by James E. Plueddemann
The worst insult one can give any institution is to call it irrelevant. I have been asked by educational experts, “What are you doing to keep Sunday school from being irrelevant?”
The worst insult one can give any institution is to call it irrelevant. I have been asked by educational experts, "What are you doing to keep Sunday school from being irrelevant?"
Even in Nigeria, where the Sunday school is somewhat new, it is already in trouble. Many times I have visited a church where Sunday school is less than a year old. It may have begun after a Sunday school conference. The pastor and several men of the church are excited about the possibilities of Sunday school. But a year later when I visit the Sunday school, it is almost dead. There are only one or two teachers. The adult class is the first to die. The children sing the same songs they learned a year ago during the Sunday school course. The teacher is tired of spending so many hours outlining the Sunday school lesson. So he now stands up and reads from the manual in a monotone voice. I watch the children fidget. Babies on the backs of the older children begin to cry. Then the children are forced to memorize a Scripture verse. After the closing song they dash outside for a few minutes of fun before the church service begins. The down hill trend is broken when the superintendent gives a threatening speech of "encouragement." Parents feel guilty enough to force their children to go to Sunday school, but they don’t feel guilty enough to come themselves.
Sometimes a missionary will try to help. The missionary might suggest a contest. He donates a Bible and makes a colorful poster showing a map of "The Road to Success." "Come to Sunday School and Be A Success" shouts the poster. Since most adults already have a Bible, the contest is only good for attracting children. Children love contests so they come by the hundreds. The contest is a great success! But is it? Two weeks later the Sunday school is down to one class with a boring teacher and a small class of bored children.
What is the real disease of our Sunday schools? The Sunday school manuals are better than ever. The Sunday school teachers have a higher level of education than ever. The organization of our Sunday school is more sophisticated than ever. The disease is irrelevance. "Why should I go to Sunday school?" "What good does it do me?" Sunday school is irrelevant.
Yet Sunday school is worth saving. Latest figures from the Tengale/Waje district alone show that 65 percent of those in the Sunday morning service are also in Sunday school. There are an estimated 10,000 in Sunday school every Sunday in this district alone. It consists of 350 churches scattered throughout northeastern Nigeria.
If the church is to fulfill the mandate to "Go and…teach," then we must consider ways whereby the Sunday school can become more relevant.
THE RAIL FENCE ANALOGY
The rail fence analogy is explained in a book written by Ted Ward of Learning Systems Institute, Michigan Stale University, and Samuel Rowen of Missionary Internship. The book emphasizes three factors in programming a good educational experience: (a) increasing use of field experience; (b) more variety in approach as to cognitive learning; and (c) greater articulation between field experience and cognitive learning. The relationship between the three factors can be illustrated by a rail fence. The top rail represents the learning of facts (cognitive input). The lower rail represents the field experience. The fence posts represent the seminars where facts and experience can be related.
In the training for any profession there is a need for a basic knowledge. While a good doctor must learn more than mere facts about medicine, he must know many facts. Likewise, in Sunday school we are not merely concerned with the learning of facts about the Bible. But surely we cannot expect our pupils to obey God until they know and understand God’s Word. "A curriculum that overemphasizes cognitive input is likely to be characterized by high drop-out rates and frequent student complaints about irrelevancy."2 Doesn’t this sound like the problem we have with our Sunday schools? Nevertheless, we need to explore more effective methods of teaching facts.
"Getting experience `where the action is’ seems to be one useful answer for the demand that education be relevant."3
Writers in Christian education have long been striving for life-related curricula and for pupil-centered teaching. But have we considered the concept that we are training our pupils to be "professionals" – professional Christians? Is specific life-related experience planned into the curricula of our Sunday schools, like internship is planned into the curriculum of a doctor? No, it isn’t.
There are many teachers who do everything in their power to make their teaching life-related. The materials of many publishing houses do much to make the lessons life-related. Then why is it seemingly so difficult for Sunday school to be relevant?
"If a student is to make a solid connection betweeen cognitive input and his field experiences, he needs someone to talk to – preferably someone who is learning along with him. Perhaps it isn’t quite a matter of magic, but something exciting happens when learners get together to put into words how new information relates to their doing an effective job."4 The seminar is a time for evaluating. It is a time to see how new information has been useful to other learners. It is a time when a learner may find gaps in his learning; a time when he may discover misapplications between theory and practice.
One time Jesus sent out 70 disciples into nearby villages. First Jesus taught them what to do – information. Then he sent them out for field experience. Luke 10:17 tells what happened when the disciples returned. "With joy the seventy returned and said, Lord, even the demons are subjected to us in your name." Imagine their excitement! The seminar was the high point in their learning experience.
What is a seminar? "The hallmarks of a good seminar are the occasions and stimulations to reflect upon and evaluate learnings from both the cognitive input and from the field experience, with a premium on relating the two."5 Do we want facts to be related to experience, and do we want experience to be related to facts? We need to have time when the learners themselves can meet for a seminar.
DOES THIS ANALOGY FIT THE SUNDAY SCHOOL?
The rail fence analogy could apply to any age group, but let’s look into Mr. Audu’s Secondary School Class. The Secondary School is on holiday.
"Good morning, class. You remember that last week we made specific suggestions about how we could follow the example of Ezra. We all decided that we would read the Bible every day. Yohanna, you mentioned a problem you might have with your father. He would not want you to waste time reading the Bible. He would want you to work."
"Yes, Malam Audu," said Yohanna, "I did have a problem. I got up early each morning and tried to read the Bible, but father wanted me to help him with the farm work. So as soon as it got light, I went to the farm. I didn’t have time to read the Bible."
"Samuila," Milam Audu called, "Didn’t your father feel the same way about your wasting time reading the Bible? How did you do?"
"Yes, my father wanted me to work on the farm as soon as it got light, but I took a pocket Testament with me. When it came time to rest, I took out the Testament and read. Never has God’s word been such a blessing to me."
"Is there anyone else who had a good or bad experience in reading your Bible?"
The class continued to discuss, evaluate, and encourage each other in how they could read the Bible. Do you think Malam Audu needed to have a contest to get the Secondary School boys interested in coming to Sunday school? No, Sunday school was relevant in their needs. ®n one Sunday Malam Audu discussed how the information of last week was useful to the field experience of the week. Then Malam Audu gave more teaching from the Bible. He required the students to study the Bible on their own. Malam Audu clarified the information. Then they discussed the information in relation to the field experiences of the coming week.
Sunday school is an ideal agency for putting into practice the analogy of the rail fence. But what changes would need to be made?
1. There would be the need for more time. The teacher has more to do than impart new knowledge. He is also concerned about how the knowledge is related to experiences. Much time could be saved if there were no opening or closing exercises. Too often the opening and closing exercises are irrelevant gimmicks.
2. The class would open with a review, not merely a review of last week’s information, but a review of the week’s experiences in relation to past information.
3. The Sunday school curriculum could encourage the learning of facts before the pupil comes to class. This could be done through outside assignments with workbooks or programmed instruction text books. It would not be difficult if the assignment were interesting.
4. The role of the teacher would be modified. No longer would the teacher be considered as a mere machine for teaching facts. The teacher would help teach facts, but the teacher would mainly be concerned with relating the facts to life through seminar.
5. Classes by necessity would be smaller. When the lecture method is used, there is little motivation to have a small class.
6. The teacher would be forced to learn the needs of his pupils. A teacher couldn’t help but discover the needs of his pupils if he conducted a seminar.
There might be problems in training our teachers how to conduct a seminar experience, but this would not be too difficult. The rewards of having a relevant Sunday school would be great. It is hard to imagine the excitement this would generate in the Sunday school classes.
The Sunday school rooms would be bursting at the seams. The problems of adequate space would be great. The church would grow and multiply. Christian fellowship would be genuine. Worship would be "in Spirit and in truth." Evangelism would be a natural function of the church. We would; have a revitalized, relevant Sunday school.
1. The Rail Fence: An Analogy for the Education of Professionals (Holt, Mich.: Associates of Urbanus, 1970).
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