On the Seriousness of Sunday School for All Ages

Americana_Wedding_The_Preacher_(138526524)The American philosopher Mortimer Adler says that we make a deep mistake when we identify education with formal schooling, and particularly with childhood.1 Adler argues that adults are actually more educable than children, and even more so if childhood education was done well:

I think the source of the error lies in a fundamental confusion … of bodily growth with mental growth. Now there’s no question that our bodies grow very rapidly when we are very young and that we physically cease to grow when we have reached the ages of sixteen or eighteen. But short of pathological senility, the mind can grow beyond that point. . . . It retains that power of growth as long as our bodies remain healthy. . . . [W]hen we are immature, we are simply too young to learn some of the most important things that every human being must come to know. . . . Now what is it that every school student doesn’t know, especially at the moment of graduation? It is how little he knows and how much he has to learn.2

I am concerned about education broadly, particularly about those disciplines in the humanities that are being de-emphasized in the name of allegedly more practical, scientific fields. Here, however, I want to point out that if Adler is correct, his position bears strongly on what the church thinks about Sunday school. I think Adler is right, at least because I have learned a number of important things which I was previously too young to learn. Perhaps in many churches, we take the adult Bible education less seriously than we do the Bible education for the young. In what ways might this fault become evident? Here are three:

We may easily assume that since adults are more capable of having an intellectual discussion on their own, kids’ teachers are the ones who must work hard to “teach”. On this view, the adults’ teacher needs less focus and preparation. This is not true. Only an experienced, knowledgeable teacher is in a position to deal with the (better) questions the adults have. He probably does not need to prepare craft project or snacks, but he may need to study for a longer time, prepare a PowerPoint or a handout of several pages.

We may easily assume that the young people need a structured curriculum that helps them get a clear understanding of a set range of texts and topics, whereas the adults are just as well off hearing “whatever we can come up with.” This is not true. Adults are the parents and grandparents who are supposed to be doing the vast majority of the teaching of the young people to start with. The adults need the systematic education, especially when a growing number of them never got it when they were young. Adults will know better than children when a class has been poorly prepared, and will take the class with about as much gravity as it deserves.

We may easily assume that adults do not need to be trained as Bible class teachers, on the basis that the preacher always handles the adult class. This is not true, for several reasons: (1) The preacher is not going to be there for every class period. (2) A plurality of small classes may be more effective than one combined class, and the preacher cannot teach more than one. (3) Elders must be capable of teaching.3 If the men of the congregation are not actively learning to teach, how will they become qualified as elders?4


  1. How to Think About the Great Ideas (Chicago: Open Court, 2000), 184-185. 

  2. Ibid., 187. 

  3. 1 Timothy 3:2. 

  4. I understand that elders may teach privately, but (1) many Bible classes are, for all practical purposes, private Bible studies; and (2) elders add a helpful dimension of leadership when they are able to teach the public classes. 

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- 2017