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What Should We do with Sunday School?



Robert Raikes

Robert Raikes, Founder of the Sunday School Movement

Editorial by David Kowalski

Sunday School is an institution that started in the late eighteenth century as a means of providing basic education for poor children. The education was provided in church and had a strong emphasis on the Bible and orthodox beliefs, though children were also extensively instructed in how to read.

With the passing of time the extent of the education offered to children has lessened to an exclusive focus on believing and living as the Bible says we should. The institution has expanded, however, to include adults and the traditional curriculum has been the Bible itself (or at least prefabricated lessons about the Bible).

While the Bible does not mention a separate part of the Christian gathering that is to be labelled "Sunday School," it does speak of the need for teaching in the church and refers to those who have a special gift to do this (1 Corinthians 12:28-29, Ephesians 4:11).

Thus, Sunday School should be properly seen as the teaching part of the Sunday morning gathering. The distinction between Sunday School and morning service makes an artificial dichotomy out of what should be seen as a unity.

In recent years, though, we have changed the concept of Sunday School but kept the old name for it. What was once a time for teaching has largely become more of a time of fellowship falsely labelled teaching.

In times past, a Sunday School teacher would actually teach a cohesive lesson that he had studied and prayed about before the event. The teacher would keep the lesson on track and questions were expected to be on topic, helping to propel the lesson forward.

As Sunday School has developed recently, teachers have largely been replaced by facilitators. Facilitators do not instruct; they ask open-ended questions to draw out comments from the "class." The comments do not, however, create a cohesive lesson.

The people who comment have not studied the lesson beforehand and consequently they respond with spontaneous observations and anecdotes that are somehow provoked by the questions. Personal anecdotes seem to be a favorite kind of reply in these settings. For example, someone who has just returned from a vacation with stories about it at the forefront of their thinking will loosely relate the verse or topic to some incident that occurred on their vacation that, while not directly pertinent to the topic at hand, is something the person was reminded of by something someone said.

Other parties may join in on this rabbit trail, telling stories of their own that are provoked by the first story but which still do not advance the lesson -- leading to further off-topic, rabbit trails. Many "teachers" will count this as a good class because they see the chit chat as "good participation." The "class" enjoys a chance to talk about their experiences and express their opinions on various matters, so they leave feeling quite good about what occurred.

No one seems to notice that no real teaching or learning occurs in these meetings. They are times of fellowship -- people bantering back and forth, telling personal anecdotes and making unrelated comments. There is nothing wrong with fellowship but it is confusing when we label it as "teaching" based on the historical label "Sunday School" that is now being misapplied to the event.

The danger in this confusion is that a church can mistakenly think they are meeting the congregation's need for teaching through this time of fellowship. If we are intent on changing Sunday School to fellowship we should change the label to prevent such confusion. This way it will become more evident to all that teaching must be given at other times throughout the week.

Personally, I prefer to make Sunday School a time of teaching and let fellowship be found in things such as small groups. To maintain this teaching identity, the teacher should be gifted in actual teaching -- not just in the orchestration of story telling and impromptu comments by the "class." The class must learn (and they can) that Sunday School is not spontaneous, loosely related chit chat -- that it is a concentrated time of being taught from the Bible. Teachers should learn diplomatic ways to redirect the class to the lesson when some members try to steer it off track.

I have seen both models and find the genuine teaching model more profitable and fitting. In the teaching model, a genuine gift functions through the teacher and the class is edified and spiritually fed/blessed -- enabling them to go to the morning service already in a spiritual state of heart and mind. In the long run, their lives are more enriched by the real teaching. I suggest we go back to actual teaching in our Sunday Schools.

___________________________________

This editorial was first posted on Google+, and a subsequent comment from a reader discussed the use of questions by rabbis as part of their teaching method. I responded to that comment as follows:

You are right in your points and I can think of others that I did not take time to address in my short editorial. With regard to rabbinic teaching, it is very hard to overstate the discipline maintained in that setting that kept the interaction focused and profitable within the schooling. It is also worth noting that the students were required to do an incredible amount of rote learning -- vastly more than anything we require today.

Also, questions to verify student understanding are always good policy and are not related to the issues I have concerns about. The Sunday School classes I have visited in the last few years do not even approach the rabbinic level of focus and discipline, and the questions asked are not similar to those asked by rabbis.

Secondly, I would never deny that asking some thought provoking questions is often a good teaching technique. I have used this myself when teaching. In a class with more than one student, however, I find that the questions should be not quite so open ended as they often are in Sunday School teaching. These very open ended questions such as "How have you seen the goodness of God in your life?" are fine for small group fellowship but do not advance a cohesive lesson for Sunday School.

As an example of a more focused question, I have asked students why, in Acts 27:21-26, Paul believed for the lives of his fellow travelers to be spared but not for the security of the ship? After they think about it, they see for themselves it is because Paul's faith was in response to God's revelation -- that faith is not the "magic of believing" in which we choose what we can "believe for." These kinds of focused questions are useful in real teaching whereas the broader, open ended questions just lead to chit chat and story telling.

Of course, one can also point to the tremendous skill that Socrates (as recorded by Plato) used in asking questions in "the Socratic method." For the Socratic method to work as it does in the dialogues one must have a masterful questioner who is essentially playing mental chess with the student. A very limited class size, and (again) well focused questions are also needed for this method to work.

The popular use of open ended questions by Sunday School teachers and the subsequent random deviations by the students do not at all resemble the Socratic method because the Q&A is student driven and not teacher driven.

The bottom line is that what was done by the rabbis and Socrates bears no resemblance to the methodology I have seen used in contemporary Sunday School classes.

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

Written by David Kowalski

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This post was last updated: Jul. 3, 2013