Reprinted from Adult Leadership, August, 1980;
copyright 1980 by The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
It was just a casual comment. But, like a smoldering match flipped into gasoline-soaked rags, it produced an instantaneous explosion. I was standing in a church foyer with a deacon, talking about Adult Sunday School work. "I can't understand," I said, "why a progressive church like this doesn't have its Adult Sunday School work departmentized." Well, that really brought a quick response. He informed me that his church had done away with adult departments eight years earlier, and that it had been one of the greatest steps they had ever taken.
"Getting rid of those long, drawn-out opening exercises was one of the most progressive things we've done around here," he said. "No one wants to go back to the old pattern now." I didn't have the heart to tell him that the adult class organization, not the department organization, is the old pattern.
The First Baptist Church of Syracuse, New York, is generally thought of as the birthplace of the adult Bible class movement. Marshall A. Hudson organized a men's Bible class there on October 20, 1890. That event touched off the "Baraca-Philathea" movement, which saw thousands of Bible classes for men and women spring up all over this land and in other countries. These adult classes expanded in size as they grew in number. Marked by a high degree of enthusiasm and group spirit, they adopted class songs, had special class handshakes, andbelieve it or notdeveloped distinctive class yells. They handed out class calling cards, put up publicity posters, and advertised class meetings in newspapers. To their great credit, they were serious about evangelism and Bible study.
But problems developed. In many instances, the enthusiasm of these Bible classes was matched by their fiercely independent attitudes. To many members, the Bible class was more significant than the church itself. The central problem was the inability of churches to control large, influential Bible classes. Such classes typically chose their own teachers, selected their meeting places, and determined their own courses of study. Rather than undergird churchwide outreach efforts, they often competed with one another for prospects.
As the adult class movement came of age, many classes became inefficient in outreach and ineffective in teaching. They often became overburdened with absentees. Entertainment and shallow inspirational features were often substituted for real Bible teaching.
Then, in the mid-1920s, Southern Baptists came up with an idea that was destined to revolutionize Adult Sunday School work. In 1925, Arthur Flake's textbook Young People's and Adult Departments displaced the older Building the Bible Class as the official text in the Convention Normal Course for Sunday School workers. This event symbolized the beginning of a new era of growth and organization-the era of the adult department organization.
As more and more churches departmentized their adult classes, definite improvements took place. Men and women were more carefully grouped according to age, and distribution of responsibility for prospects became more orderly and equitable. Correlation of adult curriculum materials within each church opened the door to joint planning and teaching improvement activities among adult teachers. Most important, adult Bible study became an integral part of the church's ministry.
Unfortunately, the best of ideas become corrupted through misuse. Through the years adult departments have often been infected by poor planning, poor organization, and poor training of leaders. In many Sunday Schools, the "opening exercises" (as they are still called by some) have become wastelands of idle chatter, insipid devotionalizing, and assorted trivia. As Gaines S. Dobbins once observed, such "opening exercises ... neither open anything nor exercise anybody."
Even changing the name of this session to "department period" has not solved the problem. It is not uncommon for department directors to hold forth for more than half the total time allotted for Bible study, as teachers sit helplessly watching their lesson plans crumble away. Little wonder that the deacon mentioned earlier was delighted to be rid of "those drawn-out opening exercises."
The idea of chucking department organization and reverting to the old organized class scheme admittedly holds an attraction for those who want to do things the easy way. But before we agree to plunge headlong, to embrace the nineteenth-century approach to adult work, let us take a clear look at some of the key issues.
An adult department is not an assembly period of a specified length. An adult department is a functional unit consisting of two or more adult classes working together under the leadership of a department director and other department officers. The genius of the department plan is that space, time, materials, and other resources may be used in a variety of ways to complement, rather than interfere with, the Bible teaching program. When an adult department is operated properly, teachers and department leaders plan together in such matters as department periods.
Departmentized adult work offers some solid advantages over the independent Bible class approach. Let's look at some of them:
1. A sound administrative principle.A properly functioning Sunday School is not an assortment of independent classes. It is the church exercising its God-given teaching function. The church should elect leaders, control curriculums, and maintain the quality of teaching. A departmentized Sunday School is virtually the only way for a church to maintain control of the Bible study program. Pastors, ministers of education, and general directors simply cannot maintain weekly communication with a multiplicity of separate classes. But they can stay in touch with a relatively small number of department directors.
2. Greater flexibility.A department structure opens up the possibility of alternating between large-group and small-group activities. As teachers and department leaders plan together for each week's Bible study hour, they might decide on one week to keep the whole department together for a group learning experience, on another to let members go directly to their classes, and on yet another Sunday to have a fifteen-minute department period and forty-five-minute class session. On the other hand, if a church provides only for separate adult classes, large group activities are not a viable option.
The department pattern also provides flexibility in grouping adults. Most churches experience fluctuations in enrollment and attendance that make it desirable to reorganize units from time to time. For example, when an adult class grows from sixteen to forty-eight members within a year, it often becomes necessary to subdivide the class. In such a situation, it is not uncommon to hear some members complain about being kicked out of their class. But where a new class can be created within the same department, such problems are minimized, since members of the new unit may maintain their identity with the group as a whole.
3. Successful outreach.Bible study is not the only function of the Sunday school. The Sunday School also is the most vital outreach agency of the church. A successful outreach program involves regular distribution of prospect assignments, regular follow-up reports on prospect visits, assimilation of new members into Bible study groups, and continual promotion of the outreach program. All of these functions can be performed more effectively through departments than through independent classes.
4. A feeling of unity.As churches grow, they experience more difficulty in keeping their members related to one another. When adult classes meet in isolation from one another, they do little to foster fellowship and unity among adult members. But when two, four, or six classes are brought into continuing relationship with one another, especially in the planning of social occasions, more face-to-face contact is provided.
5. A broader leadership base.It is true that department organization requires more leaders, but one characteristic of churches with outstanding records of ministry and service is a broad leadership base. Generally speaking, a key to a church's vitality is the number of people involved in leadership roles. Departmentized Sunday Schools provide a continuing laboratory for the development of leaders.
Dr. Coleman is professor of religious education, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.