Friday, May 14, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Rethinking Sunday School

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: I have a confession for you, IC. I was a terrible kid in Sunday School. I made everybody’s lives miserable, from the guy tasked with leading the singing to my individual Sunday School teachers. I really didn’t like it much.

The odd thing is that I had nothing against church particularly, or the Bible. I even believed it was true. But I was a total cut-up.

How about you?

Immanuel Can: Yep. Dead with boredom, and ready to make trouble.

Way Beyond the Blue Blue Blue Blue Blue … Labatt Blue

Tom: Did you ever sing the “Labatt Blue” ending to “Do Lord” in front of fifty kids?

IC: Yes, and worse. Why were you doing that sort of thing, Tom?

Tom: Well, you mentioned boredom; that was part of it. I had parents who did daily Bible reading and discussions with us at home. I got carted around to Christian summer camps and I was in church all the time. To top it off, I read a lot. So much of what was done in Sunday School seemed laughably trivial to me. It was old hat. The answer to every single quiz question was either “God” or “Jesus”. When the kids can figure that out by age 9, there’s a problem with your program.

But there was more to it, I’m sure. At some level I was growing up, trying to make my mark, trying to speak independently of my family, and this was the easiest forum in which to do it, I suppose. It’s what boys do, and boys from Christian homes generally act out wherever they are if they haven’t got some place of their own to act out.

Today I’m sure someone would recommend putting me on Ritalin …

The Essence of the Problem

IC: Okay, so it wasn’t the best situation for you … or me. What was the essence of the problem? Was it something the people running the Sunday School were doing, or something they were not doing? Is there any way to make Sunday School better?

Tom: Well, this is where I’m hoping that, being an educator, you may be able to help me out a bit. But one thing I think needs to be rethought is those appalling opening exercises. I know different local churches have different approaches, but it seems to me lumping young teen males in with primary school kids is a recipe for alienation and troublemaking — unless you can find some way to actively and constructively involve them.

IC: Yes. Programming has to be age-appropriate, for sure. Not only that, but you touched on a difficulty earlier, namely that you were very well-informed and widely-read, whereas many of your contemporaries were less so. How can a Sunday School program, not just for age differences, but for such massive disparities in knowledge? That’s a challenge.

Providing Useful Information

Tom: You’re right. One possibility is choosing subject matter that doesn’t replicate what church kids are likely to know while still providing very useful information to newbies. For instance, in my day, Sunday School was a mish-mash of Old Testament tales with obvious morals punctuated occasionally with a few months on the life of Christ. All the same stuff Christian kids would encounter in devotionals at home, and the same sort of stuff the more serious young Christians might encounter doing daily readings: little meditations and instructions in behavior.

So why not provide something most Christian kids and their parents can’t or wouldn’t do at home? Example: a bird’s-eye view of the Old or New Testaments that puts each book in context so that students begin to understand how some of the less-read books of the Bible fit into the purposes of God? That sort of an approach may provide new insight to both groups. Or an overview of prophecy? Or a study of the Kings of Israel and Judah?

IC: I think the answer to that is simple. I’d like to say that it’s because the teaching at home is so good that the church has a hard time supplementing it. But you be the judge of whether that’s so.

Tom: Agreed, it’s generally not the case.

A Low-Priority Activity

IC: The real problem is that Sunday School is a low-priority activity performed by volunteers who generally have very limited knowledge and skills themselves. And it’s performed according to routines honored more for their antiquity than their utility.

Tom: Bingo.

IC: I don’t want to say anything unkind about those volunteers: they’re the only people even making the effort, so God bless them. But as a rule, they’re under-supported, under-valued and generally left without guidance. No wonder, then, that their ability to deliver a lesson is extremely limited, their curricula are generally prefab, and their strategy is usually piecemeal. There’s usually nobody paying attention to who needs to know what, when, and how best to stimulate young people to greater knowledge and godliness.

A Whole-Church Problem

Tom: Yes, yes and yes. So how is it that almost every evangelical church in the world feels compelled to have put on Sunday School, often in churches where there are few children to benefit from it? Do we really feel that it’s acceptable to offer less than our best to the Lord, or are most of us unaware how substandard our efforts are? Would we be better to simply offer babysitting services up to an appropriate age, and then keep everyone in the main church meeting? Or should we just throw up our hands and just accept that what we’re doing is as good as it’s likely to get?

IC: I think it’s a whole-church problem. I’ve already written on how ineffective the lecture format generally is as a teaching tool — and that’s for adults, who are presumably more motivated than their kids. But for children, it’s deadly. Very little knowledge is produced by that means. So I wouldn’t just send kids “upstairs” unless “upstairs” itself were changed profoundly.

What we need is to look at what and how we’re teaching with fresh eyes, and consider letting the form of our teaching be directed to whatever is the best method for producing the biblical outcome. For too long we’ve been filling out a format, rather than teaching in ways that produce actual learning in human beings.

Reimagining a Buncha Stuff

Tom: Amen to that. I wonder what would happen if we devoted the main meeting of the church to worship, prayer, singing and short words of exhortation or encouragement from a number of believers — and we included our kids in all that. Oddly, that sounds a fair bit like a New Testament church meeting.

Then we take all the gifted teachers God has given us and assign them to cell groups meeting at various times during the week to lead interactive Bible studies, either at the church building or elsewhere, and we let people choose the subjects they want to learn more about — again, including the kids.

I guess the first thing would be that we wouldn’t need a full-time paid pastor anymore and we’d have to keep our teaching simple and clear enough to keep kids from nodding off.

Seeking Higher Knowledge

IC: Well, the “pastor” was never necessary. What was necessary was for all Christians to take their own responsibilities and giftedness as seriously as scripture does. But I think there’s a place for different formats and levels of teaching for different audiences. There’s value in time spent as a whole congregation, and value in time spent addressing particular needs. The need for the more knowledgeable believers to be growing is just as pressing as the need for younger believers to grow. In all cases, it’s the “higher knowledge” that we should be continually seeking.

Tom: We’re wandering a bit here, but I think it’s useful wandering. Let’s come back to the kids for a moment. You’re big on getting teens actively involved rather than being just passive listeners, where they don’t do very well. Can you think of practical ways to involve them that could be accomplished within a traditional or modified Sunday School format?

IC: Not really, honestly. The round of meetings we’ve got pretty much condemns them to passivity. We’d have to change the whole structure of what we do. But I think that a good Christian camp gives us few hints on which to base reform. The great thing about those is that they mix spiritual learning, social growth and active service. We need to be striving for all three in the local church too.

Engaging the Whole Person

Tom: Interesting. So maybe to sum this up, would you say any problems we have with programs for our children can ever be addressed on their own, or do we need to rethink a great deal more than what goes on downstairs on Sunday mornings?

IC: And upstairs. There’s really no difference, in one sense. Whatever is the best strategy for teaching children is also the best approach for teaching adults. The content changes, but the balance of the approach stays the same. In other words, everybody learns best when the whole person is engaged — spirit, soul and body on the same project.

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