As I mentioned in my last post, I’m worried about the over-emphasis in our culture on experience at the expense of deep, hard thinking about the things of God. If we’re going to sustain the faith in all its enduring wonder and vibrancy into the next generation, then we must produce a generation of thinking Christians, steeped in ancient Christian wisdom.
Yet I have another concern about a behavior I feel characterizes not just the egg-heads in our churches—those Sunday school teachers who like to pore over theology and apologetics blogs. It’s also seen throughout churches in Sunday school classes all over the country. And that’s the lack of engagement and application.
What I’m calling engagement and application here is intimately tied to this connection between wisdom and knowledge. If knowledge is reduced simply to bare facts that do not engage the people we’re teaching, and if those facts have no impact on the everyday lives of the people we are teaching, then we might as well stop trying to teach.
The way the Bible talks about teaching godly wisdom and knowledge ties them together. It’s holistic. Presenting bare facts with little or no application is to leave the Biblical knowledge-wisdom circle incomplete.
If we don’t actively engage our students in thinking about the material we’re teaching, and then help them to apply the teaching to their everyday lives on Monday through Saturday, then we have an incomplete circle. We have knowledge with no wisdom. We have intellect with no emotions and no will. And this is an unbiblical approach to Christian education.
My urging to engage students is not new. It’s ancient. It goes all the way back to the Bible. It’s so ancient to engage students by questioning them and drawing out their assumptions and learning where they are and challenging them to go someplace else that it’s sometimes called the Socratic method, after the Greek philosopher Socrates.
Socrates didn’t allow his students to get off easy. He asked them tough questions. He engaged them. He found out what was on their minds. He found out what knowledge base they already had and built bridges from their current knowledge base to the knowledge base he wanted them to master.
This is not an essay on teaching methods, but I would love to recommend a wonderful old book that has been in print since the late 1800s. Many of you will recognize it as an old standard. It’s called The Seven Laws of Teaching. I like it because it in part was written by a college president and ordained Christian minister, Dr. John Milton Gregory, who founded the University of Illinois. Dr. Gregory wrote this little book as a general primer on teaching, but it eventually became especially useful for Sunday school teachers. Dr. Gregory was concerned that we engage our students with useful methods that enhance their learning of the content we’re teaching them.
I don’t want you to think I’m beating up on lecturing, let alone proclamation—far from it! I am urging you to use Sunday school and other Bible/theological study opportunities to engage your students to dig deeper. But let me emphasize that if we do less lecturing and more questioning, only to descend in to the “What does this mean to you?” routine, we’ll be wasting our time.
The point of engaging and questioning and probing our students is to teach them, to move them from their knowledge base to the knowledge base we want them to master, with the ultimate goal of changing their worldview and behavior. Just sitting around in a circle talking about what we already feel about a subject isn’t going to accomplish this.
Now, this whole issue of engaging our students is necessarily going to involve their preparing before they come to class. This is why curriculum publishers have magazines and booklets for students to take home. It’s time we re-incentivized students’ taking their books home and reading and studying their lessons during the week. After all, we call it Sunday School, not Sunday Fun Time. Schooling is ineffective without out-of-class preparation. So It’s imperative that we find ways, that we create a culture, that we give incentives for people to take their books home and prepare for next week’s lesson.
And the earlier in a person’s life we do this, the more the habit is going to take hold. To reiterate, we need to re-emphasize, for all age groups, the importance of preparation—because it’s hard to engage a student on Sunday morning when he hasn’t thought about the material since the week before.
I’m not Keith Kenemer nor the son of Keith Kenemer, but I’ve got to agree with him that, in letting some of those old Sunday school record keeping systems go by the wayside in our rush to modernize, we’ve abandoned a good method for emphasizing student engagement, not just on Sunday morning, but throughout the week. And, let me repeat, the more students engage in the material throughout the week, the more you will be able to engage them in class.
But, while I’m riding hobby horses, let me add just one more thing. We’ve got to wed exposition and application, theory and practice. So many Sunday school teachers take the easy way out and disregard application, maybe because they think it’s easier just to dispense facts. Other Sunday school teachers skip to the application without a thorough grounding in context and knowledge and truth, maybe because they think it’s easier to talk about the familiar and the experiential.
I fear that many churches are filled with Sunday school teachers who love to be at one extreme or the other—either dispensing facts for an hour and then having prayer, or reading the text and cutting straight to the “What does this mean to you?” question.
The Biblical balance is to root practical application in the solid exposition of the principles of Scripture. This wedding of wisdom and knowledge can’t be done in a shallow way. So I would challenge people from both extremes. Let’s bring together solid content from Scripture with practical application to our students’ daily lives. Let’s put knowledge and wisdom back together again.
We need to be serious about imparting godly wisdom and knowledge, and we still need to see that as being at the heart of Christian education ministry in the twenty-first century.