I’ve been thinking about the problem of Sunday school as two related yet distinct realities.
It seems to me that the original Sunday school was more of a tutoring strategy than a school as we imagine it. It was a wonderful strategy for teaching street children and others how to read (the Bible). Poor children who worked six days a week could not attend day school, so Methodists created SS.
Over against the SS as a strategy is the so-called schooling model. The first half of the 20th century saw the church’s dedication to the schooling model, including teacher professionalization/certification, school accreditation, parent commitments, and so on. With a nod to the scientific method, churches adopted the broad contours of the schooling model without full-on adopting the model. In other words, the 20th century Sunday school was never a school. The burgeoning SS classrooms of post-WW II had little to do with progressive trends in education being adopted by the church. Yet today, many SS persist with little consideration of the latest advances in childhood education, with so many seeking resources for entertaining their children instead.
So as a model, the Sunday school is dead for the most part. Where the Sunday school persists, it either exists in large churches whose budgets and volunteers still prop it up or as a strategy that hearkens back to its earliest days. Some churches have found clues for the SS strategy’s fruitfulness from its early days, namely teaching children how to read. Literacy, cultural literacy, reading the times, and practicing ways to respond motivate the SS strategy.
How might recovering the SS as strategy, tutoring children and others how to read—how to read their lives, the world, and the Scriptures—affect the church and its prophetic call?
It’s common these days. We look at the problems in our church’s education ministry and blame the curriculum. It doesn’t do this or that well enough, there’s no video component, it’s too hard to decipher, or it’s so easy that we’re done with a lesson in 15 minutes. So the search goes on for the new, the improved curriculum, that can’t cost too much or demand too much, but it had better be thorough in its representation of the gospel.
Curriculum is not the problem, friends. Our expectations concerning the curriculum are. If you use a curriculum produced by a denominational publishing house or one that is meant for mass consumption, then there’s no way it will please you in its entirety. Something in it won’t work for you. In fact, every curriculum developer I know expects the users to adapt and modify it for their own particular setting.
The onus is on you and me, the users. Don’t buy curriculum thinking it will solve your attendance problems or transform volunteers into master teachers. It won’t do it.
Today, it seems that churches use curricula that meet one of two criteria, aside from cost: its theological underpinning or its ease of use, which often boils down to accessible arts, crafts, and videos. If I were to choose, I would err on the side of the theological bent of the curriculum. Does it represent our theological tradition? How does it understand God? Do the interpretation of Bible stories focus more on what God does or on human actions? What view of God will the learners take away from the formative event in which the curriculum is but a tool? What understanding of the church does the curriculum convey?
If you find a curriculum that supports your theological tradition, then you might have to adapt or add activities that better engage your learners. It’s up to you and your education partners to make assessments and adjust as necessary. For example, if you locate a curriculum whose ecclesiology is on point with your tradition, but all of the activities focus on the individual’s response, you may decide to add community-based learning activities. That way the experience of community coheres with the theological point you want to make.
Let me know how I can help you and your church assess your educational and formational ministries.