A black Baptist church in Baltimore, Maryland, has shifted its “Sunday” school to Saturday with startling results. Attendance has increased substantially, and, according to the pastor, more people have volunteered to teach. From the enthusiasm the Saturday school has created, the whole program has taken on new life.

This type of innovation is not necessarily widespread within the black church, but it seems to signify the existence of black churches that are willing to take a good look at their ministry and to pioneer new methods for reaching their communities with the Gospel. Perhaps more typical strengths of the black Sunday school are unity within the group, a bibliocentric approach to teaching, concern for reaching the total man, and eagerness to improve teaching methods.

Past Influences

The Ethiopian eunuch described in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts may have been the first African to embrace Christianity. Several scholars think that this African’s witness accounts for the original establishment of Christianity in that continent. Acts 13:1 records that “among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch were Barnabas and Symeon (also called ‘the Black Man’) …” (Living Bible). That early church fathers in Africa contributed much to the formulation of doctrinal creeds during those crucial years is well known.

These early examples reveal black Christians of great stature and intelligence making significant contributions to the church. They contrast with what is known about Christianity among black slaves in America. The slave, his personhood and identity crushed, embraced Christianity as a way to endure oppression. During those years of slavery he was not allowed to study anything, including the Scriptures, for fear that education would foment rebellion. For that reason the black slave’s concept of Christianity became an amalgam of what early missionaries were willing to share, his own religion brought from Africa, and his observations. This syncretism, hardened by the fires of oppression, led one black writer to suggest that black religion missed the central core of orthodox Protestant Christianity simply because, unlike white orthodoxy, it did not major on abstract theological issues (Joseph R. Washington, Black Religion). But most scholars think that black Christianity in America is just another example of the versatility of the Gospel, which is able to pervade and affect all cultures.

Shut out of the white church, the black congregations evolved through oppression and isolation into a unique and valuable expression of Christianity—a black Christian theology, if you will.

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In those early years the teachings of Christianity were perpetuated not only by what was taught in Sunday school but also by the preacher’s often allegorical sermons and by the music. (William L. Banks, in his book The Black Church in the United States, did an outstanding job of categorizing the doctrines of the Bible as revealed in two hundred spirituals. These doctrines include: admonitions regarding the Christian life, aspirations, life’s pilgrim age, salvation, present deliverance and past judgment, prayer, tribulation, death, deliverance, heaven, the church, Jesus Christ, resurrection, the second coming, and a number of miscellaneous themes.)

As the freedom to study the Scriptures expanded, and particularly as the ability to read increased, the Sunday school expanded and grew into what it is today.

Present Strengths

One of the present strengths of the black Sunday school grew out of a past necessity. Teachers’ inability to read and study in the early days made it necessary to hold weekly teachers’ meetings so that the pastor could teach workers what they were to impart on Sunday morning. These frequent gatherings resulted in a closely knit fellowship among students and teachers—an ingredient often lacking in sophisticated schools today.

Contributing to this unity has been the use of a uniform approach to the study of the Scriptures. When a bell signals the opening of the average black Sunday school at 9:00 or 9:30, the general superintendent leads in the “opening exercise,” consisting of hymns, prayer, the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed (especially among Methodists), and an overview of the uniform lesson. From here the school divides into various classes sprinkled throughout the sanctuary and basement, where the teachers spend approximately thirty minutes going over the lesson, usually in lecture form.

During a reassembly of all students, financial and attendance records from the various classes are given and someone “reviews” the lesson. Frequently the review—a summary of the salient points of the lesson for that week—is done by the pastor. Most Sunday-school educators would probably see little value in this procedure. And indeed, it does have weaknesses. However, the unity it promotes is not to be overlooked. One survey revealed that 79 per cent of black churches use the uniform approach, while another conducted by Scripture Press Foundation in 1970 indicated that nearly 50 per cent of black leaders prefer this type of literature.

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In recent years many larger churches have acquired modern educational facilities comparable to those of affluent white churches. Examples are the Antioch Baptist Church in Chicago and the St. John Baptist Church in Dallas. Departmentalization occurs in churches where the constituency includes a high percentage of public school teachers and professional people.

Perhaps the most innovative and creative schools are those affiliated with predominantly white “mainline” denominations. Yet the statistics of these bodies reveal that innovations do not necessarily attract larger numbers of black young people into their ranks. Except for rare exceptions, there seems to be something quite intangible yet very real among predominantly black churches that draws people to them.

A significant number of inner-city churches have experienced drop-offs as members have moved to the outer fringes of the city. Yet the congregations located in these resettled areas are experiencing substantial growth. A few churches have begun to bring children in by bus. Mt. Calvary Baptist in Chicago reports a sharp increase in attendance as a result of busing.

A second strength of the black Sunday school is its strongly bibliocentric approach. Perhaps this tradition developed through the zeal of the original white missionaries, or the need for something about which slaves could be certain in the midst of oppression, or a strong God-given conviction that God has spoken in the Scriptures. In any case the Bible is almost universally recognized as the sole authority in the black Sunday school, and that is very significant.

A third strength of the black Sunday school is its inadvertent discovery of the totality of the Gospel. Although there is a noticeable dichotomy between those who emphasize an exclusively other-worldly Gospel and those who do not, the black Sunday school as a whole has been forced to deal with the reality of oppression. Many churches, therefore, recognize a responsibility to serve the total needs of their fellow men.

A fourth strength of the black Sunday school is its eagerness to improve. Each year nearly twenty thousand Baptists travel hundreds of miles to attend their “congress” on Sunday-school work. In addition to these national gatherings, local workshops provide instruction to others unable to travel. I myself have conducted hundreds of workshops in churches, conferences, and Sunday-school conventions. The enthusiasm and eagerness to learn shown by black leaders and laymen stand in sharp contrast to the apparent apathy of many white participants in similar settings. This desire to know how to do a better job gives the black Christian educator the kind of vibrancy that should result in future outreach and growth.

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Future Challenges

It is safe to say that the future of the Sunday school within the black community is inextricably linked with the quality of leadership it receives. If it gets leaders who maintain a deep commitment to the priority of evangelism and systematic teaching in perpetuating the Christian faith, it will continue to survive and flourish. If it fails to receive that leadership, it will fade.

A recent survey found there are approximately one thousand black seminarians in all the American seminaries. A spot check of these indicates that very few consider Christian education a vital part of preparation for the ministry. A church may conceivably survive without a seminary graduate; yet an effective teaching ministry cannot flourish without a minister who is solidly behind Christian education in his church. Acquiring trained clergymen who recognize the importance of an effective teaching ministry should be one of the priorities for the black Sunday school.

Similarly, black leaders must respond to the desire of their members for training that will equip them for their duties. In response to the need for trained laity, Urban Outreach was established in Chicago. Its objective is to assist local churches in short-range training programs, and its method is to bring together key leaders within the church and community in order to improve the quality of teaching.

The future of the black Sunday school is also linked to its ability to respond to the needs of its young people. Failure at this point creates the gap between young and old in the average church today. Because black youth of today are much more sophisticated and must filter out a zillion factors that compete for their attention and loyalty, the Sunday school must increasingly make sure it is relating the changeless truth of Christ to the youth’s ever-changing world.

Joseph R. Washington predicted that once the forces of segregation and discrimination were eliminated, the black church (and presumably the black Sunday school with its youth) would wither away (Black Religion, p. 234). He based this conclusion on his analysis that the black church was not a vital part of the Protestant tradition but was solely a response to oppression. I disagree with his conclusion and with his analysis. The Gospel can intersect man wherever it finds him. It did indeed provide endurance when the black man was undergoing suffering and was deprived of the bare necessities of life. But the Gospel will also intersect his life when these basic needs are met and help him achieve even higher goals.

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However, the black church must deal with the essential needs of its youth as it perpetuates Christian doctrine, if it is to remain a vital instrument in the hands of God. This means coming to grips with the gut issues that confront young people. For some groups seeking to find balance in ministering to the total needs of persons, the National Black Evangelical Association may offer some help. Composed of evangelicals from both ends of the denominational and social-concerns spectrums, the group seeks to place in proper perspective both the spiritual and non-spiritual needs of black people.

Another vital need of the black church is for resources that relate the Gospel to the needs of its youth. Considering the handicaps under which major black denominational publishers have had to operate, they are to be commended for the job they have done in providing Sunday-school tools. The fact that dollars have had to be divided many ways has caused curriculum literature to suffer. Smaller black denominations have fared even worse.

Only in recent years has any white independent publisher shown awareness of the needs of blacks. David C. Cook may be credited with making the first move toward including a few blacks in its literature. Some years later Scripture Press and Union Gospel Press began to include a limited number of blacks also.

As conciliatory as these publishers thought these gestures were, many black leaders still recognized that the call of the Gospel for a radical change in the behavior of men dictates that literature used as curricula must relate that Gospel to the life-styles of those it seeks to change. Literature prepared essentially for whites—especially middle-class suburban whites—fails to deal with the gut issues and the particular life-styles of black people. The blue-eyed, blond Christ and all-white illustrations often leave black young people disillusioned as they perpetuate a perverted image of true Christianity.

Recognizing the inadequacy of available literature and convinced that predominantly white publishers would probably never jeopardize their major white market to meet the needs of blacks, an independent publisher called Urban Ministries, Incorporated, came into being in 1970. Assisted in its initial stages by Scripture Press, Zondervan, and several other organizations, UMI became the first predominantly black-owned independent publisher of Sunday-school literature.

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UMI’s purpose is to develop and distribute literature more relevant to the needs of urban youth in general and black urban youth in particular. Without attempting to be racist or separatistic, Chicago-based UMI writes Sunday-school lessons, based on the international uniform outlines, in the idiom of the black experience and life-style. Its ultimate goal is to lead young people into a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ.

Another approach that may offer hope for the black Sunday-school in need of resources comes from a project participated in by David C. Cook and several black denominations. Combining the expertise of Helen W. Carry, Levi Lathen, and Dr. Otto Olsen, a resource packet on “Black America” was developed and distributed by DCC among the participating groups.

Tyndale House, sensing a need for the Living Bible with a black slant, has come out with Soul Food, an illustrated version of the New Testament featuring blacks.

The teaching ministry, expressed in most instances by the Sunday school, is one of the most significant enterprises of the church, second only to the recruitment of persons for Jesus Christ. The black Sunday school has survived despite its handicaps and developed extraordinary strengths that can contribute to the advancement of the Kingdom of God. It will succeed in this task not because it is necessarily rich in money or leadership but because it has vitality and dedication, and because it is borne along by Him who said that “The gates of hell shall not prevail against” his church.

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