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Is Sunday School Dying?

Is this thing called Sunday school working?

You can find millions of children sitting in little chairs in churches on any given Sunday morning. Does this mean Sunday school is working?

Some of these Sunday school children tote home colorful fliers that depict old-fashioned-looking Bible characters in faraway lands. Does this mean Sunday school is working?

Sunday school is operated by arguably the largest volunteer corps in the country. Does this mean Sunday school is working?

To help answer this question, we decided to ask the end users of the product-kids themselves. We interviewed kids as they poured out of local elementary and middle schools. Of those who admitted to attending Sunday school we asked for critiques. Their comments: "okay," "boring," "too much like school," "too much sitting in chairs," "boring," "fine," "the teacher talks about God and stuff," "boring."

We also asked them if they could remember something they learned in Sunday school. The vast majority couldn't recall even one learning.

Tim Stafford wrote in Christianity Today magazine: "The bedrock institution of Sunday school is in trouble. Attendance nationally is flat or declining. Practically everyone involved, from curriculum publishers to ordinary Sunday-morning teachers, expresses frustration with its present and uncertainty about its future."

Is Sunday school working? Well, let's rephrase the question. Is the Sunday school system resulting in effective education and implementation of God's truths in kids' lives? All too often, the answer is no.

A SHIP WITHOUT A RUDDER

So, why isn't Sunday school's vast commitment of human and financial resources more closely reaching its potential? Is the problem, as many have alleged, a shortage of committed teachers? Should we blame today's fast-lane society and shortage of housewives?

It's not that easy. If today's baby-boomer parents saw evidence of quality-that is, if they saw that hour on Sunday morning produce any net effect in their children's spiritual growth-they'd gladly volunteer their precious time to help.

The problem with Sunday school is far more basic. We've lost our way.

Shouldn't the overriding goal of Sunday school be to lead students to know, love and follow God through Jesus Christ? But after decades of doing Sunday school in the same old way, we've simply forgotten the goal. It's been rusted over by a set of expectations that few have bothered to stop and evaluate. These expectations have frequently become the misguided barometers and goals of Sunday school. Some examples:

*"The children keep coming." Is a body in a chair the net result of Christian education?

*"Our classrooms are controlled and quiet." Silence and passivity in a Sunday school class usually indicate a lack of learning.

*"The children are busy the whole hour." Were they punching out those little stickers to paste on the take-home paper? Were they engaged in yet another set of word scrambles? Is our goal merely to fill time or to encourage life-changing learning?

*"Our boys and girls have a new Bible memory verse every week." Many churches stress memorization over understanding of scripture. Education expert Frank Smith, in his book Insult to Intelligence, writes: "Rote memorization is the worst strategy for trying to learn anything we do not understand."

*"Our teachers are teaching great material." But are our students learning any great material? Teaching and learning are not the same.

Attendance, quiet classrooms, busy work, rote memorization and an emphasis on teaching rather than learning have lulled us into thinking we're doing the right thing. But is anyone bothering to see if kids are retaining anything they're taught? Is anybody insisting to know if kids are exhibiting a growing faith? Is anyone verifying that Sunday school is affecting kids' day-to-day lives at home, on the school playground and in the sandlot?

We're a rudderless ship. We've forgotten where we're going. We're caught up in trimming the sails, swabbing the decks and walking off the plank. Meanwhile our ship is adrift at sea.

A DUBIOUS MODEL

For decades we've unquestioningly fashioned our curriculum and teaching methodology after old-fashioned public schools. Why are they our model?

Newsweek magazine reported that America's students ranked near the bottom in a recent international study of math and science exams. And newspaper headlines often ask, "Why can't Johnny read?" Teachers themselves wonder aloud why today's crop of students do so poorly.

And this is the system we've chosen to emulate in Christian education? Yes, we've picked up all sorts of failing ideas from public education. For example:

*The lecture method-The teacher drones on in front of passive, mind-wandering students sitting in hard chairs. Almost everything even the best teachers say will be forgotten within a week.

*Unappetizing education-"Okay, class, the fun's over. Now it's time to buckle down and learn." We've left no doubt in kids' minds that learning is drudgery. We've convinced them that learning about God is a joyless, dour tedium. A Christian education director recently told us, "I tell kids if they don't want to get into hard-core, serious Bible study, then they can just leave." And they do.

*Teacher-based classrooms-The teacher is the authority with all the answers. Students are passive receptacles of the teacher's knowledge. There's no time for discovery, student interaction or teachable moments.

*Anti-educational curriculum-We've learned our lesson well. Sunday school student work sheets are filled with scrambled word puzzles, fill-in-the-blanks, crosswords and missing-letter words. Frank Smith writes: "There is nothing in the real world that is like any of this pedagogical treadmill. Nobody learns anything, or teaches anything, by being submitted to such a regime of disjointed, purposeless, repetitive, confusing and tedious activities."

Now for some good news. Many schools are awakening to ineffective approaches to learning. They're adopting innovative approaches that are resulting in smarter students who crave learning. Some are throwing out textbooks in favor of learning kits. Others are rearranging their classrooms so that students work in teams-teaching and encouraging one another. Others are devising new ways of student evaluation-based on student understanding rather than temporary memorization of facts and figures.

So, as the schools move away from their old, ineffective modes of education, will Christian education change, too?

CHANGE OR DIE

It's time for a revolution in Sunday school. Tweaking won't work. The need for change is too long overdue. So, where do we start?

1. Determine your goal. What is your bottom line for your Sunday school? Is it something like "to know, love and follow Jesus"? Keep your goal simple-easy to remember. Write it out. Everywhere. Make sure everyone in the congregation knows it. Then measure everything you do against it. Be prepared to throw out a lot of beliefs and approaches that are consuming valuable time that could be spent on more direct progress toward your goal.

2. Do what works to accomplish your goal. Toss out the old idols of how kids should learn. Engage them in ways they will learn. Don't curse this generation's learning preferences. We recently received a letter from a frustrated Christian educator. She wrote: "Why do we have to entertain or play games to keep our kids interested?" If those things can result in learning (and they do) why fight them? Use them!

Karen, a friend of ours, conducts a week-night Bible study for kids in her home. The lessons use active learning-allowing the kids to learn by doing. The sessions are often boisterous, sending teams all over the house to scavenge for discoveries that illuminate the biblical lessons. Time is spent building relationships among kids-filling a legitimate need and allowing students to learn from one another, to teach one another. The kids love the lessons. The class has tripled. And every week Karen reports new instances of kids' lives and behaviors changed because of their internalization of God's Word.

It's time to retrain teachers, parents and congregations about how we can teach so kids will learn.

3. Evaluate all aspects of your Sunday school often-according to your big goal. Station yourself in the parking lot after Sunday school. Stop kids and ask what they remember from the day's lesson. On other Sundays cruise the parking lot before kids come in. Ask what they remember from the previous week. Ask how that lesson has affected their day-to-day lives. Frequently ask parents what new and improved behavior they notice in their kids that may be attributable to what they're learning in Sunday school. Take a class to McDonald's and determine if the kids are learning and understanding God's life principles.

The point is, be convinced that your Sunday school is doing what it's supposed to do. If not, change. Pick apart your curriculum. Are you certain it's respecting your kids' time? Or is it peppered with worthless word games and fill-in-the-blanks? Does it strive for understanding or merely prepare your kids for a trivial game of Bible Jeopardy? Does it employ active learning? Is it teacher-based or student-based? If you're not certain your curriculum directly zooms toward your goal, it's time to alter it or find something that works.

Is Sunday school dying? Only if we let it.

We want to hear from you. Are you feeling good about your Sunday school? Are you encouraged? discouraged? Send examples of the highlights and lowlights in your ministry to Sunday School, CHILDREN'S MINISTRY Magazine, Dept. MG, Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.


Thom Schultz is president of Group Publishing. Joani Schultz is creative products director at Group Publishing.

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