Most Americans are Biblically illiterate.
There was a time in our history when most Americans, regardless of their religious affiliations, knew the outline of the Bible, along with its “greatest hits.” Average citizens understood literature that included biblical allusions, and could quote lyrical passages from the Shepherd’s Psalm and the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible was once regarded as a cornerstone of Western Civilization, and no person considered himself educated if he hadn’t digested its contents.
As post-modernism took over the academy, the Bible was tossed aside as an irrelevant relic of primitive societies. Not only did our culture jettison a great work of literature, it also lost the fount of ethical teaching that had transformed the barbarian world.
Christians in America rejected the Bible’s expulsion. They retained a reverence for the Scriptures, yet sadly, many churches adopted contemporary approaches to education. Post-modern teaching methods that featured flux, flow and fragmentation replaced traditional content mastery. The result?
Most Christians are Biblically illiterate.
People who grew up in the church didn’t choose this outcome. They attended services and youth group events and Sunday school. They were often bright, attentive and serious about pursuing their faith.
Yet modern Christian education failed them. It presented a grab bag of disjointed Bible stories, occurring in a timeless netherworld in a “far away land.” Narnia and Nazareth blurred in their minds. No teacher expected them to retain or recite—because really, nothing of substance was ever taught. There was always a nice take-away moral like, “Be loving,” or “Trust in God,” however, the nature of this God, and the quality of His love were glossed over. The Christian faith was presented as kind-of, sort-of true—as long as you didn’t inspect it too closely.
Biblical Illiteracy has dire consequences
Predictably, many young people who craved solid food but were given only pabulum lost their appetite for serious Biblical study. Some concluded that there must not be much to Christianity, since none of their teachers could offer them anything that engaged their minds. They settled for a “little Christianity,” with a tiny, manageable God who could be placed on a shelf next to their X-Box and taken down for weddings, funerals and job hunts.
The majority of young people who grew up in the church, however, have abandoned the faith entirely. Millennials, who crave authenticity, find very little of it in churches that claim to esteem the Bible above all things, but never bother to teach it seriously.
What do you imagine is in store for a society where even the children of the remnant reject Biblical truth? Read the newspaper.
The good news is that this trend can be reversed!
All is not lost. The Bible reminds us that there can be rebirth and renewal in society when people rediscover the Scriptures. King Josiah led a renaissance during a very bleak period in Judah’s history when his priest Hilkiah uncovered the Book of the Law. We can introduce the Scriptures to our children, and re-introduce the Scriptures to their parents. But we cannot use the pedagogy that created the problems in the first place. We need to look back to a method of teaching that entices the intellect, stokes curiosity, and lays a deep foundation. We need to rediscover the Classical Method.
The Classical Method described
The Classical Method divides a child’s learning adventure into three stages: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, referred to collectively as the Trivium. During the grammar (or data) stage, a child’s mind is like a thirsty sponge, absorbing information wherever it can. Kids in this stage memorize easily and are insatiably curious. In the dialectic state, a child begins to synthesize the data he’s accumulated, connecting the dots and trying to understand how all of his stored information fits together. In the rhetoric stage, a young person begins to use his data-laden framework of the world to try to persuade and influence.
The three stages don’t have sharp dividing lines, and there are elements of each of the stages that occur simultaneously throughout life. The Classical Method of education has been the gold standard for millennia, producing the great minds of the Western intellectual tradition. As modern educators have recoiled from the rigors of the Classical Method, modern students have suffered.
Clearly, this style of education is built on a foundation of data. Names, dates, locations, lists, descriptions. The more data a mind stores, the more dots it can connect, the more persuasive it can become. The broader the base, the taller the building.
This Sunday School Curriculum is designed using the Classical Method
Our curriculum is designed according to the Classical Method, for use in the grammar stage—typically with kids 4-11 or 12 years old. It contains data, and lots of it. There are maps, timelines, genealogies, memory passages, lists of kings and covenants and more.
But please remember: we present all this information not to puff up, or to show off. The vast amount of data is introduced so that when our students reach the rhetoric stage, their sweet minds will have information to massage and assemble. If a kid reaches the rhetoric stage, where his mind is longing to put pieces together to make sense of the world, and he finds that he’s missing lots of pieces, he gets frustrated. And surly. And rude. We don’t want frustrated, surly, rude teenagers, now do we?
Owning a broad base of data equips a child for the daunting task of making sense of the world, and eventually making his mark in it. Such knowledge also prevents a young person from falling prey to harmful fads and destructive ideologies. It’s not so easy to dupe a kid who is armed with facts.
The design of this curriculum
The Classical Method employs cycled repetition. This means exposing a child to the same material several times, with ever deepening comprehension, throughout the course of his education.
Classical Sunday School is composed of twelve cycles, with twelve lessons in each cycle. The odd-numbered cycles each begin with Genesis and end in the Minor Prophets, highlighting different events in each cycle, spanning the entire Old Testament every twelve weeks. Similarly, the even-numbered cycles each begin in the Gospels and end near Revelation, highlighting different events each cycle, spanning the entire New Testament every twelve weeks. A church or home could easily master four cycles in a year, thus completing all the course material in three years. That means an individual child in this program would be taught all this material at least twice in his childhood, and would have taken a tour of the whole Bible twelve times.
The backbone of Classical Sunday School is a poem of the Bible’s timeline set to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” (We use familiar, catchy tunes to drill a lot of our data.) The timeline song takes you from Genesis to Revelation, listing the major events and personalities, and providing “hooks” upon which new information may be hung. The timeline song is repeated weekly, while new data is introduced and placed on those hooks.
The components of the curriculum
The data introduced each week falls into the following categories:
In the classroom
A Classical Sunday School teacher will introduce all of the week’s grammar in a single class. This will include the Bible timeline song, mapwork, a timeline, a hymn, some Hebrew (in the odd-numbered cycles) or Greek (in the even-numbered cycles), part of a memory passage, and a Bible fact song.
Additionally, the teacher will recount a story from the Bible. The teacher might read the story directly from the Scriptures, or may tell the story in his own words, or use an excellent resource that is true to the text. The teacher’s creativity and love of the Scriptures will be on display here. This curriculum does not give the teacher a “script” to follow in teaching this lesson, but simply assigns the topic. [A teacher who cannot present a Bible story without a script should probably not be teaching this (or any?) Sunday school class.]
Parents are encouraged to be a part of the class! This aids the teacher in keeping the class focused, and also gives parents a preview of the work to be reviewed during the week. And any parent who might have suffered from a post-modern style of content-free education can learn this information right alongside his child. It’s never too late to learn!
This curriculum is designed to be drilled at home.
In the Classical Method, students are expected to memorize the data presented in the grammar stage. While glancing at the information won’t harm a child, he won’t fully benefit from the exposure unless his “owns” the data. When a mind can quickly retrieve facts, it can more deftly assemble arguments. But memorization won’t occur unless drilling takes place at home.
Drilling the week’s material should take only 10-15 minutes a day, and it’s best to do it at the same time each day—during breakfast or right before bed perhaps. You’ll be amazed by how much your kids (and you!) will retain with simple daily drilling. We provide small, breezy drill books that make reviewing the material easy.
There are parents who might think, “I just don’t have time to teach the Bible to my children everyday.” Our reply is, “You have time for whatever you think is important.” If you agree that it's important to introduce your children to God's loving revelation to mankind-- the bedrock of Western Civilization and the ultimate standard of ethical behavior-- then you’ll find the time to drill. If I check Facebook everyday because it’s important to me, I better find time to teach my kids the Bible.
This Teacher's Manual and a Bible are the only books a teacher will need to teach this three-year course. When the course cycles are completed, it’s time to begin again. Consider the efficiency: once a church purchases a curriculum guide for each classroom, it will never need to invest in any more teaching materials. Ever. No monthly packets to distribute, no recurring billing, no forests-full of consumables to process.
For the course to be really effective, each family enrolled in the class should have a drill book for use at home. One drill book covers two whole cycles; no matter how many kids are in the family, or what grade they're in, one drill book is all a family would need for those two cycles. These drill books are priced very modestly to ensure that churches will provide them for the families involved. They can be reused every three years.
Kids will need paper and pencils or crayons for drawing maps, timelines and Hebrew and Greek letters, and the teacher should have a white board and markers.
When your church enrolls and purchases the Teacher's Manual, you’ll be eligible to download songs and other helpful resources from our website.
Though they are not required texts for this course, we recommend two excellent classics for teaching Bible stories at church and at home, both available at our website:
Both authors convey an enthusiasm for the Scriptures that is contagious. They wrote at a time when adults believed that children really could comprehend great ideas if they were explained well. Reading just one chapter a day of either of these books will provide a child with the entire narrative of redemption from Genesis to Revelation in less than a year. The Teacher's Manual denotes which chapters of Hurlbut and Vos correspond to the lesson taught in Sunday school that week.
Kids can and will learn a lot if they think we expect them to!
When Jesus was a boy, Bar Mitzvah candidates were expected to have memorized the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Americans at 4th of July gatherings in the 19th century all recited the Declaration of Independence together—the whole thing, not just the Preamble. Eighteen-year-olds studying for the clergy at Yale during the colonial era were not taught Greek or Hebrew, because they were expected to be fully literate in those ancient languages before matriculation.
Young people can and will learn a great deal if they think we expect them to. Without effort, kids will memorize the jingles and pop songs they hear. Just imagine if we exposed our kids to a wealth of Biblical knowledge!
When I was a youth group leader years ago, the young, energetic youth pastor could not get his group of 60 junior high students to settle down and pay attention to his lesson. It frustrated him terribly. I mentioned to him that perhaps his lessons were too easy, and that the kids were bored. I suggested that he teach a really challenging study, hard enough that kids would have to scramble to keep up. He told me I was crazy—that if the kids couldn’t understand his simple lesson, how would they understand a difficult one? But he tried my suggestion anyway.
The kids responded with focused attention! They felt respected by their teacher, and they returned the respect. Best of all, the kids began eagerly studying the Scriptures and applying those teachings to their lives. They discovered for themselves that the Bible really is an interesting book, and that it holds all kinds of useful information.
Classical Sunday School respects a child’s intellect, and conveys that we expect great things from our students. Children will eagerly respond to this message.
Hold the crown high, and let the child grow into it.
The end result
Always remember, the goal of all this knowledge is not vanity; we endeavor to fill our children’s minds with valuable information so that they can process and assemble that information as teenagers, and then become useful servants of the King as adults.
In the parable of the talents, the servant who neglected his master’s gift was sharply rebuked, while the servants who received the master’s gifts and put them to work were greeted with the commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Our minds are among God’s greatest gifts to us. Luke 10:27 commands us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” This curriculum will help you to obey that command, and to perhaps hear from our Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”