Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In Pursuit of Biblical Literacy, Part One

At the tender age of five and with lunchbox in hand, I walked across town to attend Kindergarten at Lake City Public Schools (our mascot was the Catfish!). There I was blessed with a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Norma Stotts. To this day all of my class members look back and remember Mrs. Stotts's class with fondness. The next year I was once again blessed to be under the tutelage of Mrs. Betty Owens, the wife of our superintendent. My mom's careful encouragement at home had me already reading the newspaper (somewhat) before showing up at Kindergarten, and by the time I left the First Grade, I was doing great at the three Rs.

Looking back, I realize that two factors contributed greatly to the excellence of these two ladies and many others like them in the teaching profession. First, they were passionately committed to their callings. Second, they had the opportunity to teach the same material year after year and to hone their proficiency in the subject matter to razor-sharpness.

  1. In elementary school, teachers teach the same lessons year-after-year, refining them as time goes by to achieve excellent specialization in teaching that material.
  2. In high school, teachers teach the same lessons year-after-year.
  3. In college, professors specialize in a field of study and teach the same lessons year-after-year.
  4. In flight training, flight instructors generally teach the same lessons to beginning students time-after-time.
  5. In professional schools, instructors teach the same lessons year-after-year.
  6. Indeed, in virtually every setting where people take education seriously, a fixed scope and sequence of curriculum enables teachers to specialize in teaching specific lessons year-after-year.

So why don't our Sunday Schools work that way?

If the Second-Grade Sunday School curriculum involved precisely the same lessons on the same weeks year-after-year, couldn't teachers achieve mastery of teaching those particular Bible stories? Couldn't the church invest in just the right books, manipulatives, and other materials to teach just those lessons, making capital expenditures toward the fixed curriculum of the class? Wouldn't service as an assistant in that particular class for a couple of years constitute a much better preparation for teaching the class on one's own?

Is there any advantage to a random rotation through Bible stories with new curriculum every year? I mean, of course, other than the fact that you get to sell new curriculum every year?

I don't have any degrees in education, religious or otherwise, so I'm sincerely asking questions. If we're serious about making biblically literate disciples, is our current method, which seems to depart so markedly from other educational systems around us, a good one?


Dave Miller said...

I will be the first to comment on this one, so I will not repeat the comments made by someone else.

I have thought this same thing for years. I even outlined a youth SS curriculum which would graduate youth who had a basic biblical literacy.

I wish someone would take the ball and run on this one.

James Heffington Jr said...

Great thoughts on this one Bart! I wish LifeWay would develop such a curriculum. I wish LifeWay would just develop some curriculum that was exciting and interesting in its presentation!

We are using Kidmo for our curriculum at the moment and have found it to be pretty good at both teaching and holding the kid's interest. I think we have to be creative and substantive in order to do the job of teaching our youngest generation...in fact that would hold true of the teaching ministry for all of us! But how much more so for those who have the shortest attention span among us!

I think it would be a whole lot better if we could teach the same curriculum every year and allow our teachers to use their energy in the creative process by which they would present the materials.


volfan007 said...


Where do you come up with this stuff? My goodness, Brother, you are thinking on a wave length on another level than the rest of us. I like what you're saying here. I see the benefit of it. And, I also like the catfish being a mascot.


Tim Rogers said...

Brother Bart,

I see your point, but have a couple of questions.

First, would it not cause a problem for a larger age span in churches. For some smaller churches they have one teacher to teach 2-5 graders. So, every year for 4 years, the same stories would be over and over again.

Second, would this not enable teachers to take short cuts in lesson preparation? I know that some teachers I had were teaching the same material they had back in 1970's. While, I know there is no sure fired method to prevent laziness in teaching, or preaching, it seems that this would be huge contributing factor.

Help me see how we could overcome these two objectives.


Bart Barber said...

Dave Miller,

It sounds like you have already taken the ball and run with it.

James Heffington,



Unfortunately, the school consolidated, and the Lake City Catfish are no more.

Anonymous said...

Don't some Presbyterians employ this method with their various catechisms/confessions? Carl Trueman suggested pastors take a Sunday night or Wednesday night and just plow through the teachings of the past year after year.

Bart Barber said...


With regard to your first question, your own illustration demonstrates that the present system is no foolproof remedy for teacher laziness. Presuming that any individual teacher is going to put a certain amount of work into teaching, wouldn't it be better for that amount of work every year to work toward improving a lesson already mastered than toward starting a brand new lesson from scratch? The goal, after all, is not to make teachers work but to help students learn. If we can structure the curriculum in such a way that a teacher can help students learn just as well while working less, how is that a bad thing again?

Now, regarding your second question, loosely graded classes could do the same thing that my wife did when she was involved in a "looping" program in one of the nearby public schools—teach the second grade curriculum on year one, the third grade curriculum on year two, etc., until reaching the top age of the class. Then the teacher could go back down to the start and repeat through again.

Scott Shaffer said...


I'm with you on this. This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart, especially regarding youth. In my experience, which has been more with junior and senior high students, the packaged curriculum leave much to be desired: They are too long or too short, at too immature of a level or too advanced, ignore vast sections of the Bible, etc.

I taught senior high students for several years and after 4 years I had a complete set of material that I could refine and recycle for future use.

The local church has to develop a scope and sequence for each class, identify gifted and committed teachers, and then create the materials. This takes a lot of effort, but it is worth it. Unfortunately, most Children's and Youth Pastors aren't willing or able to do this.

Tim, you make a valid point, although I suspect a teacher who is going to take shortcuts will take them regardless of the curriculum.

Bart Barber said...


In his book Teaching Truth, Training Hearts Tom Nettles has called for a return to the employ of catechism in Baptist religious training. I am not arguing for that method, per se, but neither am I arguing against it. I am merely asking why we don't buy a particular curriculum and repeat through it, as other educational institutions do. That curriculum could be based upon a catechism, based upon a set of foundational Bible stories, based upon whatever. The content would be a discussion for another day. I'm trying to address the format.

Scott Shaffer said...

Anonymous makes a good point as well. The beauty of using a confession or catechism is that you are assured of covering most of the Bible and key doctrines.

Anonymous said...

My problem, even in teaching the educated laity at our church, is that I have to start from such a simple foundation due to their lack of biblical knowledge, that getting through an all-encompassing, complete curriculum in a year might be difficult.

Trying to teach through the BF&M2000 on Wednesday nights took me almost a year!

I guess we'd have to start somewhere, though. I don't know any SS teachers that would be opposed to having their lesson plans laid out for them, however they needed to adapt them to meet the specific needs of their group.

NativeVermonter said...

Now I can see a local church developing a confession or catechism to suit their specific theology but can anyone imagine, how in the world, any agreement would ever come, if implemented on the Convention level??

Bart Barber said...


We're contemplating the same process here.

Bart Barber said...


The problem that you highlight is a part of our motivation. We want to be certain that we are laying a good foundation for solid study later.

Bart Barber said...

Native Vermonter,

Again, the content of the lessons (i.e., the catechism question) is not really the focus of the post. But I would point out to you that the work of developing a Convention-level catechism has pretty much already been done. Historically catechisms have accompanied a statement of faith. Once a denomination had developed and adopted a statement of faith, their catechism would follow the adopted statement of faith.

kws said...

This is the very reason many of our Southern Baptist churches are using alternative curriculum to Lifeway. There are some very good ones out there. John Piper's organization has a children's curriculum called Desiring God for Children that is excellent.

Anonymous said...

I think most would agree that it's a good idea. But do you have any high-ranking friends at Lifeway, Bart, who might be able to implement such a plan? Of course no SBC church can be forced to do anything, but at least offering it would be a start. Lifeway prints so many different SS series now, what would one more hurt?

Jonathan said...

Bart -- to separate your question into two parts, there is some kind of order, it's just not apparent. Search for "Children Study Plan" at lifeway. They recognize that "certain stories are so important that they must appear frequently in childhood so that the child will understand not only the facts of the story but the biblical principles that it communicates." I leave it for individual churches to decide if Lifeway does a good job at this goal.

As to why a church can't buy a fixed curriculum once (like a hymnal), I'm not sure.

I think the primary goal for Sunday School is childcare in many churches, enabling adults to go to church -- and in young growing churches, filling that need takes so much time, there's little planning for continuity. That's not an excuse, just an explanation...

Bart Barber said...


Thanks for helping me to clarify. Lifeway does have a scope and sequence that they follow. Also, I tried not to write a Lifeway-bashing post and I don't want our conversation to degenerate into that. Lifeway publishes dated quarterlies moving through their defined scope and sequence contracting with different authors to write different materials around the same themes in a generally repeating pattern over a scope of time larger than a year, if I understand what they are doing.

I'm posing more of the second question that you asked. I know that Lifeway is capable of this, because they already have developed just such a curriculum for Christian schools to employ in teaching the Bible. I'm just wondering aloud whether such an approach couldn't be adopted effectively toward Sunday School. Perhaps there are reasons why this would be a bad idea. I just haven't heard it yet.

Perhaps sooner or later someone more qualified will come along and help us to understand.

Les Puryear said...


I support the use of catechisms to teach children as well as new believers. We're beginning to use the Baptist Catechism which was the first document published by the Baptist Sunday School Board.

Our use of catechetical training is being done during our Children's Church time. I had not thought of using it instead of Lifeway Sunday School material. I think you're on to something here.


Bro. Robin said...


I might add that AWANA uses a similar method you describe in their curriculum.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Barber,

Thank you for your post concerning Biblical Literacy. I have been using some of your “Fifth Century Initiative” in our evening services over the past few weeks. It has been a blessing to have people come express their appreciation for the study of our Baptist heritage and why we do and believe as we do.

As to the question concerning our Sunday School material – I see this a little differently. To me the Sunday School is not for in depth Bible study or training. Sunday School is to reach people for age appropriate Bible study with the intention of drawing them to Christ. While I agree that there should be a systematic presentation of scripture, I believe what you are purposing is what we used to call “Discipleship Training.” Actually, when I was growing up it was called “Training Union.” Whatever the name, the objective was the same. We taught Bible, church history, theology/ doctrine, church polity and ethics during that time – for the whole church.

Today we seem to be more interested in teaching specialized studies; short term studies or the latest “12 steps to a better you.” To me, that is the reason so few of our people really know the Bible or what we as Baptists believe.

Thanks again for your insight and leadership,


Bart Barber said...


I'm thankful for your comment, as I am thankful that the "Fifth Century Initiative" has prompted some further thought and development! May God bless your labors.

I am aware of the difference in design purpose between Sunday School and Discipleship Training (and I'll go you one further and call it Baptist Young People's Union). Nevertheless, I would point out the following:

1. The fixed-curriculum method I have highlighted was never used for BYPU / BTU / CTU / DT, either, so far as I know. Feel free to just apply my question to whatever venue you like.

2. Although the Sunday School is conceived as an outreach platform, it is outreach through Bible Study. Why wouldn't better Bible study amount to better outreach through Bible study? My format question wouldn't necessarily have any impact upon "depth." It would, I suspect, impact quality at any depth.

Dave Miller said...

Wes brings up an interesting question. "Fifth Century Initiative" implies a concept that produces action.

If it were up to me, the FCI would become the 67th book of the Bible, or at least be enshrined on a plaque in Nashville.

But is it just a statement of agreement, or is it the basis of actions that will take place later.

Wade made a huge deal about his network of churches (Antioch??) and then *poof* - I have heard nothing more about it.

You should not put forward good ideas, get us mindless masses hopeful, then not follow through.

Actually, I am just curious.

Bart Barber said...


A member of my church once asked me about something, "Are you planning to do this right away, or a year from now?"

I replied, "A year from now is right away."

The FCI is an action-oriented thing, and I'm working on it "right away."

Anonymous said...

Dr. Barber,

As I learned recently that I am a few (not many mind you) years older than you, I didn’t mention BYPU because I was trying to stay “age appropriate” and didn’t realize that you went back that far. 8->

I certainly have no objection to having strong, solid Bible study material for either SS or DT, nor do I see a problem with a fixed-curriculum method of study. I do see a problem with just a one or two year cycle. Unless you are talking about just really, really basic stuff – that, to me, just doesn’t allow for enough time.

For example, we use the Lifeway Explore the Bible series in our adult classes. What I like about this series is that it covers the whole Bible – but it does it in a nine year cycle. I recently visited with some Lifeway folks and told them that I would really like to see similar material for our youth and children. This way, the whole family could discuss the Sunday School lessons together (either before or after the class) to reinforce the material – and aid in family devotions. I think this approach would be more biblical – but I doubt it could be done on such a short cycle as one or two years.

Brother Dave,
I don’t know what Dr. Barber’s plans are for the FCI, but I have been using it here to help our folks “return to their roots.” We have been talking about Church membership; Church discipline, how to improve our fellowship’s Biblical literacy and several other aspects of the initiative. I have been preaching on the church and particularly using Baptist history to emphasize those doctrines which distinguish us from everyone else. My next step is to put specific actions before our church to strengthen those areas of our fellowship needing to be address. Our folks are really encouraged by this – and they are looking forward to how we may become more like Christ as a fellowship. It’s really kind of fun.


Bart Barber said...


Feel free to call me "Bart."

No, I don't think that a one-to-two-year cycle through the entire Bible at an hour per week is possible. I'd plan around the hope of having people for a lifetime, because learning the Bible is a lifetime task.

Anonymous said...

I realize I'm new to this discussion and certainly don't have the answers, but it is comforting to know that others are posing my kind of questions. I'm finding that some of my teachers are frustrated with the current curriculum in the way that it visits various Bible stories over and over. Without a clear scope and sequence, it is hard to justify where LifeWay is headed. The problems usually arise among the students that have heard certain Bible stories repeatedly. Upon graduating the fifth grade and moving on to youth, many know the most popular Bible stories inside and out, but can't see where they fit in to the larger picture. If the Bible is a story, how can we teach piecemeal without losing the original context (thereby limiting understanding and oftentimes interest)?