The Future Came Yesterday

by Michael Leach

Mr. Leach is associate editor of Crossroad boos, the religious division of Seabury Press.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 20, 1974, pp. 200-203. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Some educators think it is too late, that the church school is dead, that the church itself may be dying. Others are convinced that the positive signs point to a future of enormous potential. The question is not which point of view is true, but which one we should accept, and then, with God’s help, try to make it come true.

One thing is certain. Change. But too much change, coming too fast and too soon, can shake and shatter our lives, leaving many of us confused and unable to cope. "Nobody," argued Alvin Toffler in Future Shock, "can be pushed above his adaptive range without suffering disturbance and disorientation." And it’s clear that "disturbance and disorientation" are happening now. The future came yesterday, and most of us are unprepared to deal with it. Many, in fact, would like to go backwards.

Even churchgoers. Last summer, the First Presbyterian Church of Augusta, Georgia -- "mother church" of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) -- announced its withdrawal from the million -- member denomination. It was one of a growing number of conservative congregations to cut off ties with the parent body because of disenchantment with "rising liberal trends."


But can there really be a retreat to the past? Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson is one of many who point out that, "in our society at present, the ‘natural course of events’ is precisely that the rate of change should continue to accelerate up to the as-yet-unreached limits of human and institutional adaptability." And Professor Toffler warns: "During the next thirty or forty years we must anticipate not a single wave of change, but a series of terrible heaves and shudders."

The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, has seen more changes in the decade since Vatican II than it saw in the previous century. It’s no extravagance to expect even deeper changes in all Christian communions in the next 20 years than all those made since Paul left Tarsus 20 centuries ago. We are entering a whole new world where the surreal is becoming the real -- a world of urban communes and floating parishes, teen-age gurus and tentmaker priests, Jesus freaks and Jesus-freak deprogrammers.

More than ever, churchgoers must have help to understand the bursting energies that are shaping society and church, to rediscover the God who acts in history, to join him in the arena of his work. To this end a major effort in Christian education seems desperately needed. A new approach must be found to reconcile those who like to ride the crest of change with those who seek the safety of the harbor -- an approach that is faithful both to the push of the gospel and to the pull of a radically changing world. Otherwise, the church could eventually face what Alvin Toffler called "future shock" -- a massive adaptational breakdown.

Oscar Hussel, director of educational systems development for Joint Educational Development, emphasizes the urgency of the church’s present situation: "As Americans move out of their age of innocence and the culture is increasingly secularized, it becomes doubly crucial for the church to be able to tell its members what it is, where it came from, where it is meant to go, and what it should be about. Education is essential to these purposes. At least, until the church knows its own nature and purpose, it will never have much to say to American society or be a major force shaping American culture"

Grass-roots opinion reinforces the sense of urgency. In the fall of 1972 teams of fact finders from the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church visited 91 of the 92 dioceses of that 3-million-member church. Their purpose was to find out what the church at large thought should be the program priorities for 1974-76. Two-thirds of the reporting dioceses listed education as the highest priority. In effect they agreed that there is no clearer mandate than the demand for a new and innovative program of Christian education.

But there’s a dilemma. The pessimism prevailing in the country has blunted the spirit of generosity, and in consequence most voluntary institutions are hard pressed for funds. Certainly the national denominations are feeling a financial pinch that severely limits the educational services they can provide to judicatories and parishes calling for them. The Episcopal Church did without an education officer for more than a year. The Southern Presbyterian Church had some 80 people involved nationally in educational services a decade ago; today no more than 6 are projected for the near future.

So there is, on the one hand, a need and a demand for better programs of Christian education, and on the other, an apparent crisis of commitment to support them.

Take the question of resources. In the late 1950s, when people seemed to flock to the churches, the national denominations produced a plethora of creative curricula for their church schools. Some, like the Christian Faith and Action curriculum of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Seabury Series of the Episcopal Church, were even considered ahead of their time. But these materials age, despite updating, and soon the publishers will have to scrounge for subsidies to replace them. And, in a culture that prizes novelty, more and more parishes are simply "doing their own thing," passing by what is good and useful in their own denominational curricula and either making up their own or buying from independent publishers.

the situation reminds one of what Kurt Vonnegut says about The Brothers Karamozov: "That book tells you all you need to know about life. But today it isn’t enough." Most educators think that church education isn’t enough anymore either. As someone wisely said: ‘‘Christ taught adults and played with the children, while we in our churches have been teaching children and playing with adults." As a result, some of the best recent efforts in Christian education have been in adult education -- programs that enrich adult communities in which there are children, not communities of children in which there happen to be a few adults.


This is obviously a positive trend. But it would be very dangerous if it diminished the church’s concern for better models of church school education. Data compiled by the United Methodist Church strongly indicate that the old dictum still holds: "As the church school goes, so goes the church." During the past decade, United Methodist church school enrollment plummeted by 1,649,264 (23.8 per cent). Between 1968 and 1971, church school enrollment of four other mainline denominations -- the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church, and the two Presbyterian churches -- dropped by 19.3 per cent. And since changes in church school enrollment usually precede changes in church membership by three to five years, these churches face severe attrition in both the quantity and the quality of their constituency in the years ahead, if present trends continue.

The Methodist survey makes it clear that "trends in the educational ministry, especially as they are reflected in the growth and decline of the church school, are followed by growth and decline elsewhere in the church."

So it is also clear that adult education is not the ‘‘be all and end all’’ as concerns the church. Effective programs for church schools are equally important. Are there any positive trends in church school education that hold hope for the future?

Enough of them. The trend among parishes is not only to "do their own thing" but to do it together. Ecumenism may be weak as an attempt to unite all Christians organizationally, but the trend toward interchurch cooperation on matters of education is strong. In fact, variations among congregations within the same denomination are often greater and more significant than any identifiable differences among the denominations themselves. Educational needs often cross denominational lines, and are influenced more by size, leadership, and economic and social environment than by denominational loyalties. And many parishes, like many national and regional agencies, are finding that it makes dollars and sense to meet their educational needs through the sharing of resources, both human and material.

Peter Day, ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, put the case succinctly: "We had assumed that the ecumenical issue was one of church government, whereas it’s an issue of church life. We face the fact that things are happening locally that in some ways are ahead of what was proposed nationally."

Four churches in Rockport, Massachusetts, for instance -- Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist and Congregational -- have combined their church schools and use one curriculum. The primary children meet at the Congregational church, lower juniors at the Methodist church, and juniors at the Baptist church. The Episcopal church offers Wednesday afternoon classes for those who prefer that time. Says teacher Nancy Bonne: "The system makes efficient use of space and resources, and it has solved the shortage of teaching staff, since formerly each church had to recruit teachers for every grade level, even with only three or four in a group. It has given the children a real sense of comradeship since they are with the same children they see in school every day."

Often churches form a covenant relationship to meet a specific educational need. In Macon, Georgia, an interdenominational class for retarded children includes Jews, Roman Catholics and Baptists. In North Dakota a tri-county coalition of churches from eight denominations is sharing facilities, equipment, filmstrips and other resources to provide each of the church schools involved with the best available methods in Christian education. Coalitions. are also being set up at the judicatory level, where dioceses, presbyteries, conferences and synods are pooling resources not only for church school education but for leadership development and youth work also. In the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi, the Christian education staffs of five denominations serve one another’s constituency on a sorting-of-skills basis.

Of course any coalition, local or regional, has problems as well as opportunities. Some coalitions have a fitful history of starting and stopping as educational goals are redefined or new ones merge. There is a temptation to abandon one coalition and join another when programs are less successful than expected. But, generally speaking, most people involved in educational consortia are reporting renewed enthusiasm for their work, as well as a feeling of wider comradeship and a redefined sense of purpose in their educational vocations.


Perhaps the most intriguing work of this kind is that being carried on at the national level by JED. That sounds like the name of a member of TV’s Walton family, but actually JED is a family of its own, made up of members of the educational staffs of six denominations: the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples), the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., which last acts as a representative of five additional denominations. Since 1968, the six have been engaged in a program of Joint Educational Development, whence the acronym JED.

JED has been described as "an ecumenical sharing of abilities and expertise" and a partnership which makes "good, economic sense in these days of decreasing financial resources for the work of the church." On the one hand, the JED denominations believe that they have a major responsibility in helping their congregations to choose the best educational programs for the specific goals each affirms; on the other hand, declining income, reduced staffs and denominational restructurings make it almost impossible for each denomination to do it effectively alone. So they have covenanted to work together, rather than having each denomination develop and market its own church school curricula, as in the past.

Because they recognize that life styles and viewpoints differ not only from one congregation to another but also within each congregation, the "JEDucators" believe that several educational systems are necessary to meet as many educational needs as do in fact exist. Therefore they have projected a four-faceted curriculum plan that they hope will meet the needs of at least 80 per cent of their 11-million combined membership. The plan calls for four separate and complete educational systems, ranging from a more traditional system designed to serve churches dissatisfied with the national emphases on social action to a forward-looking system meant for churches wishing to be involved in social change. Broken down, the systems will look something like this:

System I: A strongly biblical, well-structured, simple, dated curriculum, similar to the Uniform Series.

System 2: Undated curriculum of in-depth biblical studies that emphasize a contemporary and scholarly interpretation of Scripture. The present resources most nearly resembling this system are the Christian Faith and Action series.

System 3: An experience-oriented curriculum suitable for creative teaching and learning activity. The most similar present resources are the United Church, Covenant Life, and Christian Life series.

System 4: A curriculum to equip people for mission and to explore the issues that confront Christians in a changing world, such as the newly emerging Shalom resources developed by the United Church of Christ.

It is unlikely that either churches that are very conservative and thoroughly displeased with the directions their denominations are taking, or churches that are radical "do-it-ourselvers" and think the national bodies are still in the Middle Ages, will want to buy into the systems, though they could use much of what will be developed. However, most congregations are expected to find that at least one system does meet their needs; and the systems will be so interrelated that a congregation can intermix more than one with its program to meet the divergent needs of its own constituency. Betty Currie, JED planning coordinator, stresses that the systems will be heavily backed with teaching and learning plans, leadership support, and a variety of resources for different settings to make such an integrated approach possible.

The JED consortium is also working on several smaller projects, such as Share, a monthly newspaper which serves as a forum and resource tool for parish educators. But the multifaceted curriculum proposal, to be ready in 1975 and completed by 1978, is perhaps the first unified attempt at a massive redesigning of total church school education. If it works, richer resources at lower cost should be available to a wider constituency than ever before.

But while several denominations not now members of JED -- the United Methodist Church, the Church of the Brethren, and the Moravian Church in America -- are interested in participating in the design of the systems, the major issue at the moment, according to Dr. Hussel, "is to get the JED denominations at the national level to see that this is one of their top priorities and to speak boldly for it, giving us staff time to achieve quality, and applying precious dollars to this venture." For, he contends, "without this kind of approach, education in the parish will diminish in effectiveness, in numbers of persons reached, and in the realization of the increasing importance of education in the church in a period of national values crisis."

The educational systems approach, of course, does not guarantee anything. What happens with it may be exactly what would happen without it in many congregations. And it may not be necessary for every denomination at the national level to give it full support -- as the Episcopal Church recently decided. What is significant, in an educational sense, is that this is the first time congregations are recognized by the national agencies as the locale in which curriculum choice must be and in fact is made. The essential part of the educational systems is denominational assistance to congregations in choosing the curriculum which meets their needs. At worst, this approach will encourage and force congregations to determine exactly why they are involved in church school education. At best, it can help them to do a more effective and efficient job for greater numbers of their members.


These trends in church school and other Christian education -- locally, regionally and nationally -- are not yet as widespread as one could wish. But they are growing enough to indicate an inevitable future when issues like papacy, episcopacy and presbyterianism will not raise Christian hackles as they now do. There is no reason why several ecclesiastical structures cannot coexist in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Meanwhile, education in the churches will probably evolve slowly in these directions, with only a few dramatic, and perhaps traumatic, experiences. It is not unreasonable to expect that, five years hence, the forms and support of education will not be radically different in a majority of congregations, and that church school enrollment will continue to decline.

After all, the churches have always had more resources for Christian education, both human and financial, than they have effectively used. The ultimate answer is one not so much of addition as of division and multiplication -- to tap and share and make available what is already there. But that loosing of resources will happen only when committed individuals, alone and together, decide to make it happen.

Keith Miller put it well in A Second Touch: "Paradoxically, it is together that we are each going to find his destiny. The Christian pilgrimage is a joint adventure; but to last, in my opinion, it must always remain an individual one for each of us." Keith Miller may not be taken seriously by some educators because of his evangelical directness. But the man is right on target. Even today, where this kind of spirit is alive in a congregation, chances are the church school is thriving. And where it is weak, as in many mainline Protestant churches, the church school situation is about as bright as a blackboard. An evangelical spirit, together with an ecumenical openness, could get lost in piety and obscurity; but properly witnessed it is not only compatible with denominational identity: it is perhaps the best way to motivate people to make their faith a part of their lives.

Some educators think it is too late, that the church school is dead, that the church itself may be dying. Others are convinced that the positive signs point to a future of enormous potential. In a time when anything can happen -- and usually does -- the question is not which point of view is true, but which one we should accept, and then, with God’s help, try to make come true.

The future came yesterday, but it’s not too late to shape it in the image of Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.