knowledge, and spirituality will grow more than ever.

When the class is lead by a layperson it helps to have the priest attend at least the first or the first few sessions. In this way, the parish knows that their pastor supports this activity. There are inevitably some questions that are asked that only a priest can and should address, questions that apply to specific personal situations. If the priest is in attendance these issues can be addressed in a general way by him in public and then, if a follow-up is necessary, the questioner can speak with the priest in private. If the priest is not present, the questioner can be referred to him.

Also, the lay leader must recognize that the priest is entrusted with the responsibility of caring for the flock through the Word and the Sacraments. This means that lay leaders are called to be obedient to their pastors when it comes to leading Sunday School discussions. I have always made it a habit to ask for feedback from my pastor on the discussions that have occurred in the Adult Sunday School classes that I have led. This way, the pastor knows what is on the mind of those who attend the class and what problems, questions, and needs those individuals have — things that can be addressed by the pastor in other appropriate venues.

A Positive Response

When conducting the small group or Adult Sunday School class, adhering to the scheduled time for the event is critical. The class must start on time and end on time. Starting or ending late on a regular basis will frustrate the leader of the group and those who attend. In addition, I have always found it beneficial to start the group and end the group with a short prayer even if it just a Hail Mary or an Our Father. This starts and ends the group on the right note.

Our experience this past Sunday with the first meeting of our Adult Sunday School class on The Passion of the Christ was extremely well received. We had well over fifty people in attendance. Individuals expressed freely to one another their faith and love of God and what He did for us through The Passion during our 60-minute group discussion. The resource we used for our group was the book 100 Questions on the Passion, published as a joint effort by Catholic Exchange and Ascension Press. Afterwards, numerous individuals told me that our parish needs to do more classes of this kind so as to strengthen the faith of the adult members of our Church. Others came up and told me that they were going to share what they had learned that day with their friends. These classes really do help the laity to catch the evangelistic spirit and share Christ with others.

I know that with all of the problems in the Church — particularly with Catechesis and Catholic Education — that the temptation is there to just give up. Please do not do that. The Lord has given us a great gift in the Church and every one of us is gifted. As members of Christ’s body, we are called to build up the body of Christ through the gifts that we have received from our Lord. I know that the Catholics who read the Catholic Exchange website are those who know and love their faith and the Church. We are the ones who, with the help of God’s grace and with the support of legitimate Church authority, can assist the body of Christ in forming better educated and better equipped Catholic believers who can capture the culture for Christ. And I believe that Adult Sunday School discussion groups can be used effectively to accomplish this task.

© Copyright 2004 Catholic Exchange

Jeffery Schwehm is a former member of the Jehovah's Witnesses' Headquarters Staff in Brooklyn, New York and a former Lutheran. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, WI and is a member of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Kohler, WI. Jeff will be a guest May 10th on the EWTN show The Journey Home.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage