All is not well with the educational ministry of the Protestant Church. In this secularized age with its explosion of knowledge as well as of population and its vastly enlarged opportunities for witness, the Church’s educational agencies are, all things considered, doing little more than holding their own. And in the battle for the mind in a day of pervasive unbelief, Protestant education is not just in danger of defeat; in many quarters it is now losing the battle. Even among youth and adults under the Church’s tutelage, commitment to supernatural Christianity with its authoritative Bible and its moral absolutes is giving way to the espousal of a relativistic ethics and a diluted theology that are essentially sub-Christian.

Christian education is primarily the responsibility of the congregation. Plans may be formulated at denominational headquarters, but the local church must carry them out. Although the practice of Christian education has ebbed and flowed during two thousand years of church history, the instinct of Christians to teach and learn has always persisted in one way or another, even during the dark ages. The strength of this instinct is evident today. New Sunday school materials, research projects, growing numbers of courses in colleges and seminaries, the emergence within recent decades of the new vocation of director of Christian education—all these bear witness to concern. Yet this concern must reach the people so as to involve them more extensively in the noble task of Christian education.

Despite all the efforts being made, much more must be done. The educational work of the Church needs not only renewal but also restructuring. Old patterns will no longer do. Just as the catechumenate in the early centuries and the schools of Reformation times gave way to other forms of Christian education, so in our day change and development must come if the Church is to be true to its Lord’s commission.

For one thing, the Sunday school is sick. In a time when the proportion of youth to the rest of the population is mounting and public and private schools are bursting at the seams, the slackening in Protestant Sunday school enrollment that began in 1960 persists. (Although the Yearbook of American Churches shows an increase of more than 800,000 between 1962 and 1963, this is chiefly the result of the inclusion of a few groups—one of which listed more than 600,000 Sunday school pupils—that were not included the year before. And if the large gains of the Mormons are deducted, hardly any increase remains.)

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For almost a hundred years in America, the Sunday school has been the lifeline of the Church. To it the Church looks for new members and for an informed laity. But any minister with the temerity to give his congregation the simplest Bible test will probably be as shocked as the pastor in Southern California who tried this a few years ago (see “Biblical Literacy Test,” by Thomas Roy Pendell, The Christian Century, Oct. 21, 1959). Seminary professors know that it is futile to expect their entering students who have been under the instruction of the Church all their lives to have anything approaching an ordered knowledge of the main content of Scripture. In a book giving the results of a survey of a midwestern county, two sociologists bluntly say: “Ministers who use biblical imagery in their sermons and who refer to biblical stories in their presentations are undoubtedly failing to communicate with the majority of the members in their congregations who have no context in which to place such references. The Sunday schools seem to have been quite ineffective in communicating cognitive material to the students” (Religion in American Culture, by W. Widick Schroeder and Victor Obenhaus, New York, 1964). To be sure, factual knowledge is only part of what religious teaching should convey. Yet factual knowledge of the Bible is indispensable for Christian living. As the prophet Amos said to Israel, there is a famine in the land, a famine of hearing the Word of God.

There are, however, other results of church education than merely intellectual ones. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart,” said the psalmist, “that I might not sin against thee.” Christianity is more than moralism; it is a new, redeemed life in Christ. Yet the Bible is at the heart of morality; and when people no longer take the Bible seriously, morality sags. The prevalence of classroom cheating, sexual immorality, shady tax practices, and other cutting of ethical corners does not speak well for the effectiveness of the Church’s teaching. Our Lord’s criterion, “By their fruits you shall know them,” still stands.

What lies behind this comparative ineffectiveness? Three things come to mind—first, an inadequacy of time; second, a shift in content; third, a loss in basic purpose.

Education may be broadly defined as the changing of human beings through experience. And the experience that effects the change is of two main kinds—formal and informal. Formal education includes what goes on in class (or in church) on weekdays or on Sunday. Informal education is constantly coming to young and old through radio and television, the press, travel, and a thousand and one other influences.

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As leisure time increases, the effect of these informal educational influences becomes stronger. In comparison, the time allotted Christian education in churches following the usual Sunday school pattern is obviously inadequate and clamors for action. The weekly lesson period, only a fraction of the time a child in day school gives to one subject like algebra or science, is simply no match for the formal and informal secular experiences crowding in upon his consciousness.

In former generations the Protestant home was itself a center of Christian education and thus reinforced what the Church was doing. But that day has long since passed. Even with new curricula and skilled teaching, the time for the most important of all instruction falls far short of what is needed. And with due allowance for other church-directed youth activities, the proportion of church education to secular education is still very small.

A second reason for ineffectiveness in the Church’s educational ministry is a change of emphasis. Along with the praiseworthy endeavor to bring new materials and better teaching techniques into the program, there has been in some quarters a dilution of biblical and doctrinal content. Such a shift in emphasis reflects changed attitudes toward Scripture and its authority. When the Bible is no longer received as the infallible Word of God, the compelling motive to teach it is inevitably undermined. Protestantism owes its very existence under God to the written Word. Not only so, but it was the insistence of the Reformers that every Christian be able to read and know the Bible that led to the beginnings of public education.

All knowledge and all of life can be drawn upon to illustrate Scripture, but never to the neglect of first imparting what it records and teaches. The book that has been the very mother of education demands the best kind of presentation. While there is surely a place within the Church’s educational program for such studies as church history, denominational polity, social application of the Gospel, and instruction in worship, these must be taught from a Bible-centered point of view. And as the Church moves forward, as it must, and finds ways to increase the time spent in educating its people, the Bible must remain central. In its education as in its theology, the Church needs to hold fast the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.

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Thirdly, if there is to be renewal of the Church’s teaching ministry, Christian education must ask itself whether it is really obeying the Great Commission. Although the newer translations differ from the Authorized Version in rendering the verb in Matthew 28:19 “make disciples of” rather than “teach,” a “disciple” is a learner, and the verb used in the text of Matthew carries the clear meaning of “teach.” This is reinforced by the second part of the Commission (verse 20), which uses the regular verb for “teach” (didaskō) and specifies the content of Christian teaching as “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” And this charge to teach what Jesus taught ties the Church’s educational ministry inescapably to Scripture. It must never be forgotten that, as J. L. Leuba points out, “in teaching Scripture, Jesus was actually speaking of himself, for Scripture bears witness of him (John 5:39, 45–47)” (A Companion to the Bible, ed. by J. J. Von Allmen, New York, 1958). How then can the Church fail to ground its teaching in the book to which Jesus appealed (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; John 10:35), and which (Luke 24:27) he taught?

Now, although Scripture with its witness to Christ is the central subject of Christian education, the word “obey” in the Great Commission must never be forgotten in the zeal to teach the Book. The command to obey distinguishes the educational ministry of the Church from academic teaching. While the latter may, and often should, be objective, Christian education always drives for commitment. The truth it expounds is truth to be done. To obey Christ involves more than essential day-by-day obedience; it also involves the initial life-changing response to the command to believe on him with which he so definitely confronted men. Thus Christian education cannot be divorced from the constant presentation of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord of the individual life.

When the Church is carrying out its Lord’s command to “make disciples” (surely another way of stating the obligation to evangelize), preaching and teaching go hand in hand. Christian education will be culpably short-sighted if it ever loses the expectation of the pupil’s persona] encounter with Jesus Christ.

There is, of course, much else in Scripture about teaching. But the principle is plain. Nothing in educational philosophy or methodology must ever divert the Church from the central emphasis of its teaching as set forth by Christ.

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But the educational ministry of the Church also needs restructuring—and that in a radical way. Not that the Sunday school should be scrapped. With all its faults it still lies close to the heart of the Church’s educational ministry and is indispensable. But as the liberal arts college, while at the center of the university, cannot fulfill all the functions of the university, so the Sunday school cannot fulfill the whole of the Church’s teaching ministry.

“But why,” someone may ask, “must the educational ministry of the Church be radically restructured?” A basic reason lies in a fundamental change in American society. No longer is the Protestant ethos dominant in our culture. In what Professor Robert T. Handy of Union Seminary (New York) calls “the radical pluralism” of today, Protestantism is but one among many religious forces, even though numerically it is still in the majority. (While causes of this decline are complex, religious liberalism within the denominations has doubtless helped bring it about.) Thus the Church can no longer count upon the prevailing climate of opinion to support the teaching given in the Sunday school and in its other educational agencies.

Of the many suggestions for restructuring Christian education, these hold great promise: closer cooperation of Christian education with general education; adult Christian education; various released-time or free-time plans; home-centered Christian education; the teaching function of the pulpit; the parish school or the Christian day school.

Consider first the objective teaching of the Bible and religion in the public schools, the door for which was opened by Mr. Justice Clark’s majority decision in Abington v. Schempp (cf. “A Strategy for Christian Education,” editorial in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, May 7, 1965). Let it only be said here that, while it is not within the province of the Church to ask for such teaching in public schools, concerned church members who are taxpayers and parents of school children may and should try to persuade school boards to initiate it.

More directly related to the Church is dual enrollment, or shared time. This plan for educational cooperation of church and state has been given added stature by the Education Act of 1965. (Though some have questioned the constitutionality of dual enrollment, it seems likely that it will not be declared unconstitutional.) Under this plan, church and public school share the weekday educational time of the child. Certain subjects, such as those of a religious nature and others that are called by some educators “value subjects” (history, literature, and the like), would be taught in religious schools. Possibilities—and difficulties—abound. Think, for instance, of the possibility of weekday use of some of the many fine educational plants attached to Protestant churches that stand idle for the greater part of the week—surely a sad waste of facilities. While the Catholic Church with its parochial schools is best equipped to participate in dual enrollment, Protestants should certainly be willing to try the experiment also. The plan, though it presents complex problems, has great virtues, not the least being its confirmation of the right of parent and church to share the child’s educational time.

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A problem of particular concern to evangelicals is the theological character of the teaching under dual enrollment. Though this is an ecumenical age, there are many Protestants for whom the instruction of their children under liberal or neo-orthodox theological auspices would be unacceptable. This leads to the suggestion that in communities practicing dual enrollment there be two Protestant educational centers—one sponsored by churches committed to a more liberal theology and the other by those committed to a conservative evangelical theology. Such an honest acknowledgment of basic differences would doubtless be preferable to compromising conviction or to teaching from a bland, invertebrate theology that would offend no one.

A more familiar extension into the school day of religious teaching is the released-time program, as successfully practiced in New York City since 1924 and in many other places throughout the country. In the Zorach case (1952), the Supreme Court held released time to be constitutional. It offers an important addition to the Church’s instruction of its youth; yet most Protestants seem disinclined to make use of it.

Different from released time are the various free-time plans of religious education. Among them is the three-hour Saturday morning church school taught by paid teachers. Such programs are encouraging signs of the experimentation from which advance comes.

Notice must also be taken of the Christian day school. This growing movement has both its parochial and its parent-controlled aspects. Some churches are using their educational facilities for day schools, which have historic roots in groups like the Missouri Synod Lutherans, Christian Reformed, and Mennonites, and are increasing among Episcopalians, Baptists, and others. While there is a tendency to deplore the growth of the Christian day school movement as a threat to the public schools, this kind of school is a valid option for concerned Christian parents, although it will probably remain a minority solution to the problem of Christian education.

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One of the Church’s weaknesses is in adult education. Many Protestant churches ask little of candidates for membership beyond a brief declaration or reaffirmation of faith or a letter of dismissal from another church. That so often little in the way of adequate instruction is provided for adults entering its fellowship is unfortunate. The midweek service with its combination of prayer and teaching of the Word was once a means toward an instructed laity. But it has now dwindled. The Southern Baptists have their Sunday evening Training Unions, which do much for denominational solidarity; yet the amount of systematic instruction in these meetings is rather small. To be sure, there have been various interchurch endeavors to promote adult Christian education. Among them is the United Christian Adult Movement, begun in 1936 under the International Council of Religious Education, the Federal Council of Churches, and various missionary and women’s agencies. But the work of this movement, tending as it has toward such things as family counseling, though important, can hardly be called structured Christian education.

If the biblical and doctrinal illiteracy of the laity is ever to be remedied, the Church must move forward in adult Christian education. Here is a field that cries out for initiative on the part of pastors and boards, sessions, and vestries. Institutes for the study of the Bible and doctrine, groups of adults meeting in homes, weekday reading and study programs, cell groups that give time to fellowship in the Word—these are among the many possibilities (see “How to Make Adult Training Work,” p. 18). We cannot wait for youth to be taught how to “give a reason for the hope that is in [them].” If for no other reason than that there can never be good Sunday school teaching without teachers who know the Bible, we must begin now to educate adults.

As with children, not least among ways adults learn is by doing. That such lay organizations as Christian Business Men’s Committees, The Gideons, Yokefellows, Faith at Work, and The Christian Teachers Fellowship flourish shows that there is an empty place in Protestantism. These are not primarily study groups. But they engage in active Christian witness and in so doing develop in their members a real measure of biblical knowledge.

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No church program of Christian education is complete if it omits the home. Few changes in our society have had more far-reaching consequences than the change in the American home. Now almost a phenomenon is the home that maintains family Bible reading and worship. Yet the family, not the school or the church, is the single most effective educational agency. Parents need the help of the Church in fulfilling their responsibility for the Christian training of their children at home. It is strange that many a parent who openly deplores the cessation of devotional observances in the public schools cannot be bothered to say grace at his table or to think about family worship. Few ministers can assume that the children of the congregation are getting any religious training at home. Yet many parents would be willing to give their children some Christian teaching if they could be shown how to do it. Home study guides, such as courses in biblical content and Christian doctrine, are needed. Perhaps the methods of programmed learning could be adapted for this purpose. In a day when the average American family has its television set going six hours a day, there must be time for prayer and reading and study of the Bible under the leadership of one or both parents.

There are other ways of renewing the educational ministry of the Church. The pulpit itself is a prime agency of Christian education, if—and the qualification is all important—the pastor knows how to expound the Word of God. Nothing must ever be allowed to crowd teaching out of the pulpit—neither life-situation preaching, nor inspirational sermons, nor evangelism itself. The pastor skilled in exposition will find none of these incompatible with opening up the Word.

The renewal and restructuring of the Church’s educational ministry stands among the foremost Protestant priorities. If some say that primacy belongs to evangelism alone, the reply must be that the evangelistic motive is implicit in Christian education and that without it Christian education is powerless to achieve lasting results. For if education has to do with the changing of human beings by experience, let it not be forgotten that the Church has committed to it in the Gospel the one message that can regenerate human beings.

To reform the Church’s role in education will make heavy demands on personal devotion and will call for sacrificial expenditure of time and money. But it must be done if Protestantism is to bear an obedient witness for Christ in this secular and materialistic society. In an essay called “Portrait of the American Mind,” Professor Henry Steele Commager says that Americans have boundless confidence in the new generation and are willing to make “almost any sacrifice for it except those required by self-restraint.” God forbid that Christians, once they are aroused to the urgent necessity for doing something about the Church’s inadequate teaching ministry, should be unwilling to make every sacrifice for this cause.

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So much can hang upon one word—

A sword to pierce, a jewel to glow,

A stone to shatter, or a balm

To soothe a throbbing woe.

And just as much upon a look—

A sneering lip, a sparkling eye,

A blank bare-wall face, or a smile

That beams a heart’s warm cry.

Great power in little words and looks

Each other’s worlds to warm or chill.

So One Divine Word made our world;

One Look will make all still.


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