Commentary: Sunday school – Fount of theological ignorance?

By Teddy Ray, Special Contributor…

One of the places where America began to become theologically illiterate was an odd one: Sunday school. I believe the introduction of Sunday schools truly has caused the American church to know less about what they believe.

For one thing, when we began focusing on Sunday schools, we moved from having theologically-trained pastors teach to having laypeople teach. (Don’t get too worked up about this yet. More below.)

Teddy Ray

Secondly, the Sunday school movement was ecumenical (i.e., representing a number of different Christian churches). A lot of denominations have at least slightly different beliefs regarding doctrine, so they moved away from teaching any version of those debatable doctrines. The easiest commonality was to teach Bible stories. So that’s where the focus went.

Some disclaimers

Please hear these before making any angry comments!

I’m thrilled that laypeople teach. I don’t believe you have to have been to seminary to be allowed to teach. With that said, there are times that we’ll take any warm body, even if that warm body doesn’t know what repentance is or why in the world we would need to be adopted by God. I applaud willing volunteers, but we can’t expect our learners to learn theology that their teachers don’t know.

Also, I love ecumenical efforts. The catholic (universal) church has far more in common than it has in opposition. But if we run from any disputed doctrines, we’ll run from some things that have had the greatest impact on my life (e.g., a Wesleyan understanding of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace).

Finally, we must teach the Bible! Of course! And learning theology through the narrative of Scripture is incredibly important. But we’ve tended to replace our wider theological beliefs with the stories. So you can find a lot of teenagers who know the story of David and Goliath, but very few who can define sanctification, or even articulate a Christian understanding of growing in holiness.

Suggestions for change

Our teachers need to know basic theology. We don’t have to have seminarians teaching every class, but there does need to be a baseline. Please don’t just look for the best warm body.

“But we don’t have enough people!” you say. “We have to take whomever will volunteer.” That’s probably true in a lot of places. So some more encouragement: If you have a good handle on basic theology, we need you! Please volunteer to teach. If you are willing to teach but don’t have a good handle on basic theology, please find a way to get a crash course. You and those you teach will all benefit.

Also, we need to teach the specifics of our faith. Presbyterians, teach about election and perseverance. Methodists, teach about prevenient grace and entire sanctification. Dispensationalists, teach about . . . well, never mind. (I jest. Kind of.)

Continue to teach the Bible! Teach all of the stories. But make sure that you are teaching something beyond just the story and beyond just nice morals. (e.g., Please don’t teach the story of Noah and the ark and then use it to talk about Noah’s patience with all those stinky animals and how we should be patient, too. I’ve actually seen this in a children’s Bible!) This means intentionally asking what big doctrines are being communicated through certain stories.

The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal teaches us about God’s faithfulness, judgment for the wicked, and God’s almighty power. Emphasize those! And don’t be afraid to teach from non-narrative pieces like the psalms and New Testament letters.

Yes, Sunday school (along with many other factors) has contributed to rampant theological illiteracy in the American church. But we can fight back!

Mr. Ray is a licensed local pastor who serves as executive pastor at First UMC of Lexington, Ky. His blog is at www.teddyray.com.

Special Contributor

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Join the conversation....

  1. Interesting commentary by pastor Ray–but I am some what worked up. Most local pastors give the unlearned folks in the pews a little more credit, but, pastor Ray infers that only those in the pulpit have enough knowledge to truly teach, even though he tries to soften the blow. Is it possible that the curriculum offered by the Methodist publishing house is extremely short on "Good News" and long on "social gospel?"

    "Pedestal" clergy hurt the general church very, very much…………….

    • wordweaver says:

      I believe there is a strong basis for these statements. When I first started teaching(the 60's) as a lay person, there was a very strong program for lay teacher education both in terms of Biblical content and teaching methods and also holding in balance, "the Good News" and 'the social gospel". In other words connecting the biblical message, critical scholarship and life reality. I have seen this slowly and systematically defused, justified by lack time for preparation. theological conflicts etc. As a pastor, I encountered these same issues. Some churches using non-UMC materials that were counter to UMC doctrines, in some cases even hostile. Avoiding conflict, some of us just avoided the issue altogether or slowly attempted to bring churches back to some form of being Methodist.
      The result, we have a vast number of laity who do not know the Bible beyond their early SS teachings of decades ago or have appropriated understanding from the TV Evangelists of various perspectives.Many people. including minsters do not know how to read or interpret scripture except from their own bias and prejudice, dismissing critical scholarship, effective teaching methods or backing away from their function as Pastor/Teacher; putting all their energies toward building the church budget and membership.

      On the other side, a growing number of laity who want their pastor and church staff to focus on comforting the afflicted either being the comforter and/or being the entertainer but never the prophet in the Biblical sense. The Children and Youth are to protected from the real world not prepared for it. A recent situation of which I am aware, staffed by a Creative Youth Minister, Seminary Trained, when becoming aware of the Biblical illiteracy of her youth group. introduced Bible study into the evening youth program, along with community building methods mission and service events was confronted with pressure for the youth program to just be fun. Now alongside these functions, they also had the usual rock concert events that kids like. She is being replaced by a lay person who knows how to create parties but has no background in either theology or in education. Anything wrong with this picture?
      In all fairnessI am also aware there is a vast multitude of both Clergy and Laity who take the integrity of Biblical Education and its relationship to the challenges of our contemporary world very seriously, knowing they are subject to the many pressures that would have the church be an an escape into an isolated fantasy land. For all of them I pray.as I speak from my many years as Pastor, Pastoral Psychotherapist and Hospice Chaplain
      Rev. Anne Clement. Elder (retired)Oklahoma Conference

    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your response. I'm sorry I came across to you as clergy on a "pedestal" here. That's not my intent. My concern is that we don't teach Christian doctrine in Sunday School anymore. And certainly not our denominations' doctrinal distinctives. I'm not urging us to cancel Sunday School or to quit using volunteer, lay Sunday School teachers. I am, however, urging that we teach robust Christian doctrine. And to do that, we need to make sure our teachers are theologically trained. That doesn't mean they need to go to seminary – but they need something.

      This article actually leaves off the conclusion to my original post – which suggests some helpful resources. You might take a look at that here: http://teddyray.com/2012/07/28/sunday-school/ Or take a look at my follow-up post, which starts by making clear that I wasn't trying to disparage Sunday School teachers and goes on to offer more resources: http://teddyray.com/2012/08/04/a-crash-course-in-

      Teddy Ray

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

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