Every year, it seems, we hear another round of predictions that the Sunday school is about to die, another round of warnings of the futility of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” another series of laments over “the most wasted hour of the week.” And in striking contrast we also hear grand declarations that “a new day has dawned” and that the Sunday school has entered an era of unprecedented advance. Both extremes are likely to be erroneous.

The Sunday school has its problems. The low esteem that many had for the church in general and the Sunday school in particular during the 1960s has engendered a mind-set against Sunday school for some people, particularly the young. Some still have the idea that Sunday school is only for elderly women and little children. Untrained teachers will doubtless continue to be a problem for years to come. Many ministers are less than enthusiastic in their support of the Sunday school, although research indicates that strong leadership from the pastor is a must for a church school to grow in both quality and quantity. Satisfaction with the status quo and resistance to change continue to be problems for many schools.

But there is a brighter side. While Sunday schools of some mainline denominations continue to decline in attendance, those in evangelical denominations appear to be steadily growing. Southern Baptist Sunday-school enrollment has increased by over 40,000 in the last two years, a small percentage when compared to total enrollment but significant numerical growth. Fundamentalist, independent Sunday schools are growing rapidly, spurred on by hopes of making “the top 100” in an annual poll. Interdenominational evangelical publishers say that their sales of Sunday-school materials appear to be on the upswing.

One must be cautious in analyzing and diagnosing current trends because of the wide disparity in Sunday schools. Some have a weekly attendance of fewer than a dozen persons, while a few have more than 5,000 present each week for Bible study. Some teachers do little more than read to their pupils from a quarterly while others use creative methods comparable to the best in public education. Some classes adhere to the teacher-pupil ratio of one to ten while others have one teacher for a class of several hundred; still others use team teaching. Facilities range from small, one-room churches divided into classrooms by curtains during the Sunday-school hour to ultra-modern learning centers with the latest audio-visual gadgetry. One can relive almost any period in the Sunday school’s colorful, two-hundred-year history by visiting various churches across the country. Stephen Paxson and B. F. Jacobs would no doubt feel at home in some Sunday schools today while in others they would be as bewildered as Robert Raikes in the printing room of a modern newspaper plant.

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To get an overall picture of today’s Sunday school we need to look at trends in six areas: teacher training, the role of the teacher, teaching methods, curriculum materials, classroom facilities, and church busing.

Teacher training. Renewed emphasis upon teacher training is evident today. Many churches take seriously their responsibility for Christian education in the Sunday school. The best illustration of this is the phenomenal growth and influence of the International Center for Learning seminars conducted in major cities across the nation. Each seminar, led by professional age-group specialists, offers twelve hours of in-depth participatory training in instructional methods and organizational skills for the Sunday school. The fact that more than 8,000 lay teachers from many denominations paid tuition to attend these seminars during the past nine months indicates that teachers and leaders are serious about improving the quality of the Sunday school.

The Evangelical Teacher Training Association continues to provide strong leadership for churches involved in training programs on the local level. Teachertraining clinics sponsored by evangelical denominations are well-attended. Large churches continue to have “how we do it” conferences. Sunday-school conventions are experiencing a comeback and are well attended for the most part. Three trends are noticeable in these conventions: (1) more in-depth seminars, consisting of three or more sessions on the same topic, (2) more participation by those attending and less lecturing by the conference leaders, and (3) first-class planning and promotion, with enlistment of nationally known speakers and leaders. In recent months several of the small conventions that were weak in these three areas were either canceled or sparsely attended.

Publishers are responding to this growing demand for higher teacher quality. Much material for teacher training is being produced, including cassette tapes, workbooks and manuals, and overhead transparency kits, along with how-to-do-it books.

The role of the teacher. The role of the teacher is shifting from that of a teller of information to that of a guide who stimulates and leads the student as both together seek to explore, discover, and appropriate God’s truth for their lives. Even in many adult classes the student is no longer considered a passive recipient during the Sunday-school period but is active in the learning process. Team teaching, long in use with children, is gradually gaining acceptance with youth and adults.

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Teaching methods. In today’s methods, what the learner is doing-is considered to be more important than what the teacher is saying. Most of the methods encourage involvement, research, and discovery on the part of the student. Teachers are realizing that the old principle of

Ram it in, jam it in,

Children’s heads are hollow!

Ram it in, jam it in,

There’s plenty more to follow!

simply does not work. Emphasis is on activities and expression rather than on the “you sit still while I instill” approach.

Most methods involve inexpensive materials that are easy to prepare, many calling for nothing more than pencils and paper. Teaching methods that appear in current curriculum materials for children include art activities, drama, creative writing, music, research, choral speaking, and Bible games. Methods used in youth materials include interviews, monologues, neighbor-nudging, creative writing (journals, diaries, newspaper stories, and poetry), and simple drama. Methods appearing in adult curricula include agree-disagree sheets, creative drawing and writing, and psychodrama, along with the more well-known methods. Simulation games are being used in some Sunday schools with both youth and adults.

A visit to an older children’s department in an up-to-date Sunday school might reveal the following activities during a lesson on Paul’s letter to Philemon. Several children are in one corner of the room, equipped with newsprint, Bibles, felt markers, and brushes and paint, enthusiastically preparing a frieze showing incidents suggested by the letter. Using their Bibles, they discuss which scenes could best portray the story and decide to do four: Onesimus running away from home, the runaway slave meeting Paul in prison, the trip back to Colosse bearing the letter from Paul, and Onesimus’ encounter with Philemon. The children check the details of the story carefully as they do their work.

Another group of children is preparing the front page of “The Colosse Chronicle,” writing imaginary news stories about the slave’s return to his master. They also use their Bibles as they work. One small group is preparing a simple drama depicting the encounter of Onesimus with Paul and how the apostle led him to Christ. Still another group is preparing a pantomime of the slave’s return to and encounter with Philemon. A teacher is with each group, asking an occasional question or suggesting a Bible atlas or Bible dictionary from a nearby bookshelf for the children to check some item of information. It is obvious from observing and listening to the children that they are reliving the moving account behind the brief epistle at a level not attained when the teacher simply lectures on the passage. At the next session the children will share with the entire group the activity they have worked on. Lively discussion will accompany the presentation of each project as reinforcement of learning takes place.

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A cursory observer might conclude that such Sunday schools have swallowed Dewey psychology and progressive education hook, line, and sinker. But closer scrutiny reveals that this is not so. The point is that creative classes can have a strong dose of biblical content and can communicate much factual information. Publishers and teachers appear to be heeding the advice that James Smart gave to religious educators twenty years ago: “[Creative methods without Bible content] are like flowers cut off from their roots. They may live a short time, but they are doomed to die” (The Teaching Ministry of the Church, Westminster, p. 79).

A teaching method with the potential of revolutionizing the Sunday school is programmed instruction, an innovative method using optimum steps of subject matter, active responding, immediate confirmation of student response, and self-pacing. While programmed learning is the key to the rapidly growing mission movement of theological education by extension, few appear to realize the significance of this teaching method for church schools in America. The first programmed church-school materials were published in 1968 by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, but publishers have been slow in following Missouri’s lead. One reason, no doubt, is a lack of trained programmers. A few innovative pastors and ministers of education have prepared their own programmed materials for special use in Sunday school, such as learning packets for bus children or materials for new Christians. One major denomination is releasing its first programmed Sunday-school materials this summer, in the form of quarterlies for children.

Individualized learning packets for children are available from many publishers. These packets make use of do-it-yourself activities and in pedagogy, art work, color, and printing are on a par with materials used in public schools.

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Although many churches use television in their worship services, few are utilizing this medium in the Sunday school. A few church schools use videotapes of outstanding speakers, followed by small-group discussion.

Curriculum materials. A strong emphasis on the Bible with a thrust on involvement, application, and response on the part of the student comes through in current curriculum materials. While evangelical curricula are life-related, they do not appear to be moving in the direction of social issues to the neglect of the Bible.

Curriculum materials are increasingly supportive of the family. Help is offered on family communications (husband-wife and parent-child), family togetherness, discipline, Christian values, and sex education. It is safe to assert that many Sunday schools are attempting through this supportive role to place the responsibility for Christian education where it primarily belongs, on the parents in the home.

Several publishers make available elective courses for youth and adults, offering attractive paperback books. Eschatology is the big topic in this area and demonology is very popular also. One publisher has begun a series on the history of denominations, in keeping with the renewed emphasis today upon the local church.

Some Sunday schools offer these elective courses on a non-departmentalized basis, combining their youth and adults. And some churches give courses at times other than Sunday, using a name such as “church school” instead of “Sunday school.”

Publishers are providing more resource materials for the teacher, both in biblical commentary and teaching suggestions. The use of specific objectives stated in measurable terms is gradually appearing in teachers’ books, and one can now read in teachers’ guides of the cognitive, affective, and psycho-motor domains of learning. Along with the teacher’s manual, most publishers offer resource packets that contain multi-media materials such as transparencies, maps, cassette tapes, work-sheets, and records for classroom use.

Classroom facilities. While emphasis on building and equipment has slowed because of inflation and uncertainty in the economic climate, there are noticeable trends in classroom facilities. Flexibility and variety are the key words for classrooms. Sunday schools are slowly moving away from dark corridors and small cubicles and toward the open-classroom approach of public schools. Rooms are arranged to provide a learning atmosphere and to serve as resource centers.

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Church busing. The church bus ministry survived the energy crisis and continues to be a strong impetus for many Sunday schools. The thirty-five churches with the largest bus ministries brought a combined average of over 36,000 persons to Sunday school on buses each Sunday during 1973, a 21 per cent increase over 1972. Along with the blessings, church busing has also brought problems. Many churches do not yet quite know what to do with undisciplined bus children from non-church backgrounds, who are perhaps reminiscent of the street kids of Gloucester’s Sooty Alley in 1780. Some churches conduct separate classes for these children with simplified materials. Most publishers have to date offered little if any substantial help in this area.

While today’s Sunday school still leaves much to be desired, among evangelicals and fundamentalists it is vigorous and healthy and relevant to the needs of modern man. The Bible-centered church school will continue to play a significant role in carrying out the Great Commission until Jesus returns.

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