In spending part of my growing up years in church in Singapore, and now as a university student and Sunday school teacher, I’ve observed something curious.
At age three, Singaporean children start learning two languages. At seven, they spend 30 hours a week in school, with tuition classes and CCAs pushing this nearer to 40. At age 12, they take a national exam that will determine their future for at least the next four years. By age 16, they will have learnt rocket science.
While a lot of ink has been spilt over whether the student workload in Singapore is too heavy, rarely does the public debate the difficulty of the material itself. We seldom hear, “Is calculus too difficult for teenagers to learn?”
Instead, there is a presumption that given enough time, students will master it.
What I find curious, then, is that when it comes to spiritual training, some churchgoers do an about-face. Parents driven to get their children into top schools seem unconcerned about what their kids learn about the Bible. And youth driven to study esoteric topics like medieval Asian history and quantum mechanics so that they can secure places in prestigious tertiary institutions begin to question why they should study parts of the Bible they deem irrelevant to their daily lives, like the Old Testament kings and prophets.
Why the stark contrast? I wonder if it is because churchgoers prioritise secular training and education over biblical training.
If so, this begs the question: why is this so? Why don’t we give biblical training the time and seriousness it deserves? After all, we are talking about the Book that instructs us about the eternal consequences of our life choices.
From my observations, I believe there are two main factors: the first seems to be a tendency to avoid teaching advanced biblical truths to the youth. Fearing perhaps that their charges will not understand and thus lose interest, or that they are already bogged down with school work, the youth are taught stripped down Bible stories, with shortened narratives and simplistic lesson points.
If we taught children math and science in the same way, they would never get past fractions.
However, because this meagre spiritual training creates little impact in the lives of the youth, many end up perceiving biblical training as being ineffective.
From my experience of teaching Bible studies and Sunday school, I believe this conclusion is incorrect. Rather than simplifying content, I feel we can teach biblical truths with all their complexities and nuances. Children are far brighter than we give them credit for. Are they forgetful? Probably. Unintelligent? No. In fact, I suspect one main reason children lose interest in any subject is because they think they already know all there is to know. If we challenged them with higher levels of biblical truth, I wonder if they would not become more engaged and more impacted by God’s Word.
The second observation is that some churchgoers somehow expect biblical content to be immediately relevant and applicable in their lives. They expect to be able to walk into church on any given Sunday, hear one message, and be able to apply its key points to their daily lives immediately. And if that does not happen, they conclude that biblical training is ineffective.
However, I believe this expectation is unrealistic in three ways. First, it suggests biblical content should be digestible in one sitting. This is not true for most areas in life. Most curricula require extensive background knowledge to make sense of any statement. Even the “simple” statement, “Jesus forgives all your sins”, requires at least four pieces of information: What is sin? Why does it need to be forgiven? Who is Jesus? And finally, why can he forgive sin?
The second issue is about what information is “relevant”. It seems to me that many feel, especially when it comes to the Bible, that it is possible to learn practical applications without first learning the principles. They believe it is possible to love and obey God with only a vague understanding of who he is.
I’m sure none of us would like our pilots to only have a vague understanding of aviation when they fly.
The final issue—that every Bible passage has application for our daily lives—is also problematic. Yes, there are passages like that, but there are also passages specific to certain situations. Many people are trained in first aid, but rarely will they have to perform CPR even once.
The Bible is bigger than that. Yes, there are points in the Bible that are easily understood. But there are also points that take time, patience, prayer and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to learn. If we as Singaporeans understand that to be really good at calculus, ballet, piano or a second language, we need to put in hours of training, then perhaps we should be more patient with our study—and teaching—of Scripture. We need to realise that it also takes a significant chunk of time to study the Bible to the point where, guided by the Holy Spirit, the biblical worldview becomes our worldview and we live and act in the way God intends for his people.
As I observe many of my Christian peers studying hard and achieving their dreams in secular life (school, career, and more) but yet stagnating in their faith—or worse, losing their faith entirely—I wonder if one of the root causes is this unfortunate gap between what they’ve invested in their earthly lives versus their spiritual lives.
As we think about our approach to biblical and secular education, my prayer is that more of us churchgoers would honestly reflect on where our focus and attention has been.
What is our attitude towards spiritual training? What would it take to produce Christ-loving, gospel-minded, neighbour-loving Christians who will honour God with their lives?
Living only by training in secular skills but not in spiritual life results in Christians unprepared for the hard knocks of life and what it truly means to live out the Bible’s words, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Worse still, such Christians are not prepared to give an account of their lives when they see God face to face (2 Corinthians 5:10).
There are eternal consequences at stake, and I pray that as we reflect, we will encourage one another to invest more in our eternal lives.
Dylan Kwok is a 22-year-old video game designer studying at Nanyang Technological University. He has been teaching Sunday school at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church to Upper Primary students for the last three years. Illustration by Caitlin Low.
This article was first published in Methodist Message (July 2022 issue).