Twelve-year-old Marty does not like Sunday School. He comes, but only because his parents force him. And his attitude clearly shows all the while he is in class that he does not really want to be there. Occasionally he gets excited about a Christmas party or a contest of some kind. But the general week-by-week activities hold no interest for him. From all outward appearances, he is learning very little about the Bible and the Christian faith. One thing is sure. Whatever exposure Marty has to eternal truth comes exclusively in the one hour on Sunday morning because he does not spend five minutes in God’s Word during the week!
The great tragedy is that Marty is only too typical of countless young people in many evangelical Sunday Schools across the nation. His parents are Christians, which means to them that they attend Sunday School and church on Sunday morning but somehow does not seem to include any responsibility for Christian nurture of their son at home. Their interest in Sunday School however, seems to be sincere, and they are very careful to ensure Marty’s attendance week by week.
A wise teacher could do something about this difficult situation,. No doubt visitation and a counseling ministry with the parents would be a positive step. Short of that, a teacher who really became serious about his students’ responsibility to study at home could develop assignments which would double or even triple Marty’s exposure to the Word of God.
The wise teacher will remember too, that it is the parents’ responsibility to make sure work outside of the classroom gets done, and he would enlist the support of Marty’s mom and dad right from the beginning. He would find allies in Marty’s parents for they would help the boy with the assignments and at least provide some leverage at home to see that the work was completed each week.
One value should be already obvious. If Marty’s parents are helping him with his assignments, they are also being exposed to God’s Word and that Junior High teacher is having a ministry to parents as well as to his student. But effective securing of parental support depends upon whether the Sunday School teacher has really accepted the premise that be alone cannot handle the task of Christian nurture. Findley Edge makes it very plain when be says, “The church cannot accomplish the task of religious education alone. That may seem like a shocking and extreme statement to some; nevertheless, it is true. The sooner church leaders and parents face this fact the better it will be” (Helping The Teacher, mentioned earlier).
The use of assignments also puts “more school in Sunday School.” It raises the academic level of church education, and, even though you might have difficulties in getting your students enthused about “doing homework” at first, a careful system of reinforcement coupled with parental support can and will win the battle. As mentioned above, a carefully planned assignment program can, double or triple the classtime, and every Sunday School teacher ought to be excited about it for that reason if for no other.
One of the most significant values of assignments however, is their ability to relate to life outside of the unreal situation which we call “class.” This implies that the assignment is more than just filling in the blanks or memorizing the names of the books of the Bible. If we can design “life-related assignments,” we can assist the student in putting into practice those things which he has learned in class.
Finally, we ought to use assignments because of their capacity to stimulate inquiry which might result in spiritual growth. If we really believe in the supernatural power of the Word of God, then we must believe that the more time a student genuinely spends in studying the Word of God the more spiritual growth will result. A spirit of inquiry will also lead to teachable moments in the classtime as the student raises questions or problems which he has encountered in the work he attempted to do at home.
Perhaps the most common problem we face in attempting to get Sunday School students to work at home is the problem of negative attitudes. Somehow the idea of homework seems to correlate well with schooling during the week. But we have portrayed the image that Sunday School should be easy and not have any effort connected with it. It is bard to shake an image, particularly when it is a bad one. But this is one we will simply have to lose if we are going to minister God’s Word effectively at acceptable levels of education in the evangelical church. We may have to start out slowly with simple assignments and try to make them as interesting as possible, but we should get serious about the importance of assignments as a method.
Time is always a problem. The students are busy, and the activities of school and community tend to crowd out the time necessary to “work on the Sunday School lesson.” That is why good teachers will make occasional telephone calls during the week to offer assistance with the assignment or even to build in some kind of reward system. A teacher I know has a standard procedure whereby he calls one member of his class each week, but no one knows in advance who will be called. If the selected student has done his lesson by the time of the call (usually Thursday or Friday evening) he gets 10 bonus points in the current class contest.
Another common difficulty is that some printed curriculum materials do not offer challenging and attractive assignments. Sometimes the level is below the students for whom it was Written, and sometimes it is too difficult. It is possible to have both of these problems with the same material in the same class because of varying backgrounds of the students.
This is where the teacher comes in. He can add to or vary the regular curriculum plan because he alone knows the specific needs and problems of his own class. Let us by all means use the best curriculum materials we can buy, but let us never give up by default our right as classroom teachers to determine what is best for our particular students.
Involve the students in selecting the assignment initially. This is simply the process of adopting a positive use of peer pressure. Rather than banding down the assignment each week, let the students talk in class about what kind of carry-over activities would be meaningful and interesting to them. A worker is always more thorough in following through on a plan, if he has had a significant role in making it.
Make the assignments life-related. Get away from the traditional “knowledge storehouse” kind of study, and have your students touch life in the context of the subject matter. Some of the earlier chapters discuss the methods which would adapt themselves well to life-related assignments (for example, using interviews in your teaching).
Always check the assignment after it has been given. The old adage reminds us that “the worker does what the boss inspects and not what he expects.” This will take time, but if we are going to commit ourselves to a methodology which includes assignments, we are going to have to accept the responsibility for checking the work. Nothing will kill the progress of achievement faster than ignoring the work that a student has done in preparation for his Sunday School class.
Use good principles of motivation. There are a number of ways to build motivation in students and most of them are perfectly acceptable. The idea of peer group involvement was mentioned above. Competition is an extrinsic motivator, but at certain age levels it can be used very positively. Ultimately we want to build intrinsic motivation, which causes the student to study God’s Word because he knows it is important for him to do so.
Vary the types of assignments. Use reading and research, interviews, prepared questions, projects, observation work, reports, preparation of panels and debates, and any other approach which will lead the student into the Word during the week. Obviously, assignments can be coupled with other kinds of teaching methodology to make an interesting and effective class.
Reinforce all efforts the student makes to work outside of class. Reinforcement can take the form of verbal commendation or extrinsic rewards such as stars on a chart which will ultimately culminate in winning some kind of competition.
But, let me say it one more time all of this work is futile unless the teacher deliberately, carefully, and thoroughly involves the parents in overseeing, helping, and expediting the work at home. In the final analysis, Christian nurture is the task of the parents, and the Sunday School teacher is only a supporting and assisting worker. We must help parents see this responsibility and act positively upon it.