Sunday school occupies, typically, one hour a week. When vacations, special events, absences, and time spent in non-teaching activities are all taken into account, we can assume that it is a rare Sunday scholar who is exposed to more than thirty hours’ instruction per year. What can be accomplished in thirty hours per year, especially when compared to twenty-plus hours per week in public school and probably even more in front of a television set? Rather a lot, a 1971 survey showed: children who regularly attend content-centered Sunday schools in evangelical churches are much better informed about the Bible, its story and its teachings, than are the majority of children—and adults—in our supposedly Christian civilization. Of course, the standard set by the general public is lamentably low. Compared to the virtually total ignorance of the Bible and its message that prevails in modern America, a little knowledge can sound impressive.
But even a lot of knowledge may not be enough. The same survey indicated that while most Sunday-school pupils knew a lot more about the Bible than their non-participating contemporaries, many of them gave no evidence that their personal beliefs and attitudes were significantly molded by the Bible’s teachings. When such evidence was present, it was usually tied to another factor besides Sunday-school attendance: the basic commitment and example in the home. Where parents manifest a generally secular value-system in their daily lives, the knowledge children gain in Sunday school turns out to have little influence on their basic attitudes and commitments.
Sunday school (like Sunday worship) is one of these well-entrenched Christian traditions that are not commanded expressis verbis in Scripture. What is expressly commanded is significant. When Moses finished reciting a summary of God’s commandment, statutes, and ordinances to the people, he continued, “These words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children …” (Deut. 6:6, 7). To whom was he speaking? Not to judges, pastors, and teachers but to all Israel. From the context, it appears that a special responsibility is assigned to the father. In the New Testament, it seems that Timothy was instructed in the Scriptures by his mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 3:14, 1:5). Thus in both testaments we see the duty of instructing children in the things of God laid squarely on the family. Certain parental responsibilities may properly be delegated: Jesus’ Great Commission includes a teaching mandate given to his disciples, and there is no reason to suppose that they were to teach only adults, leaving the children solely to their parents’ instruction (Matt. 28:19, 20). But—especially in view of the biblical emphasis on parental responsibility—it is not surprising that a survey showed Sunday schools successful at communicating content. This is certainly an important function, but generally it leads to commitment, to a definite shaping of beliefs, attitudes, and actions, only when the parents’ encouragement is strong and when the examples seen in the home are consistent with what is taught in church.
Elsewhere in this issue there are articles showing that while the Sunday school may be in trouble in some circles, it is thriving among evangelicals and fundamentalists—not merely for children but also for older teen-agers and for adults. The primary reason for this vitality, we think, is that the evangelical, Bible-centered Sunday school has something definite and relevant to teach, and it can teach it with authority, not merely as speculation or tradition.
There are also some important secondary reasons, lying in the areas of imaginative curriculum materials, improved teaching methods, new approaches to communication, and more systematic attempts to review and evaluate teacher and pupil performance and results achieved. In fact, while the late 1950s saw an enormous increase in Sunday-school curriculum revision and other program innovations on the part of several large denominational publishing houses, it would seem that the more distinctively evangelical publishers have been much more successful in providing materials and suggesting methods that keep children—and adults—coming and keep them interested.
But this very methodological success of the evangelical Sunday school—which is far from total, but which certainly offers a noteworthy contrast with the debility of many other types of religious-education programs—may conceal an insidious temptation for Christian parents: the temptation to “leave it to the professionals.” Evangelical Sunday schools are a good deal more professional today than they used to be, and we can be grateful for it. Children are a precious gift of God; the opportunity to teach them involves a tremendous responsibility. We can be proud that so many evangelical churches are taking education seriously and going at it in a systematic, organized, and evidently rather successful fashion. But we can also recognize that even when content is successfully communicated, there never can be any such thing as a “second-hand commitment” or a “second-hand faith.” The fact that a great many of our evangelical Sunday schools are good should not anesthetize parents into overlooking their own, far more important responsibilities.
Given a mere thirty or so hours a year, many Sunday schools are doing an amazing job of communicating and teaching. But it remains in the family, in the home, that a vital decision will fall: whether children will learn merely what Christians believe, or how and why to be committed to Christ themselves.
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