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Let’s Liberate the Sunday School

by Dorothy Jean Furnish

Dr. Furnish is professor of Christian Education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 14, 1982, p. 450. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There are signs that the Sunday school, which once seemed dead or dying in many mainline churches, is on the verge of new life. At least one denomination, the United Methodist Church, reports that the downward trend in attendance has been baited and that recovery, though slight, has begun. If this is evidence of a resurgence of congregational vitality, the only response must be one of rejoicing. But if the new respectability enjoyed by the Sunday school only reflects a national desire to retreat to comfortable forms that were part of a less risky past, then we are called to espouse a new cause -- the liberation of the Sunday school.

Creative use of the Sunday school hour has been thwarted by the assumption that past patterns must and do exist in the present, and must inevitably continue into the future. A revived Sunday school may temporarily find favorable growing conditions in the present conservative national climate, but for its continued health and growth it must be freed from five stereotypes.

Stereotype 1: The Sunday school is an organism with a life of its own that cannot be changed. It is true that the Sunday school has been a powerful movement in our midst for 200 years. It has been one of the major carriers of Christian traditions. In its strength it has at times competed for loyalty and status with the church itself. It has seemed to defy efforts to change it: until the 1960s, it just kept rolling along. But the decline of the past two decades has shown that the Sunday school is not impervious to outside influences. There has been a loss of Sunday school fervor; the reluctance of volunteers to “teach forever” results in an ever-changing corps of teachers; there is an influx of new church members who have not experienced the Sunday school of old. The consequent break between past and present realities provides a significant opportunity to change the way in which the Sunday school is viewed.

In our technological society, ruled by the ability to break our lives into hours, minutes, seconds and milliseconds, time has been carved out for religious education. This time slot stands as a symbol of the church’s desire to aid and encourage continued growth in the Christian faith. The form this time will take is not fixed but can be molded and shaped in the light of the church’s present understanding of its mission.

Stereotype 2: “School,” and therefore “Sunday school,” is only for children.

This stereotype persists even in the face of the historical fact that it was the enthusiasm of huge adult Bible classes of the 19th and early 20th centuries that perpetuated the movement. The concept of the person as a “lifelong learner” has general acceptance in the secular community today and has spawned widespread adult education programs in the public schools, the “Elderhostel” phenomenon on college campuses for older adults, and mandatory continuing education for most professional persons, including the clergy. Nonetheless, the “children only” notion of Sunday school persists, probably because most adult Christians do not take advantage of the adult learning opportunities that are available. Long before adult education was so named, Paul understood that a child’s way of thinking was not adequate for a mature person (I Cor. 13:11). A renewed interest in Sunday school for “children only” will not serve the church because it suggests by its very existence that “reasoning [about the Christian faith] as a child” is all that is required.

Stereotype 3: The intellectual level of Sunday school content is superficial. When ministers characterize banal music as “Sunday school songs,” and simplistic ideas as “Sunday school theology,’ the meaning is clear to all who hear -- Sunday school equals shallowness, sentimentality, and a lack of scholarly foundations. To the degree that this has been true, the leadership of the Sunday school must bow in contrition. However, this kind of comment also reflects a lack of understanding about stages of development and their implications for religious education: see James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (Harper & Row, 1981) and Mary Wilcox’s Developmental Journey (Abingdon, 1979). Although the mature Paul reported that he had put away “childish reasoning,” he did not suggest that as a child he should have thought like a man. On the contrary, he recommended “milk for the babes” and “solid food” for adults (Heb. 5:12-14).

The Sunday school deserves to be liberated from the unexamined assumption that it is in the nature of Sunday school to be superficial. To expose persons to options and to help them learn to make choices is not to be wishy-washy. To teach with the knowledge that persons learn affectively as well as cognitively is not to be sentimental. To save exegesis and formal study of doctrine for adolescent and adult years is not to ignore scholarly foundations. To teach with simplicity may be the most profound way. Without liberation from the stereotype of superficiality, a renewed interest in Sunday school is no real renewal at all.

Stereotype 4: The Sunday school is characterized by the use of mindless methodology. The derisive term most often employed is “cut-and-paste.” But this is not the only methodology that has felt the critics’ scorn. Dividing a class into small groups for the sharing of ideas suggests that “it doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you believe something.” Learning centers for children and simulations for youth prompt such comments as, “All they do in Sunday school is play.” Field trips and audiovisual resources are seen as easy ways to fill up time. Exercises that enable persons to articulate their feelings as well as their thoughts are dubbed “touchy-feely” -- and the standard teacher-led discussion is labeled “a pooling of ignorances.” Even the lecture is criticized as an attempt to pour in knowledge.

The underlying misconception in all of this is that there is some kind of inherent value in a method. The question should not be “What are some good teaching methods for Sunday school?” but rather “What is the best method for achieving the purpose of this lesson with this particular group of persons at this particular time?” A return to the use of transmissive teaching exclusively, on the one hand, or to dependence on a bag-of-tricks approach on the other, will only perpetuate the perceived separation between content and method.

A revived Sunday school needs a sound theory of instruction which takes into account the learner, the content, the teacher, the aim, the context, and finally both teaching and learning styles.

Stereotype 5: The purpose of the Sunday school is to teach the Bible. There is an almost universal expectation that “teaching the Bible” is something that happens at Sunday school. When the statement is understood to mean, “The only purpose of Sunday school is to teach the Bible” or “The purpose of the Sunday school is to teach only the Bible,” then it becomes yet another stereotype. As important as the Scriptures are, the study life of the church draws on much more. From the past comes the rich heritage of history, traditions, creeds, myths and symbols, as well as the Bible. But from the past and from the future comes the call to glimpse what our present life can be, and so Christians must discover how to address the issues of life, both as individuals and as a gathered faith community. (This idea is suggested by Thomas H. Groome in Christian Religious Education [Harper & Row, 1980].) The Bible, yes. Only the Bible, no.

The church does not need a “revived” Sunday school that lives up to the common misperceptions of its mission, but instead one that has discarded the stereotypical shackles that have limited its effectiveness in the modern world. If the Sunday School is coming back, let it return as a liberated and liberating arm of the church.


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