Evaluating Your Sunday School Curriculum

by Dave Matthews
(Article from September 2006 issue of Equip)

Graeme Goldsworthy in his book, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching, has a section on “The Preacher’s Christian Education Program.” He mentions that a manifesto, or creed, for a local church program of adult Christian education (and I would add for all age levels of Christian education) might look something like this:

We believe:

  • That every believer in Jesus Christ is part of the body of Christ.
  • That God calls us to express this fact through fellowship with a local congregation.
  • That God gives to every believer spiritual gifts for the benefit of the body.
  • That God calls every believer to serve by using gifts and talents.
  • That believers need to be equipped for such service through teaching and training.[1]

Part of the church’s responsibility of equipping teachers for a ministry in the church is to provide them with the proper curriculum. While it is a challenge for most church leaders to understand and know how to use curricula, some churches do not even desire to use curricula.

“We don’t need curriculum. We just teach the Bible.” Whether or not it is articulated, this attitude sometimes exists in churches and Christian organizations. However, it usually results in inferior education. Good curriculum is designed to facilitate Bible teaching, not replace it. Therefore, an understanding of what curriculum is and how to choose and use it effectively is essential for Christian education.[2]

A major problem in churches today is choosing a curriculum that is biblically sound and faithful to a correct theological interpretation of Scripture—the redemptive-historical approach. Many churches, independent and denominational, use material that is broadly evangelical and user friendly without discernment of the curriculum’s focus.

There are several factors to consider in choosing Sunday school curriculum. One is the educational philosophy in the curriculum. Every curriculum has a bias toward certain philosophical underpinnings. Is the curriculum based on authoritarian instruction with little participation by the student, or does it adhere to discovery learning that makes the student an active participant in the education process through well laid out interest centers and behavioral objectives for its lessons? Most curricula contain both elements with one being more dominant. Churches need to choose which is more important. Do our teachers have the theological and biblical backgrounds to use more user friendly material, or do we emphasize theology with less user friendly material? While educational philosophy is important, theological considerations are critical. Robert Pazmino in Foundational Issues in Christian Education suggests the following (1) Does the theology of the publisher and curriculum writers agree with the theology of the particular church or ministry? Are theological concepts presented which are appropriate for various age levels and comprehensive in exposure? (2) Does the curriculum affirm the Scriptures as authoritative in the sense embraced by the particular church or community served? Is the whole counsel of the Scripture addressed in the sequence of the curriculum across the age groups? Besides the Scriptures, what other authorities functionally operate in curricular decisions?

It is interesting to look at examples of lessons in some of the more popular Sunday school curricula and compare these with those of Great Commission Publications, one of the few curricula with a redemptive-historical foundation. One popular curriculum on the market for over 50 years, in a series titled “Friends and Enemies, Security, Priorities,” has a life focus of “How to be good friends; security that comes from God; putting God first.” The core worldview questions in the curriculum ask, “How does God’s love and acceptance empower us to demonstrate His love through accepting others and sharing the good news with them?” A sample lesson from this curriculum for Grades 5-6, for the fall of 2005-2006, has a moralistic message. The character study is from I Samuel 18:1-4; 19:2-7, 20; 2 Samuel 1:9, and the teacher is to find ways David and Jonathan showed true friendship, discover reasons why people become friends, understand that God wants true friends to care for and protect each other and identify and plan ways to be true friends.

Great Commission’s lesson on Jonathan and David in the context of a fall curriculum,God Prepares a Kingdom for His, is titled “Rejoicing in God’s Plan.” The Scripture Basis is 1 Samuel 18-23. The Scripture Truth is that Saul’s jealousy and Jonathan’s loyalty to David reveal their attitudes toward God. The Lesson Aims state that by the end of the lesson students should be able to…

  • Compare the ways in which Saul and Jonathan respond to David.
  • Show how attitudes toward God’s anointed reflect attitudes towards God.
  • Assess their attitudes toward Jesus.

The Lesson Summary (summarized) is Saul rebelled against God’s anointed one and tried to kill him. On the other hand, Jonathan’s friendship and loyalty to David displayed his submission to God’s plan, even though it meant he would never be king. As God’s true Anointed One, Jesus came to be our king, to replace us as rulers over our own lives. Whether we are submitting to God’s plan or rebelling against it can be seen in our attitudes to God’s Chosen One, as well.[3]

Much Sunday school literature is moralistic rather than christocentric, the product of attempting to address a common challenge churches have‑-difficulty recruiting enough Sunday school teachers. An easy way to help solve this problem is to find the most colorful, visually appealing, teacher friendly curriculum without a careful analysis of its content. Much of these curricula have non-redemptive messages and is not as Christ-centered as needed, possibly leading the teacher to incorrect interpretation of the text. A problem common to both preachers and teachers is a failure to understand and apply redemptive aspects, and end up preaching or teaching moralism and human-centered messages. Dr. Bryan Chapell addresses this problem in his book, Christ Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon,

“The Menace of the Sunday School” is the title of a rather notorious portion of a book that sadly captures the essence of much evangelical teaching. In an effort to promote moral behavior and deter sin, the stereotypical Sunday school teacher implores children to be good little boys and girls so that Jesus will love them and take care of them. The stereotype is unkind and unfair, but it comes painfully close to characterizing much contemporary preaching that portrays God as a perpetual Santa Claus who is making a list and checking it twice to punish the naughty and reward the nice.[4]

Dr. Chapell states further that, “Messages that are not Christ-centered (i.e., not redemptively focused) inevitably become human-centered, even though the drift most frequently occurs unintentionally among evangelical preachers.”[5] He calls these messages “The Deadly Be’s’—messages that strike at the heart of faith rather than support it often have an identifying theme. They exhort believers to strive to ‘be’ something in order to be loved by God.” Several examples Dr. Chapell gives are “Be Like,” “Be Good,” and “Be Disciplined” messages that focus the attention of listeners on the behavior, accomplishments of a particular biblical character, or exhort believers to improve their relationship with God through more diligent use of the means of grace. The problem often lies not in what preachers (or teachers) say, but in what they fail to say. [6]

Many publishers gear their curriculum to an interdenominational market. Much of what popular publishing houses produce is good—Bible surveys, growing spiritually, Bible discovery techniques, along with several practical suggestions—but does not address the critical importance of correct interpretation. The cause of this interpretation problem, which leads to faulty Sunday school curricula, is lack of a redemptive-historical message as the foundation of the material. As a result, lessons in many curricula stand alone and are not part of the overarching theme of Scripture. Dr. Edmund Clowney says,

“The unifying structure of Scripture is the structure of redemptive history. The Bible does not have the form of a textbook, and the witness to Christ unfolds with the progressive epochs of revelation which in turn are grounded in the successive periods of redemption. Biblical theology recognizes both the unity and the epochal structure of redemptive history. …if we may so speak, we discover that each epoch has a coherent and organic structure and also that there is organic progression from period to period as the plan of God is revealed.”[7]

Many Sunday school teachers have hearts of gold and desire to teach the children, but lack the theological background for understanding the “big picture” of the Bible in its redemptive flow of history. A teacher’s presuppositions applied to a text for interpretation are central for communicating God’s truth. If the interpretation is not correct, the principles and applications will be headed down a wrong road in a nonredemptive context. The Bible is not an assortment of similar parts (verses) which, like pizza, can be dished out at random; rather, each text must be understood in its own historical context and in the light of God’s progressive revelation before it can be proclaimed as God’s authoritative word for contemporary congregations. Dr. Edmond Clowney, in Biblical Theology and the Character of Preaching, says, “Biblical theology, then, seeks to unlock the objective significance of the history of salvation. It focuses on the core of redemptive history in Christ. On the other hand it also opens up for us the subjective aspect, the religious riches of the experience of God’s people, and its relation to our own.”[8] [9] The redemptive-historical approach also helps present what Dr. Chappell refers to as a Fallen Condition Focus. The Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him.[10] Identifying the FCF helps a sermon, or lesson, not to be anthropocentric.

Finally, the curriculum should be gospel-centered. Goldsworthy says, “We cannot begin to expand on such a set of principles (footnote 1) without first acknowledging again the centrality of the gospel. The life and ministry of the local church needs to be self-consciously gospel-centered if it is to maintain any kind of effectiveness for the kingdom of God.”[11] Even if one cannot see Christ directly in a passage, or as a type or allegorical comparison, the fallen condition focus should lead us to the grace we need through Jesus Christ. One of the greatest helps a church can give to its Sunday school teachers is to supply a curriculum that is gospel-driven from a redemptive-historical foundation. There are very few curricula on the market that have such a focus. The curriculum will not only help the students learn about the grace of God, but it will be a great tool to disciple the teacher as they spend time preparing a lesson.

 

 


[1]Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 129.

[2]Robert E. Clark, Lin Johnson, and Allyn K. Sloat, Christian Education: Foundations for the Future (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 495.

[3] Great Commission Show Me JesusThe Junior Teacher’s Manual, “God Prepares a Kingdom for His People,”(Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publication, 1988), 23.

[4] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 297-298.

[5] Chapell, 288-294.

[6] Ibid, 289

[7] Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing), 75.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988 (reprinted 1998)), 72.

[10] Chapell, 50.

[11] Goldsworthy, 129

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