We’re told that there are two kinds of education: learning how to make a living (acquiring facts), and learning how to live. Often Sunday schools seem tied to the first kind; they dispense information about the Scriptures without building corresponding life commitments. This seems true of both large and small Sunday schools across the United States.
A new emphasis is needed. Its basic components are (1) a stress on quality rather than quantity and (2) personal involvement by the teacher.
During the past century, the rise to major influence of science and industrial technology has affected our values. Among the values that have become very important to modern American society are: (1) quantification, that is, assigning numbers for purposes of calculation and prediction; (2) efficiency, the development of logical ways to reduce waste and error; (3) concern with the whole or the mass rather than with the individual. And in subtle ways these factors have influenced the church and the Sunday school.
The influence of quantification is seen in the criterion for success often used by churches and Christian periodicals. The spotlight is frequently on the biggest Sunday school, the biggest church, how many came forward. But this does not seem to be Christ’s way. “The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many,” Christ said. And “the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Christ is interested in the quality of the relationships built, not the number. Quantity should be only a secondary consideration.
The tendency to see people as statistics (e.g., the number saved or attending) is closely linked with a second secular influence: efficiency. A church, like an industry, may become concerned with developing highly structured means of increasing output. Usually this means that standardized methods of doing things are developed. The individualized work of the Holy Spirit may become subordinated to standardized approaches of presenting salvation, or standardized teaching materials and mass instructional techniques.
Perhaps more than any other organizations, the church and Sunday school should be places where people sense that they are important and where their needs are met on individualized terms. Individualized attention and lessons should become the norm, rather than standard group lessons and the unvarying preaching of a single message to a congregation of individuals (though this is not to deny that there are lessons that should be presented and considered together). Christian education needs to be much more sensitive to individuals. This can be done in various ways, including contacts outside the Sunday-morning class situation.
Let me say again that focus on the group and the use of statistics and of standardized methods are not absolutely wrong. They are, however, secular influences that should be of secondary consideration in Christian education. As the focus is put on the individual, and the quality of his relationships with others in the body and with Christ becomes the main concern, the church is almost certain to grow. People are looking for personal concern in a society obsessed with quantities and the masses.
This focus has implications, of course, for the kinds of approaches taken toward Sunday-school outreach. Many churches are troubled by the imbalance between children and adults in the Sunday school. Especially in urban areas it is common to see very few adults and even fewer complete families among the many children present. Developing family involvement is a goal in a number of churches. This may require changes in day and time of services, involvement in neighborhood groups rather than the formal church structure, and other major revisions. Above all, it will necessitate a Spirit-led concern for persons.
Emphasis on quality has implications for class size also. Efforts should be made to develop classes with no more than seven to ten members. This is especially important for classes through the high school age. The smaller size permits greater flexibility and individuality in teaching style. It will also enable the teacher to develop personalized out-of-class contacts with each member of the class.
An emphasis on quality also requires a serious view of the call to teach. Teaching will be more than the simple presentation of Bible stories, or the reading of a printed lesson. Teachers should be carefully selected, with much prayer and with conversation between the education committee and the prospective teacher. These choices are too important to be left to the solitary judgment of one Sunday-school superintendent, even if that person is wise. As Proverbs 15:22 says, “without counsel plans go wrong, but with many advisors they succeed.”
Teacher preparation, education, and evaluation are also important for effective Christian education. “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Persons who teach should be mature Christians who sense that God wants them to teach. Programs of continuing education and exposure to communication techniques, as well as regular opportunity for feedback and evaluation by other teachers and the superintendent, should be encouraged. In many evangelical churches, evaluation seems to be feared rather than welcomed as a means of improving the ability to communicate. The underlying premise for Christian education should be that we are serious about training people to become mature believers and are anxious to work together to find ways of doing this.
Confidence in one another can be developed as teachers are given opportunities to discuss problems and teaching methods. The superintendent should become a regular visitor to the classes, learning about each of the students, evaluating the teaching, perhaps forming ideas about possible improvements. The superintendent might try inviting individual teachers to his or her home for an informal meal. This can be a time for getting to know each other, and for relaxed discussion of the Sunday school.
Classes should serve people with similar needs and interests, not simply people of the same age. For instance, children who have had a great deal of family instruction in the Scriptures and children with no such background should probably not be in the same class. Separate classes should also be considered for persons with various kinds of behavioral, learning, or emotional disorders who disrupt a regular class.
The teacher has traditionally been seen as a person who presents information, asks questions, and provides discipline for a given amount of time. If this image is preserved, the Sunday-school teacher can hardly expect to have much influence on students. An hour a week is obviously an insufficient exposure time. The problem is accentuated if the student does not come from a family that provides reinforcing instruction during the rest of the week.
To see lives maturing through the influence of the Sunday school, the teacher must become a model of the Christian as well as a dispenser of information. Influence through personal contact with students should be central in the conception of teaching. If the student is a child, the caring relationship should extend to his family also, though the child should have time alone with the teacher.
Even with small classes, this conception of teaching places a great demand upon the teacher. Perhaps only One or two involved relationships can be maintained at one time, though more superficial contacts should be kept with each student.
I recommend that the teacher pray each quarter that God will open the way to a relationship with one or two students. He should then pray for these persons daily and try hard to develop a caring relationship with them. As the teacher extends himself in this way, he will find new responsiveness to the Sunday teaching, a growth in Christian maturity, and, I believe, some firm initial commitments to Christ. As God leads, the teacher might concentrate upon a different couple of students each quarter. With a class of about eight, quality relationships can be built with each during the course of the year.
In a society dominated by mass concerns, the church and Sunday school need to be places where caring relationships are built. Effective teaching involves extended commitment and involvement of the teacher as a model. The Sunday-school teacher must be seen as a developer of relationships rather than as solely a dispenser of biblical information.
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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