We have to be brave enough to face up to what we really are accomplishing in Sunday school.
When an institution reaches its two hundredth birthday, it’s appropriate to celebrate and evaluate. The bicentennial of the Sunday school offers such an opportunity. Although today’s Sunday school bears little resemblance to the original model designed by Robert Raikes in England in 1780, we can look back with appreciation for what he and his successors have accomplished. Raikes took vagrant kids off the streets and gave them some much-needed elementary schooling on Sundays. He aimed to do something about a festering social sore, and he succeeded, even though he was opposed by entrenched interests. He was not trying to do something for the churches, but for the community as a whole. He was far ahead of the religious, educational, and business establishments. We celebrate him as the founder of what later became church-related Sunday schools because enough forward-thinking people in England and America saw that what Raikes had begun could work very well for teaching religious subjects. Therefore, our heritage is worth acknowledging. Out of Robert Raikes’s social concern came an institution that now reaches millions of people.
Raikes would be hard-pressed, however, to recognize the changes that have come about. In rural and inner-city environments a few courageous Christians try to reach out to the poor, as Raikes did; but when it comes to educating the socially disadvantaged, churches are not leading the way. Notable exceptions have arisen, but by and large, Sunday school today serves only children who can read and write, and who have picked up certain minimal social graces so they do not present disciplinary problems. Unlike the “schools” Raikes started, today’s Sunday school is thoroughly sanitized and civilized. The illiterate and the unkempt generally do not find their way into First Church’s classrooms.
That is not all the fault of First Church. Serious educational and social problems prevent the traditional Sunday school from offering religious education to culturally deprived children. Many of these children attend public schools, where, for various reasons, they do not learn to read or to accept discipline as a part of life. At home, they receive little encouragement to attend Sunday school.
Apart from social changes, Raikes would no doubt be startled by the significant numbers of adults attending Sunday school today. Sunday school is no longer a children’s institution. In many churches, adults (college-age and older) outnumber children. What might startle him even more would be the thousands of volunteers who make it work. Probably there is no other institution involving so many people on a regular basis that is totally dependent on volunteers.
But what about the next 200 years? Where should Sunday school go from here? No one claims success in every class every week. Countless hundreds of persons, young and old alike, are bored stiff by irrelevant lessons taught by well-meaning but often unprepared teachers. Samuel and David and Jesus and Paul go by year after year like a dull blur. Little moralistic homilies go in one ear and out the other.
Raikes probably would ask what we’re doing for our pupils after class lets out. Are we getting into homes? Are we calling on people? Are we finding out which kids have serious social and moral problems that prevent even the best Sunday school class from making a dent in their lives? Are we acknowledging the intense pressures of the everyday world that so often override the input of 30 or 40 minutes of Bible lecture and discussion? How can that brief period of time be used to bridge the gap between the seemingly unreal world of Bible times and the real world of increasing energy costs, premarital sex, and divorce, for instance?
Somehow, after we’ve had more and better teacher training workshops, attractive and relevant teaching materials and methods, shiny overhead transparencies and clever handcrafts, we have to be brave enough to face up to what we really are accomplishing in Sunday school. It’s not enough to say we’ve “covered the lesson.” It’s not enough to say we’ve got a fully integrated Bible knowledge curriculum. It’s not enough to say our church buses bring in more kids than all the other church buses in town. Are we seeing conversions to faith in Christ? Are we seeing Christian growth in terms of identifiable behavior changes for the better? Are we seeing commitment to responsible church membership? Are we penetrating those millions of homes where the Sunday newspaper, not the Sunday school curriculum, is the standard text? Are our high school young people participating in the life and ministry of the church after mom and dad quit forcing them to go to Sunday school?
The course of Sunday school has radically changed in the last two centuries. We celebrate and honor what Robert Raikes began. We call for renewed commitment, discipline, and intelligent innovation to make this valued institution an increasingly significant tool for spiritual growth and social betterment in the years to come.
A recent resolution presented to the governing board of the National Council of Churches used vitriolic language in accusing Israel of systematic torture, discrimination against minorities, and South African-style apartheid policies. True, a vote on the resolution was avoided by referral to a special panel, but the fact remains that certain church leaders apparently felt the climate was right for such a resolution to be presented. (The National Council of Churches scheduled hearings this month in New York City and Washington on the Arab-Israeli conflict.)
A striking example of the “let’s get Israel” syndrome can be found in recent speeches by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. He returned from a fact—finding trip to the Middle East-financed by the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Church’s mission agency—deeply troubled by what he called “the implications of a theocratic state.” which he described as “a combination of political and religious power by a single hand.” Was he talking about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran? Or did he have in mind the Arab countries whose constitutions declare Islam to be the official religion of the state? No, his fears were reserved for Israel, the one country in the Middle East that, for all its faults, can be described as a democratic society.
A conference held last May offers another example of the “let’s get Israel” syndrome. Only persons who were known to be highly critical of Israel were invited to speak. Some of them used the occasion to repeat charges of systematic torture in Israel, giving the impression that these allegations had been confirmed by the U.S. State Department, while in truth they had been discredited by various sources, including the State Department. These false allegations went unchallenged and subsequently found their way into several denominational magazines.
Extremely perplexing is the film called Middle East Mosaic, produced in conjunction with the 1979–80 study materials of the National Council. It did not contain a single reference to Israel or the Jewish people. One gets the impression from this that modern Israel basically is an intruder in the Middle East.
Consider also the historical amnesia that leads to simplistic answers to complex issues. For instance, last year the big squabble was over the validity of the U.S. “no talk” policy regarding the Palestine Liberation Organization. Some would have us think this was a Jewish invention. It’s conveniently forgotten that for three decades Israel repeatedly sought face-to-face negotiations with the Arab League nations that had waged war against it. Such appeals were met with a trinity of negatives: “no recognition, no reconciliation, no negotiation.” Thorny West Bank issues are likewise reduced to Israeli acquisition of land “by force,” without reference to Jordan’s annexation of that territory after the 1948 war, an act considered illegal by virtually all nations, including the Arab countries.
In this kind of slanted, distorted opinion-making, delegates to church assemblies often are asked to vote on resolutions dealing with very complex Middle East political issues. It is not uncommon for resolutions to be pushed through with a minimum of debate, because in an incredibly simplistic fashion the whole matter is portrayed as a clear imperative of Christian love, justice, and human liberation.
In fact, in some quarters it seems that the PLO has become the great new cause for the writing of “prophetic” resolutions. Unless recent developments in Iran and Afghanistan lead to some critical second thoughts, we can expect a whole series of pro—PLO church pronouncements on Middle East issues, spiced up with a few pious phrases about the living God of history, who is always on the side of revolutionary movements, and with a vague reference to Israel’s security thrown in for good measure.
Delegates to church assemblies need to do some careful homework, because too often some well-meaning Christians, sincerely desiring to see more justice done in the world, have uncritically supported revolutionary movements that in the end have led to worse oppression than before. Peace in the Middle East surely is a legitimate concern of Christians. So is the plight of the Palestinian people, many of them still living in refugee camps. They have too often been exploited in the game of international politics. However, those who in classic scapegoat fashion hold Israel solely to blame, are playing one more cruel game with the misery of the homeless Palestinians.
In fact, some resolutions are presented to church bodies in order to score propaganda points. Delegates should not be deceived. Such resolutions do not contribute to world peace, nor to a climate of useful negotiations. Rather these resolutions and accompanying pronouncements usually are phrased in questionable ideology under the cover of even more questionable theology.
American churches, with their lines of communication to the Arab nations as well as to the Jewish community, could have played a reconciling role in the Middle East conflict. To our shame we must confess this has not been done. Therefore, in the future it would be more appropriate to issue fewer pompous statements purporting to solve the problems, and instead sit down together as Christians, before God and the world, to search our hearts and ask why we have failed. Such an item on the agenda of church assemblies would do more to enhance the credibility of the churches than all of the pronouncements offered as “prophetic statements,” but which in reality often are nothing more than the result of committee politics.
ISAAC C. ROTTENBERG
Isaac Rottenberg is presently educational consultant for the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel; he is also a lecturer and writer.
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