Although prognostication is risky, futurism is big business today. Even the Church wants to avoid future shock by peering behind the curtain. But my task is considerably simpler, for it deals with “trending” rather than predicting. Instead of trying to say what will be, I will focus on what is or is developing in church education.

In an attempt to anchor my observations to facts, I prepared a simple survey soliciting responses from professional colleagues. The statistics you will see represent nearly 50,000 local congregations made up of nearly 14,000,000 people. The information comes primarily from the denominational Christian-education offices, with additional viewpoints provided by some of my colleagues in the academic community (five at the graduate and five at the undergraduate level). Since none of these contacted discussed their responses with other participants, I am inclined to trust the collective results as valid indications of trends. I make no claim of careful research, since the informal approach I used was more like an opinion poll. And my discussion of patterns in church education deals only with the evangelical sector.

Attitudes Toward Church Education

It may be safe now to suggest that the Church has survived the harsh criticism and bitter denouncements of the self-flagellating sixties. Some still attack the Church as outdated, prejudiced, irrelevant, hypocritical, tradition-bound, discriminatory, and anti-intellectual. But generally, I think, we have heeded Criswell’s call to arms: “Look up, brother!”

Church education is inseparably related to congregational life, and so attitudes toward them are virtually indistinguishable. Consequently, five years ago educational programs felt the discomfort as churches began choking while trying to swallow their collective tail. But the 1970s are a new era. Eighty per cent of the survey respondents indicated strong agreement with the statement, “Churches are more flexible, innovative and experimental in their programming.” Fifty per cent believe we live in a day of renewed optimism and enthusiasm for the local church (38 per cent were ambivalent or at least cautious, and 11 per cent disagreed).

In a question that probably expressed my own earlier doubts, I asked whether the renewal movement was now “settling down to less critical and more constructively church-oriented concerns.” Seventy-three per cent answered with a strong affirmative.

Yet there is a problem of sorts on the horizon. It has to do with divergent philosophies about church education. On one side is the large-church strong-pastor evangelism-centered philosophy recently brought into the limelight. On the other is the group-life lay-leadership church with focus upon teaching and koinonia. What is needed is a fresh understanding of the Church’s task complete with biblical emphasis upon a congregational life-style that properly balances evangelism and education.

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Another possible problem area is the use of media to substitute for rather than supplement the Church’s ministry. Sunday-morning religious programs aimed at capturing the attention of a pagan populace may also provide Christians with an excuse to stay home and watch so-and-so on TV. Similarly, tapes, which could be most beneficial as an aid to independent Bible study, are sometimes allowed to replace the effort to get into the text for oneself. The next step (quite visible in places) may be that groups of people drop out of local congregations to “be blessed” by the ministry of an electronic surrogate for a local pastor.

People Orientation

There are signs that evangelicals may at last be paying less attention to “souls” and more attention to “people.” Of fifteen “trends” I suggested on my survey, none drew a higher level of agreement (84 per cent) than the suggestion that the Church now shows a “concern for people rather than programs with greater emphasis on personalization and communication.” Seventy-three per cent even believe they can see “more willingness on the part of most evangelicals to work together.”

The new “people orientation” shows itself in various ways. One is a greater openness to sharing in congregational meetings. Not all churches experimenting with sharing sessions use Ray Stedman’s “Body Life” terminology (see CHRISTIANITY TODAY, “The Minister’s Workshop,” May 21, 1971), but the spirit of Palo Alto has drifted east. Almost all the respondents found in their denominations interest in freeing the service structure from traditional rigidity.

Another sign of personalization is the interest in small groups. Almost every denomination participating in the survey is involved in group work, either experimental or established. Terminology varies widely and is relatively unimportant. Tags like “growth cell” and “living circle” all refer to a central motivating idea: koinonia, a drawing together in mutual love and sharing. But the Church can find lasting value in groups only if those groups are anchored to absolute truth. Too many sessions degenerate into an ephemeral therapy, making participants “feel better” but offering no lasting value in the form of biblical answers to problems.

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Still a third demonstration of concern for people is the growing willingness to cut back on evening program; ming. Often this takes the form of “family night,” a scheduling of most week-night sessions on one evening rather than spreading them throughout the week. Part of the objective here is to provide greater emphasis on family life, a trend to which I shall return.

In one way of thinking, the surge in people-interest is an anomaly. After all, this is the hardware age. We have been told that the media will storm the church’s educational programs during this decade and that in five years our classrooms will be radically different from what we have known in the past. Maybe. But I doubt it. High costs, innate conservatism, and a less than complete embracing of the hardware on the part of public education have slowed the Church’s response.

Of course, we are using more communication devices now than ever before. Tape cassettes are common, and one can find an occasional videotape deck. But “media revolution” is a quixotic cry at this point in the history of church education. I’m reminded of a remark made by President David McKenna of Seattle Pacific College a few years ago: “Media can give us information, but only teachers give us meaning.” That may account for our current rediscovery of people at what appears to be the apogee of a hardware generation.

Status Of Traditional Programs

Six or eight types of educational programming have dominated the field for the past two decades. Variations such as coordinated age programming, open classrooms, modular scheduling, and interest or ability groups come and go, but most churches retain the familiar forms. Let’s have a look at their comparative strengths.

Sunday school. Surely no other aspect of church ministry has ever received the pummeling from print and platform that this one has had to endure in recent years. Yet though articles attack, speakers scourge, and experts excoriate, the Sunday school is still alive and well. Seventy per cent of the survey respondents strongly agreed that “Sunday school attendance in evangelical churches is up slightly in the 1970s.” Only 15 per cent disagreed; the rest scattered in neutral territory. When asked to respond statistically on the basis of their own records, over two-thirds were able to cite a percentage of increases in 1972 attendance (over 1971). Substitutes for Sunday school are currently being tried by fewer than 10 per cent of the churches.

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But there are several clearly definable problems with Sunday school in its present form.

1. It offers a conscience-salving, though inadequate, alternative for parents who neglect Christian teaching at home.

2. It has focused too much on children and too little on adults.

3. It may have so emphasized evangelism that it has neglected nurture.

4. It too often is used as a substitute for a total church program of nurture. Education, in my judgment, is the primary task of the gathered church and should permeate all its activities to some degree.

Minor changes are quite common in Sunday schools today. “Opening exercises” are disappearing; electives and the discussion-oriented curriculum are more widely used; the use of time is more flexible; and the level of teaching may be a bit higher than it was five years ago. For some people, the name “Sunday school” has an unwelcome stigma, and some churches are making commendable efforts to upgrade the instructional quality and give Sunday school a fresh image with titles like “School of Christian Living” and “Bible Study Hour.”

Youth ministry. In the Sunday-evening “training hour” or “youth group,” churches again report an increase of attendance. Over 80 per cent specify increases of from 1 to 8 per cent in the past year. Young people are also being given a stronger role in church administration and ministry; more teen-agers are serving on church committees than ever before.

Short-term missionary trips, usually to the Southwest, Mexico, or heavily populated resort areas, are very popular, and the results in “turned-on” teens are highly praised by the churches.

Sex education from a distinctively Christian and biblical point of view is still mostly talk, though some churches have made courageous forays into this area.

Weekday club programs. Survey response suggests that a small percentage of evangelical churches use club programs as a part of their educational efforts, but that those that do are experiencing growth. (An aside to the leaders of Awana, Christian Service Brigade, Pioneer Girls, and similar club programs: Isn’t there some way to work out an equivalency credit allowance among the award requirements in your programs? Our mobile society pulls children from church to church; their zeal for joining clubs is understandably deflated if they must start over because church B operates a different club program than church A.)

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Camping. Over 80 per cent of the denominations report an increase in their camping programs. This is one area of Christian education that evangelicals have properly professionalized, and the results are evident. Camping trends include an increase in the scheduling of family weeks (or weekends) and more day-camp programs, particularly for underprivileged children and youth in urban areas.

Vacation Bible school. This was the only traditional form of church education that received a negative report. An equal number of reports indicated increase and decrease, but the percentage of decrease was higher. Day camping, back-yard Bible classes, and neighborhood clubs appear to be serving as substitutes for VBS in many churches.

Children’s church. All respondents reporting on this type of ministry recorded increases in attendance. Many churches still do not have this program, usually because of lack of facilities or workers or a misunderstanding of the purpose of children’s church.

Home Bible classes. In first place is a relative newcomer to the church education scene. Home Bible classes take many and varied forms; lumping them together the respondents agree that they are “growing in number, attendance, and productivity.” Some churches have developed an excellent evangelistic dynamic through such classes, often hosted and taught by laymen. No denominations report a decrease in either the number of or attendance at home Bible classes.

Worship services. I hesitatingly include this item among “educational ministries.” A case can be made for the instructional value of hymns and pulpit preaching even if the attitudes and acts of worship may be somewhat different from those of education.

If attendance at worship services in evangelical churches is dropping, no one admits to it: all but one participant in my survey claim increases. The one exception reports that numbers are “the same” as last year.

Some changes are discernible, particularly:

1. A willingness to rework the time schedule, especially in the evening service.

2. Wider variation in format in an attempt to break out of the doxology-invocation-prayer-announcements-choir-hymn-message-benediction lockstep.

3. A switch from the Authorized Version to modern language translations or even paraphrases.

4. Mild forms of dialogical preaching, or at least attempts to involve the congregation more in the service.

5. Informality and contemporaneity in worship, sometimes in an early service attended mostly by teen-agers and young adults.

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Ideas Attracting Interest

The adult education movement may, at last, be getting into the churches. With millions of adults enrolled in courses teaching everything from advanced calculus to cake decorating, it’s about time we plugged in the Bible. Leadership training is a focal point of interest.

One section of the survey allowed respondents to “unload” on the key issues or trends in church education today. By far the most predominant response was an emphasis on lay leadership training, particularly in short-term seminar sessions. Cooperative leadership training classes on a community or even county-wide basis are attracting people who want to be better church teachers and workers. Elective classes, internship projects, and other forms of in-service training are catching on.

Another trend of the seventies is Christian day schools at the elementary and secondary levels. Many are forts of fear, providing refuge from integration; they are more politically and racially motivated than Christian. But not all. More and more godly parents are fed up with the federal and state monopoly on education and determined to give their children something better than the daily diet of liberal politics, secular humanism, and even obscenity they may be getting.

Interest in the family is a mark of this decade. Eighty per cent of the respondents report “wide interest in family life education.” Many churches have Sunday-school electives that provide biblical instruction for young parents. Others are planning annual family-life conferences and retreats. Pastors are preaching sermon series on what the Bible says about the Christian home. Evangelical literature on the family available today represents an astonishing increase over five years ago. Christians may be coming to the conclusion that God’s ideas on family living just might be more valid than those of the secular sociologist.

Early childhood learning is also of current concern in the churches. We may not have decided upon instructional procedures yet, but the “task force” phase is at least under way. We can expect a flow of ideas and techniques in the near future.

The market for professionally trained Christian educators seems to be holding its own. Fifty-seven per cent of the denominations strongly agree that there is “renewed interest in Christian education and Christian education vocations” (only one report strongly disagreed). Many feel, however, that the role of director of Christian education is still somewhat undefined.

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Salaries for Christian workers generally, and therefore for those in Christian education, are on the upswing with some unfortunate exceptions. Could it be that we are making our way out of the miasma of confusion I have called the “sanctimonious salary syndrome” (the belief that the way to keep a Christian worker spiritual is to keep him poor)?

Christian higher education is in a peculiar state. Respondents indicate slight increases at denominational schools, but many schools bemoan decreases in enrollment. Christian liberal-arts colleges seem to be feeling the pinch in dollars and head count more than seminaries and Bible colleges. The Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges reports an average 7.66 per cent increase in enrollment in its member schools in the fall of 1972. Time magazine (Oct. 9, 1972, p. 45) reported that five evangelical schools surpassed Union Theological Seminary in enrollment last fall.

This popularity of theological education should make evangelical churches explode with enthusiasm to realize their potential. Elton Trueblood once wrote, “The congregation must, accordingly, be reconstructed into the pattern of a small theological seminary …” (The Incendiary Fellowship, Harper, p. 67). Following up the analogy, Findley Edge urges that each person be led to recognize his “call to the ministry,” accept his “responsibility for carrying out the ministry,” and expect his church to equip him for his call in ministry (The Greening of the Church, Word, p. 177). I could not agree more. This is the vital purpose of church education, and I hope that some of the “emerging patterns” will lead to these worthy ends.

And speaking about “ends”: I think every article should have one!

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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