Never has the opportunity of the Sunday school been greater than in these latter decades of the twentieth century. Since 1960 the median age of the American people has been dropping one year for each year, so that in 1968 it will be only 25, and the trend seems bound to continue. At a time when public schools can hardly be built fast enough to accommodate the influx of children, the Sunday school is not holding its own. In fact, except for the Southern Baptists and Lutherans, most mainline denominational Sunday schools are losing pupils—and this in a revolutionary age when Christian character and Christian witness are so urgently needed.
The following discussion comes out of examination of representative Sunday school programs, including the Christian Faith and Life Curriculum (United Presbyterian Church) and the Covenant Life Curriculum (Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Moravian Church in America, Presbyterian Church in the United States, Reformed Church in America); Methodist, Protestant Episcopal, American Baptist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, United Church of Christ, and United Church of Canada curricula; and materials of these independent publishers: David C. Cook, Scripture Press, Gospel Light Press, and Standard Publishing. Its purpose is to speak to principles and offer constructive suggestions.
No one can examine denominational and independent Sunday school materials without realizing that they represent an enormous amount of dedicated work and the investment of millions of dollars. In format some of the curricula are superb. Pupils are brought face to face with great art; methods range from projects to team teaching and programmed lessons; helps for teachers are copious. Certain of the materials are brilliantly written by well-known scholars.
Yet behind the scenes of the Protestant Sunday school there is tension. What causes it? The answer lies in the curricula. For though almost all the curricula claim a scriptural base, tensions arise from attitudes they reflect toward Scripture.
On one hand are certain denominational pressures. Realizing that there has been a breakdown of communication between what is taught in seminaries and what church people believe about the Bible, those who plan some of the newer denominational materials are endeavoring to communicate views of Scripture based on an assumed acceptance of critical positions. These views grow out of theologies ranging from liberalism through neo-orthodoxy to a position that, while holding classical doctrine, does so within the context of a fallible Bible. On the other hand are the many conservative evangelical Christians who conscientiously oppose these views.
A dramatic example of the resultant tensions is what happened in Canada in 1965. After protracted discussion, the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec reversed its acceptance of the New Curriculum of the United Church of Canada by a decisive vote of 658 to 257. This was a case of one denominational group’s using the materials of another. In the United States, however, the tension is largely intradenominational, although because of the millions of conservative evangelicals in the mainline denominations, it affects most of Protestantism. For it is evangelicals who are expressing their dissent from some denominational materials by turning to non-denominational materials. Materials of the four leading independents are being used in whole or in part by about seven or eight million pupils, most of whom are in the larger denominations. In fact, in one major denomination, four of the ten largest churches use lessons of an independent publisher.
Although materials based on the International Sunday School Lessons, both graded and uniform, are still being published under both denominational and independent auspices, their use is gradually declining. Both the denominations and the independents are tending toward use of their own curricula which are unrelated to the International Lessons. All are seeking better teaching methods; all are trying to make their programs relevant to the life and interests of children today.
The tendency of some conservatives to judge the newer denominational curricula as wholly bad and those of the independents as uniformly good, or the contrary tendency of those of more liberal theological persuasion, only obscures the issues. While the independents show a very high degree of theological conservatism, their curricula differ somewhat in doctrinal emphases and are therefore not beyond criticism even from those sympathetic to their basic conservative position. Moreover, denominational materials vary from the forthright conservatism of the Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod Lutherans to the thoroughly critical stance of the New Curriculum of the United Church of Canada and the evident liberalism of the United Church of Christ program. However, many of the denominational curricula adopt some critical positions like the “mythical” character of the early chapters of Genesis, the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch, the composite authorship of Isaiah, and the late date of Daniel. With this there sometimes go a reluctance to affirm clearly the Virgin Birth and a commitment to a view of the Bible that insists upon its errancy and tends to remove from the vocabulary of the Church the age-old term “the Word of God” as a designation of Scripture on the assumption that “the Word of God” should be used chiefly of Christ. Yet the newer curricula generally acknowledge Christ’s deity (although here there are lapses), his atoning death, and his resurrection (but not always the bodily resurrection), and agree that man cannot save himself.
The watershed between Sunday school curricula reflecting what might broadly be called an ecumenical theology and those in accord with the main current of evangelical theology through the centuries is the doctrine of Scripture. And those whose view of inspiration is based on Christ’s own use of Scripture, the apostolic witness, and Reformation principles are dismayed to find their convictions often caricatured. The same tired misrepresentation of the conservative view as mechanical dictation, rigidly literalistic, allowing for no recognition of progressive revelation and what is symbolical, poetical, or of varying importance is repeated. And what of the assumption of “the demise of this ancient doctrine [verbal inspiration or verbal inerrancy]—at least among reputable scholars …” (Go from Your Father’s House, Teacher’s Book, Covenant Life Curriculum, p. 56), when in point of fact “this ancient doctrine” is far from dead among reputable scholars? (This curriculum contains much good teaching material and upholds the doctrines of salvation, although it assumes certain critical positions.)
Evangelicals are not opposed to all lower or higher criticism per se, but they dissent from the hardening of many critical conclusions into certainty. With rare exceptions (such as In the Beginning, used in the American Baptist curriculum, in which scholarly conservative alternatives are set forth in relation to such questions as the accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 and the supposed composite nature of the flood story), most of the newer curricula adopt critical results with little if any acknowledgment that not all scholars agree and that archaeology and linguistic studies have overthrown some important critical conclusions.
This is how one curriculum (Protestant Episcopal), which is notable for the beauty of its materials, advises teachers of fourth-grade children (see Keeping the Covenant, Teacher’s Manual, p. 68) to present the stories in the early chapters of Genesis: “A comparison to Kipling’s Just So Stories, which the children may have read, may be useful.… Tell the children that these stories were patterned after the folk tales of the people of India.… In much the same way, the ancient Hebrews told stories to explain what God was like, and why and how He had called Israel to be His people.” In this curriculum, a teacher’s manual for ninth graders (Challenge, Trust, and Faith, p. 141) says: “By now your worst hurdle should be over; most of your young people should be reconciled to the use of myth to present an understanding of the work of God.”
While not all the denominational curricula present the concept of myth and legend so forthrightly, there is considerable accord among them (Southern Baptist and Missouri Synod Lutheran excepted) in denying the historicity of Adam and the Fall.
God’s Message in the Bible, a Methodist study book, tells fifth and sixth graders this about the burning bush: “It really does not make any difference what the flame on the mountainside was.… Moses saw something bright that day. Whether it was a ray of sunlight, or a volcanic flame or a blossoming bush is not important. Nor would the experience be greater if it were none of these, but was a flame never seen before on sea or land. What matters is that Moses heard a voice—the voice of God” (p. 24).
To give young children this subtly rationalistic approach to the biblical supernatural raises pedagogical as well as doctrinal questions. And yet such is the diversity within this representative curriculum that material of this kind could be balanced by some of a more conservative nature.
Moses’ appearance before Pharaoh is put this way in the New Curriculum of the United Church of Canada: “The skill of Egyptian magicians was the talk of North Africa and even as far north as the Fertile Crescent. Young Moses saw the best of them perform at court. Because he was a favorite of the princess, the magicians may have taken him backstage to teach him how some of their simpler tricks were done” (God Speaks Through People, pupil’s reading book for intermediates, p. 46). “With ringing voice he [Moses] said, ‘When it comes to magic, I will beat them at their own game. The fun of it will be that they taught me all I know.…’ He tried to impress Pharoah with magic, but the court magicians met him trick by trick” (ibid., pp. 56, 58).
But instances of watering down the biblical supernatural could be multiplied. A Promise to Keep, used in the Christian Faith and Life Curriculum, describes our Lord’s healing miracles like this: “One thing that astonished everyone was the way Jesus seemed [italics ours] to be able to make sick people well …” (p. 174). Candor surely demands that the writer say either that Jesus healed the sick, as the Gospels clearly state, or that he did not heal them.
A brilliantly written book of 312 pages (The Bible Speaks to You) used in the Christian Faith and Life Curriculum has no specific mention of the Virgin Birth. Yet the book affirms the Resurrection and speaks positively about redemption, atonement, predestination, and election, although it caricatures any literal view of Scripture as being blind to symbolism, imagery, and poetic description in the text, and as putting “every part of the Bible on the same level of importance with every other part.” And what of this kind of rebuttal to espousal of a literalism the writer has just said was held by the later Reformers (and, we may add, is held by some distinguished scholars today): “When Jesus told us to be as little children, he didn’t mean that we are supposed to wear diapers” (p. 19)? For comment, a great big exclamation point will suffice!
Among the stronger points of the new curricula is their clear affirmation of denominational distinctives and their sensitivity to social problems.
As has already been said, some of the tension regarding the Sunday school comes from the use many local churches are making of lesson materials of independent publishers. Two of the leading independents have historic denominational roots, going back nearly one hundred years—Standard (Disciples of Christ) and David C. Cook (Methodist). Scripture Press and Gospel Light Press are fairly recent, the former having come out of the work of Clarence H. Benson of Moody Bible Institute, the latter representing the lifework of Henrietta Mears of the Hollywood (Calif.) First United Presbyterian Church. The highly conservative doctrine and attitude toward Scripture of the independent publishers have come under the criticism of some denominational educators. In the two great denominations that hold firmly to theological conservatism and a fully authoritative Bible (Southern Baptist and Missouri Synod Lutheran), there is little use of independent materials.
Not only do the independent Sunday school curricula differ from those of most of the larger denominations in their view of Scripture, in their thoroughly supernaturalistic theology, and in their non-acceptance of critical positions, but they are also characterized by a persistence in evangelistic emphasis missing from many of the lesson materials of the major denominations. Not that the latter never stress personal commitment to Christ; but they do so less frequently and less insistently than the independent literature, which sometimes carries a challenge not just for the pupil to receive Christ but for the teacher as well to be sure of his own salvation and (in one of the independent series) not to let any lesson go by without presenting the claims of Jesus Christ. Some may say that not every lesson is susceptible to such presentation, but it must be recognized that the independent curricula are generally consistent in seeing Christ, the Incarnate Word, as the central theme of the entire written Word. While the independent materials are by no means unattractive, they do not match some of the lavish and beautiful art work in the other new curricula. In methodology they are relevant and up-to-date but not always with the degree of pedagogical expertise of the denominational curricula.
When it comes to social concern, the independent curricula are much less vocal than some of the denominational curricula, although they do not entirely pass social problems by. If the adage that one picture is worth a thousand words is true, then children using independent lessons might conclude from illustrated material of three of the four independent publishers that Negroes have no place in the American church.
This discussion began with a reference to the decline of Sunday school attendance in comparison to the burgeoning number of young people in our society. Does the doctrine reflected in the curricula have anything to do with the decline? The answer would appear to be yes. If with all their sophisticated methodology, artistic distinction, and intellectual challenge, the newer curricula have lost something of the burning evangelistic motive that characterized the earlier days of the Sunday school movement, there may well be a relationship between doctrine and decline. Yet to call this the only cause would be to oversimplify a complex problem. Irrelevance of some Sunday school materials to everyday life is also an important factor. (Relevance, however, must never be achieved at the expense of the central biblical thrust.)
And there are other considerations also, by far the most important of which is the teacher. In no part of church work do more Christians participate than in Sunday school teaching. Many devoted believers are giving their best to the children in their classes. But at the same time there are far too many Sunday school teachers whose service is nominal and whose knowledge of the Bible is minimal. A study in 1961 of over 2,200 teachers in American Baptist Sunday schools in three states showed that a majority of the teachers spent less than two hours in preparing the lesson. And the average pupil rarely spends any time at all in preparation. It is significant that the area in which the largest number of these teachers felt least confident was knowledge of the Bible. To be sure, practically all the curricula, denominational and independent, strive to rectify this. But what is to be said of a teaching situation in which teachers need to be taught the elements of their subject as well as how to teach it, and in which pupils hardly ever study? From a human viewpoint, the Sunday school is pedagogically almost impossible.
Not even the best Sunday school curricula can be effective in the hands of teachers who are not intimately acquainted with their chief sourcebook. For books and explanations about the Bible are no substitute for a knowledge of the Bible itself. Perhaps the multiplicity of teacher’s aids confuses what is not a science but an art, the practice of which, being often intuitive, comes most effectively from those who know their subject and love it.
What, then, are the essential requisites for Sunday school teachers? The first is the teacher’s own saving experience of Jesus Christ and his obedience to him as Lord. The principle, “No Christian education without Christian teachers,” has no exceptions. Another requisite is first-hand knowledge of the Bible and its use as a daily guide. Still another is deep and prayerful concern for the souls as well as minds and bodies of youth. Important as good materials are, the good Christian teacher with only his Bible will do far more than the uncommitted teacher with the best curriculum.
As one examines the curricula, independent as well as denominational, some additional features emerge. Among them is the tendency, in the attempt to be relevant to life situations, to descend into moralistic use of biblical materials. In an essay picturesquely entitled “The Cowboy in the Sunday School” (Religious Education, Jan.–Feb., Mar.–Apr., 1962), Markus Barth criticizes the way religious educators neglect or water down the Bible stories. He is right. Too often well-meaning lesson writers appear to assume that almost everything must be explained to teacher and pupil and thus run the risk of playing the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this kind of accommodation results from the insistence of some religious educators that the Bible is above all an adult book. While much of it is beyond youthful understanding (and adult understanding also), children may yet be challenged by reading that is above their understanding. Moreover, what the wise and prudent fail to understand is sometimes revealed to babes.
An unfortunate amount of Sunday school literature (especially reading books and take-home papers) is written in a kind of Tom Swift juvenile style. Nearly all the curricula would gain from drastic cutting of some of this material.
Another suggestion relates to better use of time. Most Sunday schools include opening exercises or, as they may otherwise be called, the worship period. When time for instruction is so short, should not the curricula advise that opening exercises be replaced by a few moments of prayer at the beginning of the lesson and a prayer spoken in unison at the close? The church hour is devoted to worship, and though not everything in the regular service will be comprehensible to children, the child who attends church with his parents will there have the experience of worship. For very small children there is the possibility of junior church.
In view of the millions of conservative evangelicals throughout the major denominations, the deep conviction with which such Christians adhere to the classic church doctrine of inspiration, and the growing number of competent evangelical scholars who know very well what criticism says and yet from conviction and examination of the evidence do not accept all its results as absolutely assured, does not responsible scholarship demand less dogmatism in the advocacy of critical views? For denominational leaders should realize that conservative evangelicals are not about to give up their convictions, that they represent a body of substantial scholarship, and that to press certain positions without fair recognition of opposing views is neither fair nor truly liberal. Conversely, conservative Christians should be careful not to dechristianize those whose view of the Bible and theology differs from theirs in details but who nevertheless hold to the Gospel; they too should let pupils know something of what others think. The suggestion may seem radical, but there might be room for conservative curricula under the aegis of denominations whose curricula are more liberal.
In a day of shifting standards and spiritual uncertainty, the major task of the Sunday school is still to teach young people the inspired Word of God and through this teaching to lead them to personal faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour and to consistent living as his disciples in the world. Therefore, on pastors and local churches rests the inescapable obligation of knowing and evaluating what is being taught in their Sunday schools and of choosing spiritually as well as intellectually qualified persons to teach it.
It’S Hard To Believe
A recent full-page article in the Washington Post presented the views of Professor John Allegro of Manchester University on the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to Allegro, a former Methodist, the Scrolls may show that the New Testament gives no historical basis for Christianity but is a collection of myths based on the writings and religious ideas of the Essene community. The distinctive features of the New Testament, he suggests, were added to the teachings of the Scrolls in order to make Christianity acceptable to the Roman world.
Thus the whole reality of Christ’s life and death becomes a mere literary creation to reflect the Teacher of Righteousness figure of the Scrolls. A fleeting reference in one Scroll to a man “hanged alive upon a tree” could, according to Allegro, have referred to this same Teacher of Righteousness. Further study of the Scrolls could, he thinks, explain why the New Testament sets forth what he calls the myth of a crucified Christ.
Almost all the New Testament writings fall within the first century. Professor Allegro is therefore asking us to believe that the whole New Testament mythological construction about a man named Jesus (whose existence is a fact of history) took place within the period and memory of his contemporaries, and that what the early Christians believed and preached, and often died for, was only a myth.
To put the matter in a parable: It is as if Allegro were telling us that John F. Kennedy never died, indeed never existed, and that the evidence for this lies in some earlier American political literature that speaks of a great president. The myth of Kennedy was created by some fanatical Americans in the twentieth century. It would be no harder to preach this and to ask people to believe it than it would have been to preach Jesus Christ in the first century, if Allegro is right.
It is regrettable that a view rejected by most Dead Sea Scrolls scholars is so prominently publicized in a newspaper article in which the less speculative and more reliable views of American scholars like W. F. Albright are scarcely mentioned.
The Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission will meet April 9–16 on the campus of Wheaton College, Illinois. Sponsored by the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association and the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association of the National Association of Evangelicals, it will attract 800 delegates from around the world.
The congress will be a milestone in twentieth-century missionary outreach, since participants will represent more than 13,000 evangelical overseas missionaries; this figure exceeds by 6,000 the number of missionaries having full membership in the Division of Overseas Ministries of the National Council of Churches. So far as we know, there has never before been a conference of this kind. Supported by millions of evangelicals in and out of the great denominations, it will be an ecumenical endeavor to fulfill the Church’s missionary task.
The congress will have these aims: to bring evangelicals engaged in missionary endeavor into closer fellowship; to clarify evangelical perspectives in missions; and to work out a cooperative strategy now that the International Missionary Council has been integrated into the World Council of Churches and evangelical agencies unrelated to the World Council lack a cooperative voice.
Narcotics On The Campus
Congress is pondering the growing drug problem and laws that would give more attention to the rehabilitation of addicts. Senator Robert Kennedy wants a study of tranquilizers and pep pills. Last month, the Washington Post spent two pages exploring chemical escapism, not in grimy ghettos, but on college campuses, citadels of privilege and comfort.
Students are taking belladonna tea, peyote, “goof balls,” “LSD” (lysergic acid diethylamide), and “pot” (marijuana). In a rather sweeping comment, Columbia’s Dean David Truman expressed doubt whether “there is a college anywhere in the country where narcotics is not a serious problem.” Harvard’s Dr. Gerald Klerman caused a stir by estimating that 10 per cent of the students on his and other major campuses are “chronic users” of narcotics.
Pot, the apparent favorite, is not addictive in the strict medical sense, but its psychological effects can be dangerous. Timothy Leary, Harvard professor who was fired for propagandizing LSD, claims it is unlike heroin because people use it to face reality rather than escape it. But psychiatrists charge it can cause irreparable mental damage.
The Daily Kansan explains that “pot is the alcohol of the new generation.” It is a symbol of rebellion, an adventure, a way to blow off steam, a means of escaping problems. Edward Johnson explained why he took LSD in Berkeley’s Daily Californian: “American society has lost its sense of wonder and has become anti-awe” so that beauty is no longer appreciated. The exotic visions produced by LSD return the sensitivity the social structure has repressed!
This mentality is not new. The Preacher of old saw that “all things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing.” How tragic that students use what they admit are temporary avenues toward awe. What they need is the simple awe felt by men through the centuries when they realize the eternal God offers salvation—without psychological and physiological perils, hangovers, and a price tag of $25 per kick.
Cars And Coffins
Bookweek (January 23) carried a front-page essay entitled “Our Chrome Plated Caskets” in which Dexter Masters, former director of Consumers Union, reviewed several books on the history and making of automobiles. In his comment on one book, John B. Rae’s The American Automobile, A Brief History, Mr. Masters says: “It is no less than shocking that [this book] … contains not a single word on safety as an element in the making of an automobile.… The death rate per 100,000,000 vehicle-miles began rising four years ago and has risen ever since; and there is not a car built in America which could not be made significantly safer … if the styling pressures could be eased.”
In discussing Ralph Nader’s disquieting Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, Masters points out that since 1899 automobiles have caused about 1,250,000 deaths along with tens of millions of injuries, and reports the testimony of one manufacturer before a Senate subcommittee that last year his company spent for safety research “$1.2 million out of profits of $1.7 billion, or less than a tenth of one per cent, or approximately 25 cents per … car sold in 1964.” Yet the manufacturers think nothing of spending many millions on stylistic changes to promote sales.
Perhaps some historian of the future will look back upon our times and marvel that we tolerated on the highways an annual toll of slaughter and injury as great as that in a major war, while all the time casualties could have been reduced by making safer cars as well as by educating better drivers, building better highways, and enforcing traffic laws more consistently. Because life is a stewardship from God, our greatest industry is obligated to do everything it can to make its product safer.
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