Dr. Joe Dongell of Asbury Theological Seminary shared an insightful comment in a meeting I attended yesterday. We were talking about the decline in adults’ participation in Sunday School, which is a trend that extends across denominations and has been underway for more than twenty years. Joe pointed out that the typical adult Sunday School session spends a fair amount of time sharing prayer concerns, church announcements, and informal conversation at the start of the hour, so that only 20-30 minutes remain for actual Bible study.

“I’m not sure that’s all bad, though,” he said. “We may need to recognize that the adult Sunday School is one form of a congregation’s pastoral care. No substantive discipleship occurs during the half-hour or so that’s left, but the mutual support and ministry that occur in the first half hour are still important.”

He makes a valid point, although it underscores the lack of effective discipleship ministry in congregations that are continuing the traditional Sunday School, as well as those discontinuing it.

On that score, Dr. Dongell said that most seminary students believe their chief spiritual gift is teaching, and that they exercise that gift through their preaching. So young preachers’ sermons are becoming more didactic (with less evangelism, less counseling, less worship resourcing than sermons of the past generation.)

Again, not an entirely bad thing. But can 20-30 minutes of even the best didactic preaching once a week truly sustain a congregation’s discipleship ministry? I doubt it.