On July 15, 2020 my dear 94-year-old mother-in-law, Jean Kiger, passed from this life to the next. A tiny, tough, wonderful woman, Jean had recently survived harsh falls, COVID-19, pneumonia and blood clots. Eventually, though, her body finally gave out, and following a long goodbye of two weeks with her unresponsive and unable to communicate, eat or drink, she breathed her last breath this side of heaven while my wife, Linda, held her hand.

For years Jean had most details of her funeral planned. She wanted by oldest son, Brian, to sing Because He Lives and It Is Well With My Soul. She wanted my youngest son, Jason, to read an adaptation of Psalm 23 Jean selected and typed up for us. She wanted me to do the eulogy, leading the funeral and graveside service. Linda volunteered to welcome everyone to the funeral and share some initial personal reflections about her mom. It was a family affair on August 3, 2020 from beginning to end in conducting the funeral in St. Louis, Missouri. My sister-in-law, Jill, helped with several details in preparing for the day, and far more friends came out to celebrate her life with us than we expected in the middle of a pandemic. Jean would have enjoyed it.

I thought it would be nice to share in a blog post the eulogy and the graveside service I led for her. You can find the full funeral program here.

Until we meet again, Jean. We love you. We miss you. We will see you soon on that glorious day when all of God’s children are gathered around our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Eulogy

I hit the mother-in-law jackpot when I married Linda over 41 years ago and got Jean in the deal for free. I have to admit that I was at first a little intimidated by Jean. Linda and I had gotten engaged during my junior and her senior year at William Jewell College and we went to St. Louis for a “meet the in-laws-to-be” weekend and to inform them of our engagement.

Jean and Chuck

They were, of course, very gracious and welcoming, but I was still intimidated by them both. Chuck could have beaten skinny little me to a pulp with his wooden leg if he wanted, and Jean seemed so strait-laced, so prim and proper. I figured I could outrun Chuck, but I wasn’t at all sure I could outsmart Jean if push came to shove. 42 years later I now know beyond all doubt I could never outsmart Jean. The lady was sharp!

As the years passed and we had so many wonderful times together, my original intimidation gave way long ago to admiration, appreciation, gratitude and thanksgiving for who she was as a person, as Mom, Grandma, Mawmaw, friend, and as a fellow believer in Christ. There are so many positive things I could say about Jean, but I’m going to focus on 3 that jump foremost to mind as the qualities I will always remember with a smile.

One is that Jean had a wonderful sense of humor. She was just flat-out funny! She enjoyed laughing and I cherish the memories of her burying her head in her hand, closing her eyes and bouncing a little as she silently laughed at whatever struck her funny. She would tell us stories of things happening at her retirement home, Treyton Oak Towers. Some of the things she’d share would just be the fun times and goofiness of fellow retirees enjoying one another. Some of what she laughed at was driven by the realities of growing old. And if someone was beginning to act and talk more than a little crazy as they got up there in years, she would just say, “She’s as looney as she can be.” She didn’t mince words.

For years, Jean would regularly send us humorous emails. I kept them all and went back a few years in preparation for this eulogy and laughed at several things she sent, like the photos of signs on restaurants and funny memes that said things like:

  • No senior citizen discounts: You’ve had twice as long to get the money.
  • Push. If that doesn’t work, pull. If that doesn’t work, we must be closed.
  • This business guarded by shotgun 3 days a week. You guess which 3.
  • Teach your kids about taxes. Eat 30% of their ice cream.
  • My daughter wanted a Cinderella-themed party, so I invited all her friends over and made them clean my house.
  • I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may update your Facebook status.

Jean’s humor came through cards she would send on birthdays and other occasions. She sometimes used her creativity to write a short poem to include with the card. Many times the card itself was funny. Linda found one she sent to her friend Norma in 2000 that has a caricature of an old lady on the front and it says, “Once a sex symbol, always a sex symbol.” On the inside, it says, “What a relief it is to know we have nothing to worry about! Happy birthday.” It was signed, “Jean 2000.” Then her friend Norma sent it back to her in 2001 on Jean’s birthday, crossing out Jean’s name and signing her own and adding “2001.” And so the tradition began and every year the card went through the mail twice as they added their name and the year until its final trip from Norma to Jean in 2014. They would occasionally add a post-it note on the inside. The top one says, “Aren’t you glad wrinkles don’t hurt!”

So I appreciate Jean’s humor that she carried with her throughout all of her days.

Jean with her mom, Lucille, and daughters, Linda and Jill

In addition to her humor, I am thankful for Jean’s extreme love and devotion to her family. She loved her daughters, Linda and Jill, and really would do anything that she thought was needed and good for them. When her grandsons, Brian and Jason, came along, she cherished the role of Grandma. Linda and I perhaps faded a little in importance after that because, after all, grandchildren are far more fun than children. The things she made for Brian and Jason, the time she spent with them, the photos of them she cherished the rest of her life – all these point to her love of family that never wavered.

Then if we fast forward to another generation, the addition of having Abby and Jackson as great-grandchildren was a joy beyond description to Jean. She marveled at both the beauty and behaviors and fun times she enjoyed with Abby and Jack. She took great pleasure in seeing things she made for Brian and Jason like a card table tent and the blue alphabet book we have with us today enjoyed by Abby and Jackson a generation later.

It was always a pleasure to have Jean with us at my family’s gatherings at my parents’ farm in Winchester, KY or at my daughter-in-law, Lauren’s, family gatherings in Louisville whether for a random dinner together or one of our annual traditions like Polar Express Night where we all wore pajamas and drank hot chocolate and watched the movie.

I don’t think there is anything Jean would have said “no” to if asked for the good of her family. She loved us. She was extremely generous toward us. We are indebted forever to her and eternally thankful to God for that example of what it means to be a wonderful Mom, Grandma, Mawmaw and mother-in-law.

The third and final quality I want to call out and praise Jean for is the most significant because it is eternal in nature, and that is Jean’s faith in Jesus Christ. Jean knew the Lord and lived her life in faithful service to him. She was not a Christian in name only, but as a deep matter of the heart.

Jean sitting in the church nursery at age 90 with great-grandchildren Abby and Jackson

Jean joined Third Baptist Church in St. Louis in 1952 at the age of 26. She was a faithful member until moving to Louisville in 2007 where she joined Walnut Street Baptist Church. In both churches, she loved serving in the children’s ministry, continuing to sit in the nursery to care for her great-grandchildren until she was 90.

The photo inside your program today is of her with Abby and Jackson in the nursery at Walnut Street. Anyone who works with children in church for over 60 years is surely a saint of the highest order.

What really impresses me about Jean’s faith is that she was so incredibly consistent in all the 42 years I knew her. She didn’t waffle and have good days and bad days as a follower of Christ. She knew what she believed and why she believed it. She loved the Lord. She loved his Word. She loved his church. She lived in accordance with what the Word of God teaches day in and day out with a consistency that I can only envy but never duplicate.

Jean loved reading inspirational and educational Christian books. She loved great preaching and couldn’t tolerate mediocre Bible study or worship. She faithfully tithed to the church through her final Social Security check and would not remotely consider failing to give less than that 10% tithe back to the Lord from whom all blessings flow.

Jean’s first great-grandchild, Abby, wearing a cap Jean crocheted.

Her faith and love compelled her to serve others through the church and elsewhere. She made over 1,750 crocheted baby hats that were distributed through Missouri Baptist Hospital. She made quilts for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of friends and family. She served for 8 years volunteering at St. Alexius Hospital in the chaplain’s office. At Treyton Oak she loved volunteering in the general store. She assisted with the Infant Resource Project at Walnut Street helping to supply baby clothes, diapers, and needed items to new moms. All of these were in addition to her 60+ years of children’s ministry in her two beloved churches. Jean was a giver, especially to children.

Jean’s faith was incorporated into her love of travel, including the Holy Land among her many journeys with church family and friends. The olive wood nativity set that graces our mantel each Christmas was a gift that Jean brought back to us from that trip. The photos of her riding the camel in the slide show was one of her great memories from the trip.

Jean was an excellent student of the Bible. To her, the Bible wasn’t just something to sit on a shelf at home. It was to be read and understood and cherished and hidden in one’s heart that we might not sin against God. In fact, she passed along to us a few months ago this set of Bible study notes she made while she was still Jean Hoffman. She hadn’t yet married Chuck when she wrote this. I don’t know who graded it, but she got an A+ on it. It’s on “Bible Numerics” and looks at numeric structures in the Bible – things like uses of various numbers throughout the Bible and what they mean.

For example, in the section of her notes about the number one in the Bible, she writes that it is a symbol of divine unity and then she wrote: “one God, one Bible, one way to be saved, one human race, one church, one Spirit, one hope, one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one chosen nation, one Satan, one mediator.” She notes the oneness of God’s promises from Joshua 23 and the one thing most needful – knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ – from Luke 10.

Jean enjoying her camel ride in Israel

Jean’s faith was real. It is eternal. And because of that, her faith has now become sight. What she saw through a glass dimly this side of heaven has become crystal clear and she now sees perfectly. What was until July 15 a confident assurance of one day seeing her Lord face to face is now a precious reality.

In one of Jean’s notebooks, she wrote out Psalm 73:26 – “My health may fail and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart. He is mine forever.”

Jean was ready to be with her Lord. She was ready to put behind her the days of failing health, COPD, poor hearing and eyesight. She was ready to say goodbye to occasional falls and painful woes that come with old age.

I love the description that Randy Alcorn uses in his book The Treasure Principle where he tells people this: Imagine that your time on this earth in all its entirety is one tiny little dot up on a wall. All of your years fit within that dot. Even Jean’s 94.5 years fit within that dot. Then stretching out from that dot and going all the way around the room and then looping over and over again and never ending – that is eternity. Our time on this earth is but a tiny dot at the start of a never-ending line. Alcorn tells us to live for the line, not the dot. Jean lived for the line of eternity and not just for the dot of the present. All who turn from their sin and place their trust in Jesus Christ will live with him in joy throughout that never-ending line.

When Jean retired after 25 years of work at Brown Shoe Company, she wrote a poem. Most of the verses would only be meaningful to those at Brown Shoe because they dealt with daily work specifics and inside jokes that only her work colleagues would understand. But the first and last verses of that poem apply to our time here today, so I close with Jean’s own words from 1992:

I’ll miss you all more than you’ll know
But I feel that it is time to go.
I’ll miss the parties and the fun
And celebrating birthdays with everyone.

“Must have tomorrow sure”
Will be a thing of the past.
The rat race for me
Is over at last!

Indeed, the trials of this life have passed for Jean. Those of us left behind for now mourn because we’d rather have her with us than to be separated. But if our focus is on that long line of eternity and not just the tiny dot of time we now experience, we realize that it won’t be long at all before all of God’s children are gathered to him in a new heaven and a new earth and there we shall be forever and ever, time without end, amen.

The Graveside Service

Jean planned many details of her funeral years ago. She typed up some of it on this sheet I’m holding – scripture verses, vocal and instrumental music. She knew she wanted Brian to sing. She wanted Jason to read scripture. She asked me to do the eulogy. Earlier this year when she reminded me again that I was to do the eulogy, I said to her, “Are you sure you want your son-in-law to have the last word because that could be risky?” But she said she did, so here we are.

Fortunately, no human really has the last word upon someone’s death. God does.

Jean and Chuck with their Bibles outside Third Baptist Church, St. Louis

One of the scriptures Jean wrote on this sheet was Romans 14:7-9. Here Paul says, “For none of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Christ died and returned to life for this: that he might be Lord over both the dead and the living.”

And then the true last word of what happens to this world is found in Revelation 21 where we learn about what is to come with God’s new creation:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new.’ He also said, ‘Write, because these words are faithful and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will freely give to the thirsty from the spring of the water of life. The one who conquers will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be my son.’” (Rev. 21:7-9)

Later in the chapter we read about “the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, arrayed with God’s glory.” (Rev. 21:10-11)

We’re told that John in this revelation “did not see a temple in it, because the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the glory of God illuminates it, and its lamp is the lamb…Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21:22-23, 27)

We gather at this place to commit Jean’s ashes to the grave. One day, when our Lord Jesus Christ comes again, her earthly body will be resurrected to a perfect, glorified body where she will live with all of God’s people in this new Jerusalem. We can rejoice today in the certainty of that promise and in the reality that God always, always keeps his promises.

Jean’s hand resting in Linda’s as Jean took her final breaths in this life

I admit to being a bit surprised when I first saw a post about John Piper’s recent, small book Coronavirus and Christ. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Since the book was being offered as a free PDF to anyone wanting it, I downloaded it and read it over the past weekend. A slight majority of the book (Part 2) is given to answering the question, “What is God doing through the Coronavirus?” Piper gives six possible answers to that question, but he first deals in Part 1 of the book with the foundational concepts one needs to understand before addressing the question at hand.

The chapters of Part 1 – “The God Who Reigns Over the Coronavirus” – include:

  • Come to the Rock
  • A Solid Foundation
  • The Rock is Righteous
  • Sovereign over All
  • The Sweetness of His Reign

In Part 1, Piper seeks to draw people to the solid Rock, Jesus Christ, as the only sound place to stand in this world of uncertainty. This pandemic has rocked our world in many ways unimaginable just a few months ago. All of us have been impacted in some way, and most of us in significant ways. Piper shares from his personal experience of a cancer diagnosis about how he had to come to grips with the ground on which he stood during that time of physical uncertainty. Now in this pandemic, he writes that his aim is to “show why God in Christ is the Rock at this moment in history—in this pandemic of the coronavirus—and what it is like to stand on his mighty love.”

Reiterated through the book is the truth that “the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it.” Piper devotes nearly half the book leading up to answering the specific question of Part 2 because he wants the reader to be very clear on the holiness and righteousness and goodness and wisdom of God. In speaking about the sovereignty of God, he explains that God doesn’t just take seemingly bad things that happen (like a pandemic) and then turn them into good somewhere along the line. Rather, he shows how God has a purpose and meaning in them from the beginning. That’s important! This pandemic didn’t sneak up on God and surprise him.

After laying the foundation about God, Piper then offers in Part 2 six reasoned biblical answers to the question, “What is God doing through the Coronavirus?” He admits that God is always doing a billion things we do not know, but at least from the Scriptures we can be sure that God is up to a few specific things during this pandemic. The chapter titles and summary answers below give you the big picture of his answers about this “bitter providence,” but you need to read the entire text to fully understand them:

  • Picturing Moral Horror
    • “God is giving the world in the coronavirus outbreak, as in all other calamities, a physical picture of the moral horror and spiritual ugliness of God-belittling sin.”
  • Sending Specific Divine Judgments
    • “Some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions.”
  • Awakening Us for the Second Coming
    • “The coronavirus is a God-given wake-up call to be ready for the second coming of Christ.”
  • Realigning Us with the Infinite Worth of Christ
    • “The coronavirus is God’s thunderclap call for all of us to repent and realign our lives with the infinite worth of Christ.”
  • Creating Good Works in Danger
    • “The coronavirus is God’s call to his people to overcome self-pity and fear, and with courageous joy, to do the good works of love that glorify God.”
  • Loosening Roots to Reach the Nations
    • “In the coronavirus, God is loosening the roots of settled Christians all over the world to make them free for something new and radical and to send them with the gospel of Christ to the unreached peoples of the world.”

Piper closes the small (5″ x 7″ with 112 pages), quick read with a prayer. The back of the book also includes footnotes and a Scripture index which, being a John Piper book, is filled with many, many Scripture references used in the book.

Some people may see just the title of this book and assume his message is no more than the second answer above, “sending specific divine judgments” since that tends to be a common refrain heard from some pulpits when bad things happen in our world. That would be a wrong assumption. There is far more thought and biblical teaching put into this text than that simple, single, partially true answer.

The closing chapter’s prayer will bring home Piper’s passion on this subject. The final paragraph of that 2-page prayer says: “Stretch forth your hand in great awakening for the sake of this perishing world. Let the terrible words of Revelation not be spoken over this generation: ‘Yet still they did not repent.’ As you have stricken bodies, strike now the slumbering souls. Forbid that they would remain asleep in the darkness of pride and unbelief. In your great mercy, say to these bones, ‘Live!’ And bring the hearts and lives of millions into alignment with the infinite worth of Jesus.” Amen.

Please take the few hours it will require and read the free book Coronavirus and Christ by John Piper. If I haven’t convinced you, perhaps the brief intro from John Piper in the video below will.

Since becoming a Christian in high school nearly 50 years ago, reading my Bible has been among the most important things I do daily. I wish I could say that I’ve never missed a day, but that but be woefully untrue. Still, by God’s grace I’ve been able to read the Bible cover to cover over 30 times in the past 40+ years. Each time I finish a reading, I choose a different translation or study Bible or edition I’ve never read before and then embark on the next trek through that new-to-me translation or edition. It is not at all surprising that each time I read it, the Lord teaches me things and reveals Himself to me in ways unique to where I am and what He knows I need at that point in my life.

Yesterday I completed reading through the massive, 2534-page Reformation Study Bible. Of all the study Bibles or other Bibles I have read through the decades, this is by far my favorite. I have loved and benefited from many others that I continue to use when prepping a Bible study class such as the ESV Study Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, the Archaeology Study Bible, the Gospel Transformation Bible, The Spurgeon Study Bible and more, but for reasons I’ll share below, the Reformation Study Bible is the one I’d choose to have with me if I was stranded on that proverbial desert island if I could only choose one.

The late, great Dr. R. C. Sproul was the general editor of this Bible which was last released in 2015 with an update to its previous, somewhat smaller edition. With Sproul as the editor, you can be assured that the commentary reflected by the contributions of 75 theologians is soundly Reformed in its understanding of the Scriptures and of our faith. As one aligned with that tradition, it was a pleasure devoting about two years to praying my way through the ESV biblical text and studying my way through all the related commentary, theological articles, study aids, notes, confessions of faith, etc. Admittedly, as a Southern Baptist I have to disagree with the editors’ stand on infant baptism, but that one issue aside, I can honestly say I never encountered another topic in its pages with which I disagreed with the explanation. The notes are thoughtful, thorough, and defended from the whole of Scripture.

Each Bible book begins with ample introductory material about such matters as the book’s title, author, date, occasion, genre, literary features, characteristics and primary themes, theology, where that book fits in the larger story of the Bible, how Christ is reflected in that book, its history of interpretation, and any special issues noted. A generous quantity of commentary notes are provided at the bottom of each page with some pages having more commentary than biblical text, although that is not the norm. Major Bible sections such as the Pentateuch, historical books, poetry, wisdom literature, prophets, the Gospels and Acts, and the epistles have additional introductions. I loved reading through the 100+ pages of several creeds, confessions and catechisms. Sprinkled throughout the book are 70 helpful theological notes or articles and the detail notes on particular verses point you to those theological notes as appropriate. I have found many of those notes useful when preparing to speak or teach others on a host of subjects. As you would expect from most Bibles, you’ll also find plenty of cross references inside verses to related passages elsewhere and brief textual footnotes along with helpful maps, tables, a concordance, and other resources.

I have to say that the only real issue I had was with some of the print itself. The cross references in the margins and in the brief footnotes in between the biblical text at the top of the pages and the commentary at the bottom are of such a tiny size that it was difficult for my aging eyes to read them if I had my contact lens in which I need for distance due to being nearsighted. I never had an issue reading the biblical text, commentary, theological notes, etc. with or without my contacts, but when I was settling in for my hour a day of personal study I had to remove my contacts for the smallest print to be readable. Also, be prepared to carry some weight around with you if you intend to make this the Bible you take to church or elsewhere. My copy weighed in at a hefty four pounds and five ounces. It may result in a few strange looks from others on occasion.

There are many excellent study Bibles on the market. I hope you use a number of them regularly in your study of the Word as I do. I especially hope and recommend that you own the Reformation Study Bible for the excellent, thorough, biblically sound study notes in addition to the wonderful English Standard Version (ESV) translation it uses. It will be a source of help and insight worth using the rest of your life.

Check out the brief promotional video below by Dr. Sproul. Several options are available in terms of binding to fit a variety of budgets – all worth the cost many times over.

As the Sunday School Director at my church and as a Christian who wants to effectively help bring new believers into the body of Christ and new church members into our congregation, I read with great interest the book Fusion by Nelson Searcy and Jennifer Dykes Henson. I read the older 2007 version rather than the 2017 revised edition linked in this review. With thousands of churches implementing the system detailed in the book over more than a decade since the first edition’s publication, readers of the later edition will benefit from the experiences of many additional churches who have incorporated these methods into their regular practices.

The purpose of the book is captured in its subtitle: “Turning first-time guests into fully engaged members of your church.” That is something churches seek to do regularly as they strive to grow Christ’s church. But how does a church do that effectively in God-honoring ways? That is the challenge that this book seeks to answer not just from a theoretical basis, but from the proven experience of Searcy’s church The Journey and the thousands of additional churches who have implemented his assimilation system.

First, let me confess my juvenile and immature mental hurdle regarding the word “assimilation.” I can’t hear the word without connecting it to the Borg from Star Trek while hearing in my mind the phrase, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.” As alien antagonists who forcefully take over other populations and turn them into drones, that is hardly the mental image I want of how we as churches are to assimilate newcomers into the church. But that’s my problem, not the book’s, so let’s move on…

You will be pleasantly surprised at the level of practical detail this book offers church leaders regarding assimilation, biblical hospitality, being intentional about making great first impressions, following up with first-time and second-time guests, creating opportunities to guide guests into gradual next steps through deeper relationships and commitment to service, faith and church membership. Specific examples are given of communication cards to be completed by worship participants, emails, letters and hand-written notes to send, schedules of what to do when for first-time and second-time guests, brief online surveys for guests to complete, checklists for the first-response team, an outline for a new members class, a membership covenant sample, and more. In fact, if you go to the website listed at the back of the book you can freely download a host of related resources for this assimilation system as well as a free e-book on The Eight Systems of a Healthy Church.

One simple outline that is easy to remember regarding the system is the three Rs of retention: Return, Relationships and Responsibility. Put simply, the church’s goal for the first-time guest is to get them to return. When they return, the goal shifts to one of guiding them into deeper relationships with others through various means, especially (but not exclusively) through small groups. And once relationships start to develop, leading them to deeper ownership and personal responsibility will be the next level of commitment that leads to a fuller commitment to faith and service through church membership. Return, Relationships, and Responsibility – an easy overview of the goals for assimilating guests into the life of the church.

The authors make a great point that you don’t have to buy into the entire system at once exactly as outlined (although it would probably be more effective if you did). If you choose, you can follow the suggested “seven small things you can do to get started right away” from the conclusion of the book to start tackling the beast of effective assimilation sooner rather than later. Chances are pretty good that many churches are already doing some such things to some degree now. Reading the book will help you recognize the things you’re doing right as well as a number of opportunities you may be missing. Some of these opportunities can be grasped quickly while others will take more planning, time and resources to do well.

I appreciate the note from Searcy and Henson that you need to give these efforts time to produce results. Don’t try these methods for a few weeks and then get discouraged and quit. Plan thoroughly and execute consistently for at least six months because it may well take that long for the church members and guests to adapt and respond positively to the efforts to a noticeable degree. The book reminds us of Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

All churches aren’t alike and there may be a few things you’ll read in the book that you decide just don’t fit your style or church culture. That’s OK. However, I am reminded of one evangelist’s response to someone’s objection of his approach to evangelism: “I prefer my way of doing evangelism to your way of not doing evangelism.” Ouch! If you and your church are not currently effective and intentional at assimilating guests into the life of your church, then considering Fusion‘s approach is worth of your consideration. Thousands of churches have done so and have the positive results to prove it.

People don’t necessarily go to the church that is nearest to them. They go to the one that is dearest to them. Your intentional efforts at assimilation can be a huge factor in making your church the dearest for your guests so that they choose to come back and eventually fully invest in with their lives.

Fusion is not an impersonal set of actions to implement like a cookie cutter to make drones like Star Trek’s Borg. In fact, the conclusion of the book says “The Kingdom only grows one person at a time. So focus on the one, and the one will turn into many.”

I heartily recommend the book if you are genuinely interested in reaching and keeping newcomers to your church. Do what it suggests for the glory of God and I believe you will see positive results. I look forward to being more intentional, organized and effective in my own efforts going forward as a result of reading Fusion.

As the Sunday School Director at my church, I’m keenly interesting in leading our Sunday School toward continuous growth and accomplishing its several purposes well. That is no small challenge in our inner-city congregation that currently runs about one-fourth the number of people present on Sunday mornings as it did when my family first joined there in 1988. There are many reasons for those smaller numbers, but they are not the subject of this post.

I have only been the Sunday School Director for a little over a year since early 2019. My slow approach has been to take time to observe and talk with others – sitting in on classes to see what really happens, taking notes along the way of what is admirable and where there are opportunities for improvement. Many hours of discussion have filled up meetings with my pastor and others as we ponder needed improvements. We’re on the cusp of some significant and necessary changes to accomplish what the Sunday School is designed to accomplish in the local church. That process of change will be yet another post on this blog down the road as we have some successes (and hopefully not too many failures) behind us.

In preparing recommendations for improvements to our Sunday School, my pastor handed me a book off his shelf called Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday School Growth Strategy for the 21st Century by Ken Hemphill. To say it is influencing our recommendations for improvement would be an understatement. We are, in fact, completely changing an earlier major recommendation that was nearly a year in the making after running into a wall of opposition from a handful of vocal opponents. We aren’t changing our goals, but we are revamping our suggested means of accomplishing them, and the ideas and insights in this book will help shape the revisions in the plan for the better.

Ken Hemphill authored the book when he was president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His prior service in churches and as director of the Southern Baptist Center for Church Growth as well as pastoring several churches gave him great experience and knowledge to share with others on the subject. Even though the book was published in 1996, I believe it is just as valid and helpful for churches today as it was years ago.

This easily digestible 176-page paperback book has the following chapters:

  • If the Sunday School is a church growth tool, somebody unplugged mine!
  • Is Sunday School a dinosaur in a technological world?
  • Establishing a Great Commission vision for the Sunday School
  • Designing an effective Sunday School
  • Organizing the Bible study program
  • Designing an effective outreach ministry
  • The ministry of assimilation
  • The ministry of teaching
  • Putting it together – keeping it working

The book begins with a brief history of the Sunday School, pointing out the apparent change in focus somewhere in the second half of the 20th century that shifted its focus from evangelism and fellowship and teaching the Bible to only fellowship and then teaching the Bible. Guess what happens when you don’t focus on evangelism? You don’t evangelize! And if you don’t evangelize, you don’t grow. Not only that, but if you do evangelize but then don’t disciple those new believers and assimilate them into the life of the church, the back door will be just as large as the front door and you still won’t grow as individuals or as a congregation. So the opening chapter lays a foundation of six principles of Sunday School growth church leaders should know and implement.

Hemphill is generous with stats that demonstrate the lackluster performance of churches and their Sunday Schools in the latter decades of the 1900s. He offers a number of problems contributing to the decline of the Sunday School: lack of evangelistic focus, loss of emphasis and commitment, loss of vision for the total work of the Sunday School, dismantling the Sunday School’s component parts over time, lack of a clear purpose statement, and fear of innovation. In contrast to these problems, however, he offers nine solid reasons why the Sunday School is the growth tool of the future.

At the heart of the book is understanding the three components of a balanced strategy for the Sunday School. They are evangelism, assimilation, and discipleship. None of the three can be given more weight than the others in importance, or the whole structure will be off balance and will fail to accomplish all three of its purposes effectively. If there is one key takeaway from the book that is easy to remember and to serve as a foundation for your understanding of what the Sunday School is to be about, it is these three terms. In our case, we’ll substitute the word relationships in place of assimilation and we’ll use outreach instead of evangelism as we reshape our understanding as a church of the three equal purposes of the Sunday School, but the three legs of that stool are essentially the same regardless of the term you prefer.

I appreciate the author’s reliance on supernatural power in the process of revitalizing the Sunday School. We must remember that we are not just completing prescribed tasks touted by a church growth strategist; we are faithfully working under the leadership of God to accomplish the purposes of the Great Commission for the glory of God. We can’t do that apart from the very presence and power of God at work through us and those with whom we minister and serve.

No major effort of revitalizing the Sunday School is going to happen if you don’t organize (or reorganize) in ways required to accomplish the purpose. Hemphill provides a number of possible structures that will vary depending on church and staff size. While this means that the structure won’t look exactly alike from one church to the next, Hemphill is rightly adamant about the need for strict age grading throughout the Sunday School including throughout the adult classes. I agree with him on that. I’ve witnessed when having fuzzy or no age boundaries for adult classes only leads to groups staying together for decades and feeling quite content with who is in the group, rarely keeping their zeal for outreach as much as they do for fellowship among themselves. New classes or better aligning existing classes with stricter age ranges can help meet the needs of all participants, especially newer participants who are less likely to feel welcome or comfortable among a group of people who have been together for many years. Age grading can also bring into glaring light the age group gaps in your congregation that may not otherwise be obvious.

The chapter on designing an effective outreach strategy gives practical suggestions for visitation, evangelism training, and making contacts. The assimilation chapter is filled with practical tips of how different people and groups can work together to integrate new people into the life of the church and in relationship with one another. The suggested organization for care groups seems critical to making it work through the Sunday School.

If you asked a random group of people, “What is the purpose of the Sunday School?” I suspect most would answer along the lines of “to teach the Bible.” They are right in part given the three areas of focus mentioned above. Bible teaching and learning is certainly at the heart of what happens in the bulk of the time given to the Sunday School when it meets together as a class. Much of what happens in terms of outreach and relationships can happen outside the Bible study time, but the Sunday School is not close to achieving its purposes without strong Bible study and discipleship. To this end, Hemphill provides a number of suggestions for teachers and church leaders to assure quality teaching.

The final chapter provides a host of specific gems of advice to sum up in one place the key points made in earlier chapters and to provide final thoughts. Key points are categorized into sections on integrating the work of the class, building the church through the Sunday School, and creatively providing space. That makes the key takeaways from the book easy to reference in the future and easier to remember.

Many may think the Sunday School is a dinosaur. I disagree or I wouldn’t be a Sunday School Director. I wouldn’t devote time and energy to participating as a student or teacher. I certainly wouldn’t devote many volunteer hours to trying to grow our church through the Sunday School if I didn’t believe it is both possible and the right thing to do for all ages within the church. For those and other reasons mentioned above, I commend to you the book Revitalizing the Sunday School by Ken Hemphill. It is practical, informative, challenging, encouraging, and just as relevant now as when it was first published. Keep an open mind and heart as you read it, then seek the Lord’s wisdom in how you can use this info to strengthen your church through the Sunday School for the glory of our awesome God.