Life magazine once dubbed the Sunday school the most wasted hour of the week. Not so, say curriculum people and Christian educators. Problems—yes, there are myriad. Challenges—yes, of course. But most people involved in the Sunday school are proud of what has been accomplished in the last decade, and they have dreams and goals for the next.

Yet enrollment in many Sunday schools is declining. Futuristic leaders in colleges and curriculum companies have to identify the new and continuing problems of the Sunday school. They must respond to those most immediately involved—the teachers and the students—if they are to meet the challenge of the 1980s. How will they answer John Klem, eleventh-grade student from Glen Ellyn, Illinois? “Some Sunday school classes are a bore. I’ve been in ones where we could care less about the subjects. Yak yak, and the whole period was irrelevant.”

CHRISTIANITY TODAY interviewed 11 men and women who are involved in some way in the ministry of the church through the Sunday school. They shared information and opinions on the failures and successes of Sunday school and curriculum, recent curriculum trends, and some challenges for Sunday school in the 1980s. Included among their comments are those of four teen-age Sunday school students.

Why are some people saying that Sunday school and Sunday school curriculum are irrelevant? Some respondents feel that the problem centers on the church’s failure to view Sunday school in the context of its total ministry. Others believe the problem is with curriculum. Still others say the problem is with the attitudes of those who attend Sunday school.

Norman Harper, chairman of the Christian education department and dean of the Graduate School of Education at Reformed Theological Seminary, fits into the first category. “The Sunday school has never been integrated with the total mission of the church,” he says. “It came into being as a parachurch organization. It was developed by lay people, primarily for children. It was self-supporting. When it was brought to this country, it was used primarily for evangelism. But it still existed outside the church.

“When the institutional church began to bring the Sunday school into its structure, it never really integrated it with the total ministry of the church. When the Sunday school hour is over, people still say, ‘Are you going to stay for church?’ ”

Some Sunday school students agree with Harper. They find that when both the Sunday school teacher and the pastor give them different sets of content and life responses, it’s too much. In the information overload, they are short-circuited. Randy Mains, 16-year-old high school junior from West Chicago, Illinois, says, “I wish we would discuss the sermon more in Sunday school. Then maybe we would understand better how to put the message into practice. We could get questions answered at our level; we’d like to know how we are supposed to serve Christ. We could check each other each week on how well we did living last week’s sermon.”

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According to Paul Fromer, free-lance curriculum writer and associate professor of writing at Wheaton College, Sunday school is too easy. “Christians almost never study for Sunday school in advance,” he said. “Life principles that the Scripture teach are important and sufficiently complicated that they require advance thought and later reflection. If children can go to school and get assignments, why can’t they get them in Sunday school? The further along the youngsters get in school, the more different Sunday school is from school, and the more it appears that Sunday school is for Mickey Mouse, and school is for real. If Sunday school is to survive and grow, that must change.”

Availability of funds and personnel is also a problem. “Sunday schools are understaffed and underfinanced,” says Glenn E. Heck, vice-president for planning at the National College of Education in Evanston, Illinois. “The inadequate contributions of time and money people make to Sunday school indicate that Christians simply do not believe that teaching is a vital command of Christ.”

Some sunday school problems were traced to curriculum. Doris Freese, associate professor of Christian education at Moody Bible Institute, feels that Sunday school curriculum has slighted adults, and calls for a rethinking of the way adult materials are structured. “Adults are students of lesson manuals and commentaries. The typical adult teacher’s manual,” she says, “is a huge commentary. I think more is being done in materials that are written for home Bible studies than is being done at the adult level in Sunday school materials to help adults learn to discover biblical truth for themselves.”

Heck says that curriculum producers have shot too broadly at the adult market without making fine enough distinctions about their needs. “If the content in adults’ courses is not pointed directly at a felt need, adults won’t come. Our greatest growth should be in the adult market, and the key to attracting this market is providing materials appropriate to the felt life needs and interests of adults.”

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Another problem many have with curriculum is that it doesn’t deal with issues such as world hunger, political involvement, or social justice. This also includes the “felt needs” mentioned by Heck. Most curriculum isn’t scratching where it itches.

“We don’t start out by saying, ‘Let’s come up with a course that deals with a particular contemporary topic,’ ” explains Wes Haystead, senior editor in the education division of Gospel Light Publications. “We start with the Scriptures and say, for example, ‘Let’s have a course from Ephesians.’ So then it’s a matter of what issues are dealt with in Ephesians. We tend to deal most with issues that touch the personal level—personal interaction, personal attitude, personal behavior—and less with global issues.” Many prefer this personal approach, but growing numbers of evangelicals want Sunday school to provide biblical guidance on some of the larger issues. Some teen-age students think Sunday school may be slighting some of the issues of primary importance to them, too. “What about dating, marriage, and sex?” asks John Klem. “How about some more realistic teaching in those areas? One reason I come to Sunday school is to meet and date Christian girls. I want to marry a Christian woman.”

Randy Mains picked the practical area of witnessing. He doesn’t feel it’s been taught effectively in his classes. “If I ever came up to someone who didn’t know the Lord and wanted to know, it might be hard for me to share my faith. I’ve never gone over that in depth.”

Wendy Barran, 12-year-old seventh grader from Salem, Oregon, agrees. “I go because I know that Jesus says I’m supposed to, and I want to learn how to share him with others. But I’m not learning that. In fact, I’m not learning anything.”

Larry Richards, of Dynamic Church Ministries, points to what he says is a basic flaw in curriculum structure. “Curriculum people assume that different content is appropriate to different age levels, and what you do is look through Scripture to find studies or lessons that fit the age. That’s a mistake,” says Richards. “Christian teaching ought always to be organized around theological core issues. For example: Man is made in the image of God; God is a heavenly father; God is a forgiving Person. Every single biblical doctrine can be experienced by a Christian at his level of development. If I’m going to be teaching about forgiveness, I know a nine-year-old will not understand forgiveness conceptually as an adult can. But he can experience the reality of the Christian teaching of forgiveness at his own level. Even an adult won’t understand forgiveness in the same way God does. So we never get to the place where we are intellectually capable of encompassing all God’s truth.

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“I don’t believe,” says Richards, “that curriculum publishers have ever come to grips with that basic issue—what is the core of their curriculum.”

D. Campbell Wyckoff, professor of Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary, feels that the curriculum itself is not as much a problem as how people use it. “I think that we have in curriculum at the present time most of the important possibilities out before us. I would like to see a mature and thorough attempt to use what we already have.”

How have curriculum companies faced problems like the above in past years? A survey of the past decade shows that evangelical curriculum producers have made great strides.

The mainline denominations had their Christian education theory and practice developed by theoreticians and experts. The evangelical or conservative church outside these denominations, on the other hand, never had that kind of leadership provided by the schools. “Curriculum houses took the leadership in developing Christian education styles,” says Richards. “This is their major contribution.”

And there have also been some significant people-centered contributions. For example, in the area of childhood education, “this decade has made us more aware of children’s abilities to learn spiritual truths—not just by memorizing, but by seeing and experiencing different kinds of activities,” says Charles G. Schauffele, chairman of the Christian education department at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. “I remember 15 years ago there was no such thing as curriculum for two- and three-year-olds. Now they are all over the place.”

Curriculum companies have also shown concern for the teacher. Teacher training has a long way to go in the 1980s, but it is not starting from a vacuum. “We have worked very hard for the past 10 years providing a continuing training program to help the Sunday school teacher succeed,” says Haystead. “We perceive that most churches see training as something they give only to a new teacher. We need to emphasize the need for every teacher to be involved in continuing training.” Wyckoff considers the effective way Sunday school curriculum has kept the best of theological and educational developments in reach of the ordinary Sunday school teacher to be the most praiseworthy achievement in the last decade. “The teacher has at his fingertips the materials that are needed, the ideas that are central, the activities and the procedures that will be most effective.”

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The tenets of faith do not change. But methodology and the ways in which people assimilate and use information does. Curriculum companies examine each trend that appears in the secular education field. They then evaluate which trends will effect basic changes in how people learn and which are simply fads. The latter should be avoided. For example, open classroom hit the educational scene by storm and whole school systems were reorganized to allow this method to be implemented. Now it is being strongly questioned.

On the other hand, if a trend will change how people think and learn, it must be incorporated into curriculum if effective communication between teacher and learner is to be maintained. Sesame Street, for example, changed the way a whole generation of children think and respond. No curriculum company with pre- and early childhood curricula dare ignore it.

“We wanted to be sure that Sunday school materials were getting through to Sesame Street children,” says Joseph Bayly, vice-president of David C. Cook Publishing Company. “We employed a consultant who had been on the Sesame Street creative planning team. We created a totally new curriculum for preschoolers. Biblical content is directed at children in such a way that they are able to learn without shifting gears between what they see on television, what they are learning in a secular school, and what they are getting in Sunday school.”

Bayly points out that if children find the weekday school creative and Sunday school dead, the church is going to lose these people, not on the basis of an essential moral decision—what would you do with Jesus?—but on a peripheral thing “where we have no excuse not to strive for excellence.”

Curriculum companies also point to their successes in helping teachers train their students to study the Bible. “We emphasize Bible study,” says Haystead, “and our primary purpose is to get the student at the appropriate age level involved with Scripture for himself. Rather than stretch our curriculum so we provide all the answers, we want the student to discover truth on his own.” Lloyd Cory, editorial vice-president of Scripture Press Publications, also says that Bible teaching is a strength of his curriculum.

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How to deal with contemporary issues is a question curriculum companies still struggle with. How do curriculum producers help their customers grow without pushing so hard that the churches cancel their orders?

“There is a tendency for us, since we’re in the suburbs, to become suburban,” says Cory. “We’re always fighting that, both in our art and in our copy.”

If publishers avoid places where biblical concepts apply to our culture, they are accused of being sub-Christian. “On the other hand,” says Bayly, “we have to recognize that teaching implies ignorance initially on the part of the learner, and in some areas people have not been stimulated to think. If we clobber them with the whole thing at once, we are going to turn them off.”

One area of tension, for example, is that of justice versus order. “The Bible, you know, is usually in favor of law and order,” says Cory, “but not always. Consider Peter’s illegal prison break. We are not straight law-and-order people. We try to present things as they come up in Bible study.”

One area in which curriculum has done a pretty fair job is in its minority representation. “A decade ago,” Bayly says, “we went out on a limb by showing integrated art and photographs. At the time, not knowing how the market would respond, it was a big chance to take. But we were convinced it was the right thing to do.” Today most publishers aim at a fair representation of minorities. Progressive National Baptist, a black denomination, imprints David C. Cook materials, and Scripture Press has a split-off company, Urban Ministries, whose materials are mostly for blacks.

What happens when a curriculum company realizes that some change is necessary to help it better reach its market? Cory says, “We hear from customers and from editors who are out there teaching that change is needed. Most of our editors are teachers. We do marketing research. After we determine what needs changing, we prototype and test a new product on the field. Then we change it as testing requires. After it’s been out for six months or a year, we do some in-use research to see how the changes have been accepted.”

Changes in curriculum may come slowly, but they do come. Two recent trends in the industry have been toward inductive Bible study and toward family-centered curriculum.

Inductive Bible study is a learning method that allows people to study the Bible for themselves. It can be done with or without a Sunday school teacher. It asks three kinds of questions about a Scripture passage: (1) What are the facts? (2) What do these facts mean? How do they go together? What principles are being taught? and (3) What does the teaching of this passage mean to me personally?

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More and more, companies are structuring lessons that will allow for guided or pure inductive study. Maggie Fromer, author of several inductive Bible study guides, explains why: “I think that as evangelicals, we have had such a respect for Scripture that we’re likely to think it takes someone who is skilled and well trained to understand it. We’ve almost reversed the emphasis that broke the Protestant church away from the Catholic church—that the Holy Spirit can instruct the believer in all that he or she needs to know in biblical understanding.

“Instead we are almost afraid to handle Scripture without having someone who is extremely well trained teach it to us. What inductive study ends up doing is showing a class that just by careful observation of the passage, people really can understand.”

A second trend, still in its early stages, is toward family-centered curriculum. Curriculum companies and several hundred churches are now doing research on its viability.

In a family cluster or intergenerational approach to Sunday school, three or four families and singles study together, forming an artificial family group. Both Schauffele and Bayly have taught intergenerational classes.

Schauffele thinks the family cluster concept is the up-and-coming thing. “My experience is that children from around the age of two can be involved,” he says. “They are interested as they creep, crawl, and toddle around. Teens pick up an enormous amount by listening to adults other than their own parents. Parents, in turn, gain insights into other young people.”

Bayly agrees. “The church may have contributed to the generation gap by separating people into strict age level groups. Some beautiful relationships have developed as we’ve studied the Bible together. My hope for the future is that Sunday school will be seen as an extended family, and that regardless of the age level, there will be a caring and sharing attitude among people.”

Schauffele warns that not everyone will go along with intergenerational study. “Start with a few seed families—four or five—who want to try it within the existing Sunday school framework.”

Some educators question the value of the family cluster, and others offer cautions. “I think there is a time for togetherness and a time for apartness,” says Cory. “Little kids especially can learn more if they are taught on their own level than they can sitting with their parents in an adult service.”

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“Obviously, kids need some learning on their own level,” says Richards. “Adults, too, need a chance to study Scripture with other adults. But I think Sunday school can be an intergenerational experience where various learning abilities are stressed.”

Sunday School Plus (which was funded by Dynamic Church Ministries) tried to redesign what happens in Sunday school using a socialization model rather than an education model. It did not insist on intergenerational experiences. But it found that a lot of churches did use the curriculum intergenerationally. In fact, now that the curriculum is no longer being produced, Richards has gotten letters from churches asking for backdated curriculum. They are convinced that this teaching model is working in their churches, and they would rather use old material than switch to something they doubt would work as well.

Amy Wakesfield, a 15-year-old high school junior from Phoenix, Arizona, is one convert to intergenerational study. “In our house church,” she said, “the junior high and senior high kids come into the adult group. As the sermon is given, anyone is free to interact by giving an opinion or asking a question. I really enjoy it. I can hear about older people’s problems and learn what it’s like to be an adult.”

Randy Mains, on the other hand, is pleased with his traditional class of senior highs because one of his primary purposes for coming to Sunday school is to get to know the other kids. “I don’t have to be in an adult conversation and compete with adults in class,” he says. “I can talk on my own level.”

The last decade has been one of severe change in the Sunday school, and unless that pattern is continued in the next, this educational ministry of the church will fail. The public changes: Sesame Street changed preschoolers; the conservative political climate changed adults; the decline wrought by the rebellion of the 1960s changed teens. If Sunday schools and the materials they use can’t change as quickly, they are targeted at no one.

The home is a key link to the next decade’s success. The Sunday school must find a way to link more successfully with the home, and the curriculum companies must provide the support materials. “We need to make a serious effort to impress parents with the impossibility of providing effective Christian education without their participation,” says Heck. “If I were offering a simple goal for the 1980s, I would say we should expect every Christian from high school on up to contribute five work hours a week to Christian education and 10 percent of his tithe for the costs of Christian education.”

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Harper would like to see the whole program restructured away from the Sunday school model, a separate educational arm of the church. In its place, he would put a church model where there would be no differentiation between the educational goals of the Sunday school and the goals of the church. He would like to see responsible clergymen and lay people grapple together with the integrating questions: What is the mission of the church? What is the role of the church? What is the role of education in implementing this mission?

If Harper’s concept of a unified mission of the church is to be achieved, curriculum companies must begin to supply materials that will work in harmony with what’s happening in the 11 o’clock hour. “There ought to be a way for the classroom materials and the pulpit message to operate in concert,” he says.

Bayly says that in the future Sunday school curriculum must provide building blocks that can be combined in various ways to meet the specific situation in the church. “Sunday school curriculum is in some ways where automobile manufacturing was when Henry Ford said, ‘You can have any color Ford you want as long as it’s black,’ ” says Bayly. “Up to this time we have tried to satisfy the needs of everyone with the same curriculum.”

This is, however, a difficult concept to implement. Could a different curriculum for each church, or even for each small denomination be prepared? The costs would be prohibitive.

Richards has suggested one way it might be done. Get people in the local church to understand the philosophy of the curriculum—why it does what it does. “When they understand that,” says Richards, “they will be able to personalize it.” Only then, he says, will individualized teaching take place in the local church. The key to this is in the hands of curriculum publishers. They have got to do a better job of training the teachers who are using their materials.’

Haystead points out that another aspect of teacher training involves changing how many teachers feel about themselves and their role. “We think a lot of people who are involved in teaching ministries do so out of a sense of duty or obligation, rather than out of a sense of satisfaction and ministry. We’d like to give churches some help with this problem.”

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Paul Fromer talked about a subtle problem that he would like to see corrected in the 1980s. Men participate in Sunday school far less than women, and perhaps our curriculum materials reinforce the idea that evangelicalism is a woman’s religion. “Issues that women are interested in discussing are more likely to be brought up,” says Fromer. “Curriculum writers have got to do more to keep men in mind if they are going to hold them in the next decade.”

On the issues of the 1980s, Wyckoff has identified the areas of communication and research. “I would hope,” he says, “that we in the curriculum field would find the personnel, money, and facilities to carry on a thorough research program in which we not only evaluate where we’re going, but also enter into a program of developing on as broad a base as possible. I have seen situations in which very similar curricula have been developing in the same city, and the people who were doing them were not aware of each other. Fruitful dialogue would improve the situation.”

Wyckoff wants curriculum developers to isolate and answer the primary questions that must be dealt with before a curriculum can be written. Those questions, in his opinion, are basic to doing a responsible job. Among them are: Why are you creating this curriculum? What is its scope? What educational processes are built in? In what context will the curriculum be used? Who will be involved? When is the appropriate time for it to be taught?

For Heck, the most essential message to communicate with curriculum companies is that they must work harder on building the link between informing and participating. He says, “We’ve done pretty well in informing students, giving them the facts, but we need to better link content to life. Linking learning to life is the next developmental stage for Christian education.

In conclusion, Sunday school and Sunday school curriculum have their problems, but in past years both have made much progress. Many challenges lie ahead, but the outlook remains hopeful.

Perhaps a comment by Dr. Wyckoff epitomizes the responses of those interviewed for this article: “Sunday school is as American as crab grass. People, churches, theorists, have done their level best to get rid of it, and it endures and comes back strong. For all its defects, it is the most effective agency that we have ever had for Christian education or that is now in sight.”

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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