Of Sunday Schools and Dodo Birds

To ask, “What is the biblical philosophy of Sunday school?” is a loaded question: the question is loaded with the assumption that the Sunday school should be there, and it is loaded with all our circumstantial preconceptions of the Sunday schools we’ve grown up attending. There is no “biblical philosophy” of Sunday school per se; no concordance search will locate the “Sunday school chapter” of the Bible, telling us how, or even that, God wants Sunday school conducted. Sunday school is a man-made institution; and along with the Sunday evening service, gospel tracts, Christian camps and schools, SharperIron, visitation, church buildings, and a host of other institutions, it could go the way of the dodo bird without the church flagging in faithfulness one bit. That so many churches in town are dropping their Sunday evening service may speak of a trend toward capitulation to the spiritual sloth and lethargy of the masses; nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with nixing the evening service, or Sunday school, for that matter.
Dodo BirdAs a Sunday school superintendent of a small church, I find the nonessential and expendable qualities of Sunday school both burdening and liberating: burdening, in that the burden of justifying the institution’s very existence is upon us, but liberating, in that we are free to tweak it or overhaul it as much as we like—it’s only a human institution. I point out the nonessential and expendable qualities of Sunday school to remind us of this burden and this liberty, and not for the sake of reckless iconoclasm.

As a Sunday school superintendent, I join a work in progress–first, the work of the church militant marching across the centuries; and second, the work of my particular congregation. While we’d all like a chance to start with a Bible and a blank whiteboard, most of us join a work in progress. Whether we like it or not, Sunday school is here. And while there is no inherent unfaithfulness in scrapping it, there is no inherent virtue in scrapping it, either. “What is a biblical philosophy of Sunday school?” is a loaded question, and loaded it must be. There’s already writing on the whiteboard, but that’s OK. It’s erasable. And maybe some of the writing on the whiteboard is useful to us.

Because in Scripture I meet the church with her privileges, duties, and functions—matters of direct biblical injunction—and in experience I meet the human institution called the Sunday school—what my forbears have scrawled on the whiteboard—I can preface a discussion of what a Sunday school should be with a look at what Sunday school has been.

Of all the biblical injunctions, which has the Sunday school been trying to fulfill? Which have been its emphases? What other institutions within the church also seek to fulfill these injunctions? How much redundancy among the institutions is desirable? Does Sunday school right now make any unique contributions to the church’s ministry, without which some biblical duties would go undone? Are there needs in the church not well met that Sunday school might address and help meet, or meet better than some other institution? What incidental aspects of Sunday school are advantageous? Disadvantageous?

I suspect that the least-common-denominator goal of Sunday schools in our circles is to teach. I have heard of the Sunday school being used primarily for evangelism, but I have not seen it. At any rate, the Sunday schools I have seen definitely fall into the “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, KJV) category. “All Scripture…is profitable for doctrine” (2 Tim. 3:16). A love for God with all our mind is best accomplished with a full mind. Teaching doctrine, which aims for the mind, falls into what Bloom’s educational taxonomy would call the cognitive domain. Specific educational objectives in the cognitive domain involve exercising all the mind’s various functions (cf. Heb. 5:12ff). We learn to know, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. Words and phrases like discern, distinguish, compare, contrast, list, generalize, paraphrase, cite an example, illustrate, defend, support, etc., are brought into play. (For a chart of Bloom’s taxonomy, see this website). I’ve pulled most terms from there. The classroom setting with its potential for give-and-take and discussion allows people not just to learn, but to practice using their minds.

Sunday school is regular. Every Sunday. And usually it is church-wide, and usually more or less age-appropriate or graded. It reaches the whole family. For some, Sunday school attendance is not as natural as breathing; it takes a little extra effort to get up a little earlier (or stay a little later) to go to Sunday school. The aforementioned spiritual sloth and lethargy of the masses is an obstacle. And patchy attendance means that people returning to attendance often have some mental catch-up work to do if they’re going to keep up. Also, in some churches, there is a dearth of qualified or willing teachers.

That’s Sunday school from my window. Does it now (or can it be tooled to) make a unique and vital contribution to the church ministry, particularly the church’s teaching ministry? I would suggest three basic, direct goals that a Sunday school program should try to meet. First, a Sunday school should ensure a comprehensive biblical literacy among the congregation. Second, a Sunday school should train its people in critical, cross-disciplinary thinking. Third, a Sunday school should impart a biblical, unified vision of reality. While goals like strengthening families, promoting unity, provoking to love and good works, and so on, are all good and necessary goals, they are related neither directly enough nor uniquely enough to Sunday school to consider in such a discussion. I think “unique and vital contribution” is the operative phrase.

First, a Sunday school can and should ensure biblical literacy.
It can and should coordinate what is being taught, when, to whom. Sunday school curricula typically have a scope and sequence, but it is incumbent upon the church leadership to set its own priorities in biblical literacy. By “biblical literacy” I mean a familiarity with the prominent persons, places, things, and ideas found in the Bible. I am in the process of reading E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). In it he makes the argument that a general familiarity with certain persons, places, things, and ideas is necessary before one can read a magazine with ease or engage in meaningful conversation. Every society needs certain common knowledge that can be assumed; if a speaker assumes incorrectly that his audience understands his allusions, he loses his audience. But if an audience is well-acquainted with the most important facts and ideas common to the society, meaningful discourse can take place. How can a church discussion, counseling session, or a sermon, get very far without assuming something of its participants? It can’t. What would make the short list of things we need to know may differ from church to church, but surely events like the Creation, the Exodus, the Babylonian Captivity, persons like the Patriarchs, the prophets, the prominent kings, Pilate, Agrippa, places like Syria, Assyria, Jerusalem, Egypt, and ideas like justification, reconciliation, covenant, dispensation, and so on, should be right ready in our people’s minds so that a reference to any one of them does not require elaborate explanation. Key Greek and Hebrew terms, key dates, and key Bible references for certain topics may also make the list. It is incumbent upon the church to ensure that these priority facts are taught, reviewed, and remembered. Consider homework and review testing. The purpose is not to master Bible trivia, which trivializes the Bible, but to have all the necessary building blocks for biblical thought. Furthermore, learning all the Bible facts and stories is only as good as the overall Story being told throughout the scope and sequence. Elsewhere (in an article that must have been lost in the Crash) I have argued against using the Bible as a sourcebook of Aesop’s fables to promote Christless moralism. Still, the Bible stories must be told—cast in a proper biblical-theological metanarrative.

Second, a Sunday school should train its people in critical, cross-disciplinary thinking.
The more biblical knowledge people have, the readier they are to pass on to higher-level thinking, more of the analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and applying. Students should be able to pick out the patterns in the Bible and the patterns of God’s ways. Furthermore, as Francis Schaeffer said in The God Who Is There (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1982), “true education means thinking by associating across the various disciplines” (32). That is, take what the Bible says and translate the Bible’s answers for experience’s questions. Example: retributive justice. What is the purpose of the government’s penal system? Reform? Correction? Deterrence? Retribution? What does the Bible say to this matter? Does God disciple to reform, correct, deter, repay? Another example: if you are a Christian in marketing or advertising, how does the Bible change the way you make your appeals and frame your advertisements? What about a Christian’s use of all the newest technologies, like cell phones, the Internet, and digital photography? What was the meaning and intent of the latest big Hollywood production, and how should we respond? Answering these questions requires more than one Bible verse; it requires taking what Bible verses we do use and synthesizing them properly; it requires relating the Bible and its terms and concepts to another discipline with its terms and concepts—a kind of translation. Sunday school allows the teacher to confront the students, to ask big questions and walk students of various levels through the answers, helping them to arrive at the conclusions themselves. Sunday school, week after week, from the early ages through adulthood, has the opportunity to accustom people to a mental workout in biblical thought. For Sunday school to turn into another preaching session is to forfeit the unique contribution of classroom dialogue. For Sunday school to become more hortatory or practical may encourage people to do more, but it does not equip them to do it well. For Sunday school to neglect this exercise is to rob the Sunday morning sermon of potential impact because the people in the pews are less able to receive it and mull on it themselves. If Sunday school is doing its job properly, people will be better sermon listeners—and shoppers, advertisement-readers, voters, employees, movie-watchers, parents, etc.

Third, a Sunday school should impart a biblical, unified vision of reality. In The Idea of a University (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968), John Henry Newman defined knowledge to be an “apprehension of…facts, whether in themselves, or in their mutual positions and bearings” (33–34, cf. 85). Newman compared understanding reality to taking in a large building: the human mind can only look at so much at a time, but by study of the parts, it can begin to understand how the whole fits together and retain a sense of proportion and order. Having this sense of proportion is so helpful. It promotes sobriety and temperance and wisdom. Have you ever talked to an under-educated high-school graduate upon his first introduction to Calvinism, or any theological or non-theological system of thought? Pope was right: a little learning can be disastrous. Your novice Calvinist (or fill in the blank) may talk a lot about his pet idea, but the things he says, the things he doesn’t say, and the way he says them, all scream, “I don’t really know what I’m talking about.” I’ve heard the term “New Evangelicalism” used with the nauseating flippancy of one who is still only parroting the teachers he admires. He wasn’t trying to be flippant; his narrow and limited experience and lack of proportion in his thinking made him so. When my infant daughter was born, virtually the entirety of her environment was mental white noise. She’s almost four months now, and now she makes eye contact, looks around, and is starting to explore with her hands. Sunday school can and should be a time where we help people slow down and sort through all the chatter they hear in an over-messaged society, even perhaps an over-messaged Christendom. Otherwise, there’s no order to what they take in and process; it’s all mental white noise. Again, a Sunday school that gave a unified vision of reality would make better sermon-listeners. Preachers should at least in their sermon preparation take into account all the other things the Bible might say on a topic. But the sermon itself, intent on stirring people to obedience on a particular point, just doesn’t have the time (nor would it be as effective if it tried) to work through all the background, the caveats, and less central considerations. Sunday school should take the time to do that.

Have I justified Sunday school’s existence? Or should it go the way of the dodo bird? I would solicit other forum members’ ideas. What else can/should Sunday school do? Should we replace the Sunday school with something more effective? My ideal would be to allow the Sunday school to coordinate all the church’s educational endeavors, to maintain an awareness of what is being taught, where, and when (including such settings as home Bible studies), to be able to address any lacunae. What have your Sunday schools done to make themselves useful, or more useful, to the church’s ministry?
Mike Osbourne———–
Mike Osborne received a B.A. in Bible and an M.A. in Church History from Bob Jones University. He co-authored the teacher’s editions of two BJU Press high school Bible comparative religions textbooks What Is Truth? and Who Is This Jesus?; and contributed essays to the appendix of The Dark Side of the Internet. He lives with his wife, Becky, and his infant daughter, Felicity, in Omaha, Nebraska, where they are active members at Good Shepherd Baptist Church. Mike plans to pursue a further degree in apologetics.

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