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Is Excellence a Viable Standard for the Sunday School?
Lucien F. Coleman, Jr.
He was a bright, young aerospace engineer from Houston, engaged in fascinating work. "I work with busy people," he was saying as we sipped coffee together at the Glorietta Chuck Wagon, "people who know the value of time. In my profession, nobody would think of coming to a conference unprepared. Nobody would dare waste the time of others with trivial chatter. What we do is too important for that."
He paused. Then he asked a sobering question.
"If the church has important business to accomplish, why are we so sloppy about the way we do it?" Then he spoke of the wasted time, the small talk, the endless rambling, and the poor preparation so typical of Sunday School meetings in his church.
One Sunday Morning
My first impulse was to tell him that he was wrong, to say, "But it isn't like that all the time." Then I remembered the last time I had visited an Adult department while traveling away from home.
On that occasion, the department room had been about half-filled at starting time. The members sat toward the rear of the room, as though to put distance between themselves and whatever was to take place up front. A man hunched over a lectern at the front of the room, silently surveying the scene. Some of the people chatted casually. Most sat in stiff silence.
About seven minutes after the starting bell had rung, the man at the front opened the meeting by asking Mildred to lead the singing. Mildred spent the next two or three minutes naming people who could sing better than she. Finally, after all of he counter-proposals had failed, she ambled toward the front of the room. Flipping through the pages of a hymnal, she settled on "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," because that was a song everyone knew.
After the song had been dragged through three stanzas, the leader grinned and said (as though the crowd had just appeared), "Welcome! Glad you could make it!"
He went on to comment on how bad the weather had been. He said that he thought the attendance was pretty good in view of the weather conditions. Then he apologized for the fact that whoever was supposed to keep the list of people to pray for was absent, and he asked whether or not those present knew of anyone who needed prayer.
Encouraged by a response from a lady in the sixth row, several others described maladies of various kinds as they mentioned persons who needed to be remembered in prayer. After several minutes of requests, the leader called on someone to pray. Someone did. Then came the inevitable announcements, some of them more or less related to Sunday School, some entirely unrelated,
We were thirty minutes into the Sunday School hour when the time came to go to our classes. "Before we go," said the man at the front, "do we have any visitors?" He turned toward a fellow who, presumably, was supposed to have that kind of information. The man got out of his chair and, turning around, surveyed the room. I knew that I had been found out when, pointing a finger in my direction, he asked, "Are you a visitor?" I confessed that I was.
In our classroom, by the time we had done records, discussed the weather some more, taken an offering, and wondered why various members were absent, the hour was mostly gone. The teacher did spend a few minutes leading a discussion on assorted topics, including an occasional reference to the Bible.
Suppose the visitor to that Sunday School department had been, not me, but one of the professional colleagues of that young aerospace engineer. Would he have gained tile impression that Bible study is important business?
Are We Doing Our Best?
This narrative is not an exaggerated caricature. It is a reasonably accurate description of the proceedings on a Sunday morning in a real Sunday School department. Unfortunately, this experience is not an isolated instance. I have witnessed scores of department periods, workers' meetings, and class sessions in other age groups not unlike the scene I described.
We might seek an easy explanation in the fact that most Sunday School workers are not professional teachers but volunteers who do the best they can. There is a measure of truth in this point of view, but the last half of this argument is open to question. Do we, indeed, "do the best we can" in Sunday School work? Or have we learned to be comfortable with mediocrity?
When people discuss the flaws in Bible teaching programs, they frequently cite the need for more trained workers. Although this problem certainly must be considered, training is not the fundamental problem. The basic problem is a widespread failure to strive for excellence.
John Gardner once wrote concerning excellence:
"Our society cannot achieve greatness unless individuals at many levels of ability accept the need for high standards of performance and strive to achieve those standards within the limits possible for them." (1)
Substitute Sunday School for the word society in that quotation, and you have a workable definition of excellence that may be applied to any Bible teaching program.
Notice three important elements in the definition:
First, "individuals at many levels of ability" means that the expectation of excellence need not be limited to the highly educated or the highly experienced. It applies to everyone, no matter where he or she stands on the ability continuum.
Second, "accept the need for high standards" states the condition most essential to the achievement of excellence. Only those who value excellence will achieve it. If teachers and leaders see no need for high standards in their work, you can be sure that they will not attain them.
Third, "strive to achieve those standards within the limits possible for them" suggests that a small church does not have to match the facilities of a large church and that a person of modest education does not have to equal the knowledge of a university professor in order to achieve excellence. One's own abilities and resources determine the boundaries of his quest for excellence.
Plug this concept of excellence into an actual Bible teaching program and an exciting picture is presented of a Sunday School in which every person with responsibility performs like a responsible person.
Excellence in Action
In such a Sunday School, no director will ever wobble through a department period without a well-planned agenda. No song leader will come without preselected songs. No outreach leader will let a visitor enter the room without greeting him immediately. No teacher will substitute selected readings from the quarterly for real preparation. No member will settle for a postcard contact when a face-to-face visit is needed.
Contrary to some assumptions, competence is not the primary ingredient of excellence. No one would deny the importance of ability, knowledge, and experience.
But a competent person may be just as slovenly in performance as an incompetent one. The great enemies of excellence are indifference and sheer laziness. Given a limited amount of ability, the important factors in the achievement of excellence are time and energy. Excellence rests upon the willingness of workers to lavish these precious commodities upon the task at hand. Wherever time and energy are given fully by every worker in the Sunday School, God will be glorified and the ministry of teaching and reaching strengthened.
Dr. Coleman is associate professor of religious education, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.