I have been thinking about Sunday school, Christian education in general, and how to balance informational learning with a formational approach. In the middle of ruminating on various thoughts and ideas, I read a phrase that gave me a jolt, “the anemic platitudes many liberal Protestants pass along to their children.” It happened a couple of paragraphs into an article by Nancy Ammerman in The Christian Century. The article caught my attention because Ammerman, who teaches sociology of religion at Boston College, is dealing with the role of Scripture in the religious education of children. Here is the quote in context:
I grew up doing my “daily Bible readings” (we didn’t call it a lectionary, but it was) and memorizing weekly verses in Sunday school. I not only learned to name all 66 books of the Bible, but I could find any given passage faster than almost any “sword drill” competitor around. By the time I was in junior high and active in “Girls Auxiliary” (the Southern Baptist mission organization for girls), I was memorizing whole chapters—Proverbs 31 being among the more daunting. (...) While I might fail a Bible quiz today, I have a formidable reservoir of memory to call on, with words and images that remain a powerful part of my psyche.
I found myself wondering, however, whether my own young adult daughter has that same reservoir of memory. I have no doubt that she knows a great deal about the Bible and holds its values close to her heart; I also know that she simply did not spend her early childhood thoroughly immersed in scriptural words and images that can now be called up to guide her. Her experience probably falls somewhere between the intense biblical surroundings I experienced and the anemic platitudes many liberal Protestants pass along to their children.
Nancy Ammerman, “Memory verses: Teaching children the Bible,” The Christian Century, April 3, 2007, p. 10
Ammerman asserts that “there is reason to worry about the ability of mainline churches to pass on their traditions,” and I agree with much of her assessment. While our congregation doesn’t have to worry about “teachers [who] rarely ask [children] to memorize anything, lest they be accused of indoctrination,” the level of biblical literacy among most of our adult members reflects years of unsuccessful biblical teaching and learning. Much of what passes as Christian education in many mainline Protestant congregations is little more than liberal white-middle-class values dressed up with God-talk, or in Ammerman’s words, “anemic platitudes.” Conservative white-middle-class values dressed up with God-talk are no alternative to pursue.
We are addressing this issue by reading Scripture in worship regularly, and by using it for prayers and other parts of the liturgy; the children, of course, are absent from most of the worship service (worship steeped in Scripture is of course not an educational program; but worship is ultimately the school of the church. We ought to think about keeping the younger children in the sanctuary at least until after the Scripture readings).
Fortunately, our Children’s Worship is also based on the lectionary readings, and the children are exposed to the Bible there – and there’s Vacation Bible School and camp. It would be worthwhile to add up the hours the average grade-schooler participates in religious education over the course of a year; I suspect it would be closer to 30 hours than to 50 (compare that to the hours spent in front of the TV where the average grade-schooler learns how to be a good consumer).
We can address the issue further by making sure that our Sunday school curriculum is biblically grounded, that classes are being offered year-round for all age groups, and that all children attend those classes.
How could we improve things even more? Not with more or better packaged information.
The Way of the Child is a curriculum based entirely on spiritual formation, i.e. the children don’t learn about God, but rather are given time to be with God, and they learn the disciplines to continue to live in God’s presence. I have been thinking about ways to balance the annual Sunday school curriculum with its informational focus by creating blocks when all children’s classes would meet together for periods of multisensory spiritual formation. Doing this would also have the added benefit of giving the teachers a break, and it would encourage leaders with a calling to that type of formational ministry to offer their gifts.
And there's another option. We had an exceptionally good experience with an intergenerational mission trip to New Orleans; the youngest participants were 7, the oldest 82. We discovered how wonderful it is when we live and pray, work and play together. I wonder if we could develop a biblically based, intergenerational program for spiritual formation, basically following the approach of The Way of the Child, but including youth and adults. It could take the place of our current Wednesday night Vespers prayers; it would build community; it would strengthen biblical literacy (we could even add weekly memory verses); it would give families an opportunity to practice disciplines they could take home. This is something I want to think and talk about some more.