Friday, May 31, 2013

How Not to Do Sunday School (or, Come on Guys, What Are We Doing?)

For a long time now, I've been terribly frustrated by the way that we—and here I mean "we" as in the American (mostly evangelical) church—do Sunday School.

I should clarify for those readers not familiar with this uniquely American (though it didn't start here) institution: "Sunday School" is a generic term for some sort of religious instruction that takes place at a church on Sunday, since that is the day most Christian churches hold their regular services. At least, that is about the best one can hope for from a dictionary definition. The reality is actually much sadder. Typically, Sunday School amounts to anything that goes on in a church building on a Sunday that takes place in something resembling a classroom. It is more or less a blanket term for whatever happens regularly but isn't part of the main service of a church. That whole "religious instruction" bit is optional at this point.

You can probably see where this is going.

There is a glaring double standard that pervades the way most churches do Sunday School. At least, this is the case in probably every instance I've personally encounteredexperience that spans at least three major theological traditions—and from what I can tell from the testimony of others, it is probably ubiquitous, at least among the more evangelical traditions.

The double standard is this: the expectations that we have for our religious or spiritual instruction are very different from the expectations that we have for our instruction in nearly every other area of life, whether professional or civic or artistic or even recreational. That is, they are much lower.

Think about it: consider the level of education or training that you would accept as making someone an authority (enough to teach) in any of the areas I just mentioned. What sort of qualification, for example, do you require of someone in your own discipline? If you're a stockbroker, what would it take for someone to come into your workplace and give a seminar, and for you to sit and listen attentively to that person, engage her in discussion, get clarity on finer points, etc.? If you're a medical doctor, what do you require of someone who proposes to instruct you on developments in medicine? If you're an academic, what level of education do you require of someone in some area before you're willing to accept their position on some issue as reasonable and worthy of critical attention? If you're a mechanic, how much automotive knowledge do you expect in your colleagues? Or even in non-professional areas: what level of training would you expect of a teacher if you wanted to take up a new hobby, or learn a new sport or musical instrument? And this goes for our expectations of people in fields other than our own as well: we go to the doctors/mechanics/stockbrokers/professors/whatever who have the best training, most experience, and best professional reputation.

So whyWHY—do we accept instruction in our religious traditions, our spiritual lives, and our sacred texts from people with no formal training and no special expertise or experience in those areas?

Seriously. Why?

It's like when we expanded Sunday School to include adults, we neglected to raise the level of instruction. We seem to forget that the people in these classrooms are mature, thinking adults, many of them professionals with high levels of competency in complex and technical fields, many of them well-read and erudite in areas other than Christianity. Isn't it odd that we "teach" them like they can barely read the Bible in front of them? Isn't it a little offensive?

If I walked into your place of work and offered to teach you about whatever it is you do without presenting evidence of any kind of qualification, would you take me seriously? Do the people in your workplace typically rotate who plays the role of supervisor on a given day? No? But this is exactly what happens in most churches when it comes to teaching the Bible and what it means to live a Christian life. And if we really believe the basic claims of our shared faith—such as that the truths in our book are the most important truths in the universe—isn't our situation even worse, even stranger than the hypothetical situations I've given?

So I ask again: why do we do this?

Well (surprise, surprise), I have a theory. I think it's because we assume that spiritual subjects—and especially study of the Bible—are equally accessible to everybody, and require no special experience for mastery. At least, this is the only way I can think of to make sense of the way we run our Sunday School classes. How else could we justify the presumed ability of almost anyone who has been in church a sufficient amount of time to teach such classes?

But why think this? What makes the spiritual disciplines different from other disciplines? Where do we get this assumption? We certainly don't get it from the Bible itself.1 Nor do we get it from church history. In both, we find teachers consistently held to a high standard, and education and training highly valued.

I suspect that this assumption comes from a misapplication of an idea that dates back at least to the Protestant Reformation: the idea that all Christians have equal access to God, without the need for a mediator (other than Christ), an idea generally referred to as the "priesthood of all believers," since it is an implicit rejection of Catholic hierarchy. But this is a doctrine meant to affirm that in Christian practices related to one's relationship to Godsuch as worship, communion, confession, baptism, etc.—we don't need a class above the average Christian for administration. In other words, it is a rejection of any essential difference between the laity and the clergy. But of course nothing in this idea implies that just anyone is qualified to teach the truths of our faith or how we should interpret scripture.

To paraphrase one of my favorite biblical scholars, Gordon Fee (co-author of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, which I highly recommend), we understand that if we can't read the original biblical languages, we are dependent on those who can (the translators). But we often fail to realize that we are equally dependent on others for interpreting it, or learning how to read it (i.e. biblical scholars, textual critics, etc.). And we should, I would think, expect no less expertise from the latter as we do from the former.

Of course, there are exceptions to this lazy, thoughtless way of doing Sunday School. For example, philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig teaches a Sunday School class at his church in basically the same way he would teach an introductory seminary course.2 He expects that those who choose to take it will be intelligent, competent adults who want to actually grapple with the deeper elements of their faith and be challenged to learn its nuances and its difficulties, rather than come together for a weekly agree-with-each-other session. Sadly, however, classes like this are still the rare exception. More often, congregants are given a selection that sounds more like a listing of high school social cliques than anything resembling an educational system: "singles," "married," "youth," "college-age," "men," "women," etc. Even when the classes are grouped topically, it's rare that any formal qualification is required of the teacher. And subjects that might be considered "academic," but that would actually be beneficial—such as church doctrine, church history, theology, hermeneutics, or even informed Christian social engagementare rarely offered at all.

So if what I've described here sounds a little too familiar, I encourage you to bring it up at your next Sunday School class. I know that has potential to be a stressful conversation, but shouldn't we be holding ourselves to a higher standard? Isn't our faith at least as important as our jobs or hobbies? Shouldn't we take it at least as seriously?

Come on, guys.

1 See, for example, passages like 1 Cor. 14:20, Hebrews 5:12-14, and James 3:1.

2 His class is available on podcast here.