Phil Stone was happy as minister of education and youth at Wilkesboro Baptist Church in 1982 and almost turned down an offer to join the Baptist State Convention (BSC) staff.
Instead, his final answer, after yes, no, yes, no, was yes and for 27 years he has been helping churches create disciples.
Long before he came to the BSC, Stone had adopted his philosophy of education from Gaines Dobbins, who started the first religious education school at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is commonly referred to as the father of Southern Baptist Religious Education.
Stone heard Dobbins when Stone was minister of education, music and youth at First Baptist Church in Fountain Inn, S.C. Dobbins inspired him with his educational principle: “When there is no involvement there is no learning.”
Stone still follows that principle. When he’s preparing to lead a conference, preach a sermon or teach a Bible study, he asks, “‘How can I get them involved?’ because I know if they get involved, they’ll learn.”
Numbering almost 627,000, BSC churches have the fourth largest Sunday School enrollment of any Baptist state convention. Stone’s goal is to set up experiences where people will discover biblical truths that will change their lives.
For example when talking to a church group about making disciples in Sunday School, he asks, “What would making disciples in your Sunday School look like?” After the group brainstorms, Stone follows up with a written assignment and puts the work on the wall.
“Our job is not to create spiritual giants,” he said. “Our job is to make disciples. It’s God’s job to make them into who He wants them to be.”
The goal of creating disciples instead of spiritual giants should take the pressure off Sunday School leaders, Stone said. He said he’s “on a mission” to get pastors and Sunday School directors to create disciple-making Sunday Schools.
“The reason Sunday Schools exist is to assist the church with its God-given mission to make disciples,” Stone said.
A disciple, Stone said, is a learner.
“How do we create a learner?” he said. “We get them involved.”
Stone said adults learn through experiences. If they don’t get to share the experience, there is no learning, he said.
Four part lessons
Sunday School teachers should develop their lessons in four parts so they hook the learners’ attention, jump start learning, keep the learners actively involved, so they will take it home, he said.
Instead, in typical classes the teacher studies the commentary and tells the class what he discovered. Class members go away saying, “Boy, I have a smart teacher. I wish I knew the Bible like he does.”
Some churches try to make Sunday School into seminary classes that train biblical scholars. This often results in people who are “biblically obese,” but “spiritual skeletons,” he said.
Some church leaders wrongly equate biblical knowledge with spiritual maturity, Stone said.
Stone said teachers should set up experiences and coach students to discover biblical truths so they “own” what they learned.
“They might not remember all the content, but they’ll remember the biblical truth,” Stone said.
Stone said it’s not the teacher’s job to teach the Bible, adding that some atheists know the Bible.
“Our job is to help people discover biblical truths,” he said. “That’s a totally different concept.”
Students can only learn one biblical truth at a time, Stone said. Then teachers can let the Holy Spirit do its work.
“If I’m passionate about anything, it’s improving the teaching of God’s word so people are involved in it and experiencing it,” Stone said. “It’s the most powerful book, but we make it inane.”
Stone said churches mistakenly spend Sunday School time on “the three Bs” — 15 minutes of shooting the bull, 15 minutes talking about the ballgame and 30 minutes of Bible study.
“The hour is sacred,” he said. “It’s a sin to waste it.”
Aunt Sally’s hangnail
Some classes also spend too much time “talking about Aunt Sally’s hangnail,” Stone said.
“We’re praying ourselves into biblical illiteracy,” he said.
Some churches “waste time” with an opening assembly, which Stone called a “throwback” to a day when preachers weren’t at the church every Sunday so members held a mini-service in his absence.
“We Baptists fuss about the Bible, but we do everything we can to not teach it,” he said.
Stone encourages churches to build a “REAL” Sunday School ministry that focuses on relationships, evangelism, assimilation and life-changing Bible study.
“Sunday School is not dead but in many churches it has lost its purpose,” Stone said.
Sunday School should be an open group, he said.
“It’s the hugging group,” he said. “It’s where a new disciple, a new learner can come in and find life-changing Bible study on his own level.”
Stone spends a lot of time on the road, including a recent 700-mile trip over two days that took him from the western part of the state to the east.
When he leaves a church he makes sure the leaders know how to contact him.
“The thing I love to tell people is, ‘I belong to you,’” Stone said.
From late August through November, Stone had 31 individual conferences or consultations on his calendar.
“I love being with people and helping them know how to make the next step,” he said.
Stone said consultants can err when they sit in an “ivory tower” and see what churches can be.
“We ask churches to make a leap and that’s discouraging,” he said.
A better strategy is to help the church see the vision, but let the congregation take one step at a time.
Stone lives near Moncure and attends Moncure Baptist Church with his wife, Sherry. Their children Jason and Jackie, and their families live nearby.
Stone has a bachelor of arts in music from Augusta State University; a master of religious education from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and a master of theology from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
He said he would like one day to earn a doctorate in worship.
He loves creative worship, where he also asks how to get people involved.
Stone also helps churches with church administration and church building planning.
In church administration, Stone loves to coach churches through a visioning process. This involves helping the congregation see where God is leading, after coming to an understanding of how is God using them now.
The vision is based on what gives the church vitality and what does the congregation value. Once they see the vision, the church can discover its mission.
Stone said too many churches stop at mission instead of continuing to determine strategies and organization.
“If it doesn’t end with organization, with a calendar and a budget, there’s no reason to do it,” he said.
When the church gets a mission, everything changes. Everything comes under that mission.
Churches planning to build also need to think about mission and vision, Stone said. The building should be a ministry tool to accomplish the mission of the church, he said.
If not, the church will have a building with no purpose, as often happens with family life centers that end up as simply fun places for the kids to run around.
“It has to be a part of the vision and mission of the church,” he said.
Contact Stone at [email protected], (919) 467-5100, or (800) 395-5102, ext. 5643.
Training strengthens church’s growing ministries
Visit Body Parts, a Biblical Recorder special series.