How Sunday School Created a Theologically Illiterate Society

Posted on December 10th, 2012

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.

There are a few reasons:

1. 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.)

2. 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.

3. The easiest commonality was to teach Bible stories. So that’s where the focus went.

Some disclaimers: 

Please hear these before any angry comments!

1. 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.

2. 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).

3. 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.

Some suggestions for change:

1. 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. 

2. 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.)

3. 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.

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!

Resources for Re-gaining Theological Literacy

When Martin Luther realized how theologically illiterate were the masses around him, he created a catechism. It was a short summary of the faith in question and answer form, with the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, and Lord’s Prayer as its fixtures.

Lutherans, if you don’t have it, go get Luther’s catechism and start using it and teaching it. Presbyterians, go get the Westminster Catechism. Dutch Reformed, grab a Heidelberg Catechism. Non-creedal, Bible-only, independent churches… oh wait. (Again, I jest.) Wesleyans, take a look at the resource some friends and I have developed and published with Asbury Seedbed. It’s called “Echo: A Catechism for Discipleship in the Ancient Christian Tradition.” I think you’ll like it.


For more resource recommendations, see the author's follow-up article: “A Crash Course in Theology," on his blog, www.TeddyRay.com

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