With Bible in hand millions of young people and adults gather each Sunday in church school classes. This is good, but not good enough. In America where the church school movement has enjoyed a revival of sorts, 35 million boys and girls under 17 still never attend church school. In Britain, where the movement started in the early eighteenth century, the situation is actually alarming. One spokesman said recently: “When I was a young man, 7 million persons met in the Sunday schools of Great Britain; now there are 1 million.”
In some respects the church school’s opportunity and challenge represent a “last ditch stand” by the Church in the Free World to hold the youth of the oncoming generation for Christian dedication. Despite difficulties and handicaps, the church school now faces the greatest responsibility in its history.
In an age where materialism, secularism, and scientism conspire and collaborate to dilute the Christian faith, what can the church school do?
1. The church school can reinforce its teaching role. It is first and foremost a school. The sincere teacher is always evangelistically sensitive. But he recognizes, too, that inadequate teaching may weaken the Christian cause by failure to prepare, to enrich, and to cultivate hearts for God-honoring spiritual fruit. While present in the entire church program, evangelism should not be relegated primarily to the church school. To turn the school into a continuing series of evangelistic meetings is to destroy its unique purpose. Certainly pupils should be invited and encouraged to spiritual decisions; certainly personal work is appropriate and essential in the church school. But to exalt evangelism at the expense of or in isolation from thorough teaching is to endanger and even to undermine the church school’s special function.
2. The church school can revitalize its teaching staff. Traditionally laymen from many vocations and walks of life have volunteered or been drafted for teaching. Sometimes these secretaries, office workers, farmers, garagemen, storekeepers, bus drivers and others have had insufficient knowledge and preparation for their assignments. Sometimes those with special training imposed personal prejudices upon their pupils as though these tenets were divinely inspired. Whatever the situation, good teaching material and good teaching techniques are no longer considered accidental and incidental to the church school.
Two major ingredients of a good church school are its literature and its teaching. Poor literature requires an unusually capable teacher to counteract its deficiencies. Poor teaching is sometimes offset by good material. Neither poor literature nor poor teaching, however, need be tolerated; many resources and helps are available to those who really care. Sometimes paid professional teachers (like paid professional musicians) bring competence and good teaching as well as commitment and zeal to the church school class, especially to certain adult or specialized groups. Obviously most teachers in most church schools—and rightly so—represent lay persons dedicated to a sense of Christ’s appointment. They recognize, however, the responsibility for continued growth (academic and technical as well as spiritual) to “show themselves approved unto God” and to “rightly divide the Word of truth.” Who would deny that it is better to sit 50 feet from a good teacher than to sit under the nose of a bad one?
In recent years graded materials and reorganized curricula have improved church school literature. Good use of audio-visual aids and of teaching-learning principles in general have also stimulated interest in better church school work. During the last quarter century Christian education has come into prominence as a specialized area of concern. Denominations have organized departments of Christian education and related publishing endeavors. Of equal significance has been the surge of independent religious publishing ventures. Improved literature, used by trained personnel, can revitalize the teaching staff.
3. The church school can relate its Sunday teaching more relevantly to the Monday through Saturday world of its pupils. Another man has been orbited into space. Red Russia claims another victory over the Free World. Is Kennedy’s welfare-state a better option than Goldwater’s conservatism? What of the peace corps program? Entrusted with responsible citizenship, students and adults face a desperate world. How does Christianity, how does individual Christian faith relate to the complex challenges of a complex society? Does the church school offer scriptural guidelines for social as well as personal thought and action?
Stock answers no longer satisfy inquiring souls. The challenge of the secular mind in the class rooms, the factories, and the offices of America must be answered. The diet of milk will not suffice for those who need meat. New converts particularly often flounder before the onslaughts of unbelievers. Unable to answer their opponents because unequipped with knowledge of Scripture and its relevance, these converts may subvert the very faith they have embraced and defect from Christianity as an inane or indefensible cause.
The church school is the logical place to anticipate questions that pupils will confront in the world. And it is the sacred, awesome business of the church school so to establish its people in the facts and significance of God’s Word that they can both defend the truth and also refute error. In addition the vital Christian must learn to relate Christian faith to current affairs and problems of the secular world. Indifference by the church school to this arena of Christian warfare and witness is to isolate Christian faith from daily life and by default to surrender the claims of Christ to the enemy.
The future value and significance of the church school depends then on its ability 1. to share effectively a coherent, integrated body of biblical truth; 2. to relate dynamically and interpret this truth in daily life; and 3. to nurture souls by the Spirit for growth in grace and in the likeness of the Lord Jesus. Its objectives of conversion to Jesus Christ and maturity in the life of faith can strategically buttress the unique ministry of the Christian Church.
THE LOCAL CHURCH LIBRARY A REPOSITORY OF GOOD READING
Now that television has taken its place by the radio in a living room corner as a vintage feature of our culture, with little prospect of further originality, it may be possible for a segment of our society to settle back to its reading.
But what shall we read? Are we to emulate the one T. S. Eliot describes—
You will see me any morning in the park
Reading the comics and the sporting page …
An English countess goes upon the stage,
A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance …
Another bank defaulter has confessed.…
No, we protest, we are Christians; we wish to read that which is worthy of our Master and King. But the problem of finding literature that builds soul and mind toward maturity is becoming more complex. Who writes these books? Who publishes them? On what library shelves are they to be found?
Henry Zylstra did the Church a real service by pointing out that a book is hardly good just because it is “safe” for a Christian’s shelves. There is in fact a “good deal of tripe,” as he put it, masquerading as religious fiction and literature. The “religious market” is being dangled before the eyes of many a budding writer as a wide-open (albeit low-paying) field.
But does this situation promise an answer to the soul’s cry for food? Drivel that has been immersed and sprinkled ‘fore and aft’ is still drivel. The times call for authentic evangelical writing dealing honestly with personality motivation, keyed to the mood of biblical realism, and showing cleanly and convincingly the power of God’s Spirit working in the human heart.
Let us call a halt to the starchy Sunday school hero types who priggishly walk through the pages of a book without ever being tossed into the flux of life; who, like St. George (but not like the rest of us) are always at least a spear’s length away from the dragon. At the same time let us eschew the new secular or “beat” hero who is nothing but a confused psychopath, unable to transmit any message from his brain save to his fists, and unwilling to make any moral distinctions beyond the need for survival.
Somewhere, surely, a line can be drawn between Pharisaic purism and brass-rail megalomania; between the stuffed-shirt apostle of virtue (whose counterpart is the working-class hero, mode sovietique) and the moral leper.
Good books are wanted; they are needed; and they are needed especially in our churches. Biographies of great Christians should be circulated among our Sunday schools continually. Men such as Hudson Taylor, John G. Paton, David Brainerd, Henry Martyn, David Livingstone, Jim Elliot; women such as Florence Nightingale, Mary Slessor, and Betty Stam—these should be inspiring and re-inspiring each new generation.
The officers of the local church should consider their library as important a facility to their total task as do the trustees of a college. They should think of their library as a ministry.
We believe, too, that great care should be taken in the selection of books. The name of a publisher is no sufficient commendation. The book speaks for the church, and many Christians will cause harm by passing on a book without having read it. We know of a church group that gave a book to a retiring officer and his wife because the title seemed “spiritual.” The name of the book was From Here to Eternity! Nor is a book necessarily good because it is denominationally recommended. The “denomination” is usually a committee, and committees can be swayed by dominant personalities. The task of reviewing must not be dodged if the church library is to bear a clear and strong witness to Jesus Christ.
Thousands of churches in America have no libraries whatever, and yet they are supposed to represent wholesome influences in the community. Young inquiring Christian minds invariably turn to the public library, and invariably they will find that on the public library’s shelves, evangelical books are in short supply, even though every other religion may be present in profusion. To start pastors and churches on their way to a solution, CHRISTIANITY TODAY is publishing in this issue a list of 100 basic books for a church library. In a related essay, we stress the supplemental opportunity existing in and through departmental libraries, and suggest some relevant reading. God grant that these titles may give the spur to a significant part of the Church’s ministry.
I Believe …
Today’s college and university teachers are fashioning tomorrow’s Christian task force. How competently youth will contend for the minds of men turns in large measure on the influences of present academic training. A servant is not above his master, said our Lord; and seldom does a student (for a good many years) rise above his teacher.
Alongside the instructor’s awesome responsibility to communicate mastery of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom stands the pupil’s duty to put first things first during the college years. Recently, at a school openly disinterested in academic prowess, Billy Graham told the student body: “If I were in your shoes I wouldn’t pray for a passion for souls; I’d pray for a passion for study.” He was right. Personal work may seem especially compelling the night before an examination, a time when academic tenacity should properly exercise spiritual priority. The war of ideas demands full disciplined judgment. The condition of the classroom may well become the condition of the nation and, indeed, of the world. This is no time for playboys on campus nor for dullards at the desk.
WESTERN TENSION MOUNTS AS REDS SEAL EAST BERLIN BORDER
Vacationers returning from assorted holidays to assorted responsibilities found the hard facts of waiting work at home and of mounting pressures abroad blowing chill through memories of sun and fun. Both clergy and laity had indulged careful plans or carefree whims to fulfill some summer fancy. Meanwhile the irresistible force of current events jabbed relentlessly toward some seemingly impending climax. No amount of ignorance, indifference, or studied obliviousness could soften the increasing crescendo of alarm.
A new form of piracy had hijacked American planes into Cuba. America’s highly-touted second space trip of several minutes paled before a Russian astronaut’s claim to many hours spent circling the earth. Premier Khrushchev, never on vacation from his ambition to bring the West to its knees, produced his long-threatened Berlin crisis. In response to the Khrushchev challenge, President Kennedy somberly called the American people to new action and daring against the Red menace. U. S. military buildup underscored his remarks.
Many observers voiced relief that U. S. leaders disown any foreign policy predicated upon a strategy of slow retreat in the face of dictatorial aggression. Yet multitudes waited for evidential confirmation of verbal assurances. President Kennedy’s problems in Laos, Cuba, and now West Berlin lag far behind an assured solution. And in some circles one could still detect the mood that “since a nuclear war is unthinkable” our strategy in quest of peace can only be to “give as little ground as possible at a time.” Realists rightly deplore such a policy as gradual suicide. But the need for prudence and patience, rather than untempered reprisals, was never greater. Time is never securely on the side of the demonic—even less so in the twentieth century than in the first Christian century. Not even a warmonger boasting of a superbomb 5000 times the force of the Hiroshima H-bomb need have the last word.
As summer fades into fall, how can churches share in overturning today’s cruel game of war-bug jitters? The President perhaps spoke more significantly than he or many Americans realized when he said, “I need … above all your prayers.” America needs a national experience of prayer and repentance. Prayer is still mightier than the sword, and mightier, too, than nuclear bombs. If the Church bends its knees before God, it need not bend them before today’s Castros and Khrushchevs any more than before yesterday’s Napoleons, Hitlers, and Mussolinis. A church on its knees, in fact, takes no vacations. Rather, it works undaunted and with unabated zeal in this evil world to determine and to accomplish the will of God. God still acts in international politics to deliver those who put their trust in him.
PROPAGANDA FOR LABOR DAY: SPIRITUAL AIMS OF GIANT UNIONS
A communication has been sent to the press by Charles C. Webber, an ordained clergyman salaried by AFL-CIO, enclosing a letter by AFL-CIO President George Meany, a statement for Labor Sunday from the National Council of Churches, and statements for Labor Day from the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference and the Synagogue Council of America. We presume this communication is intended also for ministers, priests and rabbis.
This is nothing new. It happens each year. But one wonders why the Church fails to clarify her position in this matter of attempts to align her with one particular segment of society without stressing her obligation to society as a whole. There is no warrant for giving labor organizations a special status any more than there is to give business management special favor. Both stand under the judgment of God. The Bible teaches the duty but also the dignity of work. It requires honesty by employer and the employed. The employer is enjoined against withholding rightful wages or in any other way oppressing those who labor. The worker is enjoined against dishonesty, either in the appropriation of things or stealing time which rightfully belongs to the employer. It is therefore the duty of the Church to teach and preach, “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” whether to labor or capital. It is equally her duty to refrain from becoming a pressure group in favor of either.
THE GOSPEL HAS AN ANSWER TO HUMAN DESPAIR AND SUICIDE
The recent wave of suicides calls fresh attention to this twentieth-century passion for self-murder. The roster of suicides includes notorious persons like Hitler and Mussolini’s one-time mistress, Magda de Fontanges, to prominent men like Harvey Firestone III, George Vanderbilt, former Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and possibly Ernest Hemingway.
A recent article states that in Denmark suicide is now an “almost acceptable expression of unhappiness” on which “the early church teaching that suicide is immoral has little effect.”
The increase in suicides reflects the dwindling hold of biblical Christianity on some modern men. Has the Church today perchance become so earth centered in viewpoint that she often fails in her true mission—to point man to his eternal home through Christ, the Redeemer?
Unhappiness is no good reason for suicide. The man God uses is not always a happy man, but he is a useful one. And who knows by what strange alchemy God transmutes the unhappiness of men into that which brings glory to himself and benefits to men, including rewards to the one who is unhappy? Surely if there is a theology of life there is also a theology of death. The real reason why suicide is wrong is that man is made in the image of God. When a man takes his own life he strikes at God through himself, for he was made in the divine image.
The people of God must somehow publish anew the antidote, that Christ has come “that they may have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” “Christ in you, the hope of glory” was the message of the early Church. Men with that hope counted their lives expendable for the one they served, but only at his will and in his time and way.
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