Why would anyone want a syllabus in a church? Aren’t such things supposed to be kept in schools? How about the leading of the Holy Spirit; do we no longer depend on that? These are some of the questions one can face when discussing the value of a syllabus to arrange and explain Sunday messages for the local church.
Not everyone will be open to the idea, but for elders who are interested, here are some things to help evaluate this tool when seeking to bring blessing to people through the Sunday Bible hour – or any teaching meeting for that matter.
A typical dictionary defines a syllabus as an outline and summary of topics to be covered in an education or training course. Three things stand out immediately. The first is that the syllabus looks to the future; people can plan ahead. The second is that the syllabus provides an orderly overview of the proposed study, so that the hearer can get the big picture, and know where the material is heading. The third is contained in the word “training”: a serious study is being undertaken for serious students. Sound interesting? Read on.
Probably the most serious objection is that scheduling ahead might quench the leading of the Holy Spirit. Every elder must weigh this question as it touches the heart of assembly life. Allowing the Spirit of God freedom to lead is a vital part of the health of any church. But the question need not be seen as “to lead or not to lead.” The real question may be how can He best lead?
Based on the principle of open participation by ordinary brothers in 1 Cor. 14:26, churches seeking to follow the NT pattern for church order have defended the leading of the Spirit through unarranged participation in the remembrance meeting where worship is taking place, and rightly so. But where the need is for orderly instruction which seeks to cover the whole counsel of God in Bible lessons, could the Spirit of God not lead as each section is covered, one piece at a time in a “precept upon precept, line upon line” (Is. 28:10) approach? Many think He can do so— and with good reason.
The problem with using only ministry “as led,” is not with the Spirit’s ability to lead but with man’s ability to follow! Many elders will admit that certain favored topics have been presented frequently while difficult fundamental doctrines have been neglected for years. Could the Holy Spirit not lead the speaker and bring great blessing where elders have decided on a consecutive approach in ministry?
A number of potential benefits can be expected when the assembly plans out and reveals its teaching schedule in advance. Giving people the opportunity to read and reflect on the passage in advance is a huge benefit which alone justifies the idea. Further, the elders who presumably oversee platform ministry may choose sections or invite speakers based upon gift or experience in the subject being covered.
Another benefit is that longer books in Scripture may be studied. When I was a boy I remember the wry comments that we were “experts in the little books but ignorant of the bigger books of the Bible.” If a man proposed to take up Philippians, this was sure to be a blessing. But if he proposed to study through Genesis or Isaiah, he was suspect of wanting to become the “Pastor” of the church.
Having an outline will also help younger men in the assembly who are learning to preach as they can work on a small part of the whole in company with older, more experienced men. In this way, over time, an assembly can establish a very fine library of messages on books of Scriptures and important Bible doctrines.
A Workable Plan
Making this work is not difficult but it takes some planning. Choosing a book or subject that will meet the present need of the assembly is important. Once that decision has been made, one or two brothers who are good students of the Word can work out a simple breakdown of sections or chapters matching these with available dates. Early on, this should be presented as a “rough draft” which can be edited by others for improvements.
Balance in message size is crucial; going too fast so that the people cannot keep up and digest the material, and going too slow so that the effort gets bogged down in details will hamper the outcome. In our assembly, we learned by experience to allow an unscheduled Sunday at various intervals along the syllabus to allow for special (unforeseen) needs like a “snow day,” or a visiting missionary, or the need to address an urgent matter that has come up. Having enough structure to keep the interest and enough flexibility to adjust to unforeseen circumstances is a skill to be developed with time.
In our particular assembly, the elders have decided to take up the gospel of John on Sunday mornings in the coming year. Normally the series could take 15 – 20 messages running from January through about April. Squeezing such a great book into this timeframe seemed unwise; yet dividing it into a 2-year plan also was not favored. After some discussion, the decision was made to cover the early chapters taking a “summer break” when many people are away, and resuming to finish the later chapters in the fall. Through liberty and flexibility unity was preserved.
Once the material is settled and put down into a simple syllabus, it is made available to the people in the church with the request that they keep their calendar dates free if possible to be consistent in attendance. For us, the next item would be to schedule a special study for all the men which we call the “marathon study.” It is held early on a Saturday morning to take a look at the “big picture” of the entire book, actually going chapter by chapter, and providing opportunity for men to discuss the high points. Some brothers may actually express an interest in a particular passage which is noted by the elders who will eventually invite speakers.
The apostle Paul had some good things to say about church order (I Cor. 14:40; Col. 2:5) and having a syllabus for some of the messages is one good way to display it.
Of course there may still be significant stretches of time when speakers can choose their own subjects, and probably a combination of approaches will lend itself to many.
Looking back over the years of following an outline or syllabus, it has been fascinating to see how the subjects and passages prayer- fully chosen have harmonized beautifully with the needs and experiences of the church at the time, making us all realize once again that the God who knows the future can lead moment by moment or months in advance. This should not be a surprise, but has always been refreshing.