Sunday School is a weekly staple for millions of Americans. Largely a Protestant innovation, the Sunday School concept immigrated to the United States from Great Britain in 1790. Initially the schools offered free reading lessons to poor families, but they've since evolved into a forum for passing core Christian values to each new generation.
For many Americans, childhood memories of Sunday School include countless hours spent in a musty church basement, enduring boring lectures from instructors long on passion but short on training. At some point in the last 30 years, Sunday School has made a few changes. The Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee is a congregation of 2,500 people. A full time staff of three and more than 400 volunteers conduct Sunday School and a mid-week service for 700 Woodmont children.
"If they come on Wednesdays and Sundays, we have our kids about two percent of their week. And so we have to really hit a home run every Sunday morning," said Eddie Plemmons, director of the program who is also a professional educator.
In Woodmont's case, hitting a Sunday School home run begins with several hundred children in a large, colorful, brightly lit room with costumed Bible characters in attendance. The atmosphere is festive as the children launch into songs that have them singing, clapping and marching around the room. And all that, Mr. Plemmons notes, just to get things started.
"We teach kids in very large groups using drama, monologues, storytelling, puppets, creative music," he said.
After 30 minutes of almost frantic large group interaction, the children divide into small groups. Scattered around the room in circles of five or six, the kids meet every week with the same set of peers and the same adult mentor. They review the main points of the lesson and then spend time praying for family and friends.
Woodmont's Sunday School is typical of a growing number of churches across the country. It seems chaotic at times, but is in fact carefully structured to take advantage of the way American children learn. Tom Schultz is one of the nation's foremost authorities on Sunday School instruction. He notes that teaching children born into a multimedia culture requires a new and radically different approach to education.
"Whereas in the past you could get away with kids sitting in neat little rows and passively listening to a teacher lecture, that simply doesn't provide the results we're looking for today," Tom Schultz said. "Many will make the argument that from a very young age we're even wired differently today. We think differently today than generations did in years past."
Far from being passive, Woodmont's large group activities stress interaction. The children are in near constant motion. Mr. Schultz, president of Sunday School curriculum provider Group Publishing, says the most recent research suggests this is a winning strategy.
"We found that people learn much more when they're learning by doing, when they experience something," he said. "Learners of any age, can actually experience the Bible story and learn and retain and apply so much more."
Tom Shultz says Woodmont's small group activities are also well-founded in hard science.
"When students of any age are allowed to work with one another and talk with one another during the learning process they learn a lot more," Mr. Shultz added. "Educators in general have discovered that. They'll use terms like 'cooperative education' or 'cooperative learning' that involves students working together in small teams to learn."
But not everyone believes 'cooperative learning,' puppet skits, and costumed characters are the wave of the future. For critics who charge today's Sunday Schools provide little more than entertainment, Woodmont's education director has a ready answer.
"I think Jesus was entertaining and that's why the crowds and the multitudes followed him. He taught in a way that no one had ever been taught before," he said. "So I think in terms of trying to work with kids of this culture, yes, we do have to be entertaining, but we're entertaining them with the word of God."
And in fact American churches may have few other options. Mr. Schultz notes that Sunday School attendance has dropped in the last 30 years from a high of 41 million to a low of 26 million in class each week. But in spite of this rapid decline, he says he's confident that Sunday School will survive as a staple of American life. That confidence lies, not just in the advanced teaching techniques he promotes, but also in a generation of young Christian parents showing renewed interest in their faith.
"When you take a look at children's programs like Sunday School, like mid week programs and so on, are one of the top reasons that parents today are using to select a church," Mr. Schultz explained. "One of the top reasons, incidentally, that they're returning to church since they may have been away from it since they're younger years, but also one of the top criteria they're using to select a church."
In Nashville, Eddie Plemmons has been equally impressed by the children of these young parents.
"Just recently, our elementary kids raised money to buy some water buffalo for a third world nation, knowing that that water buffalo is gonna' help plant seeds for families to be able to grow crops to help carry water from the wells," Mr. Plemmons said. In Mr. Plemmons opinion, that is what makes a difference to these kids and the future of ministry will continue to be more and more hands on.