Evaluating Sunday School Materials
Curriculum serves as a key ingredient in the recipe for a good Sunday School. Features of a curriculum are multifaceted. Attractiveness and adaptability rank high on the list of characteristics that Sunday School staff members often consider in reviewing proposed materials. As important as these characteristics sound, there remains yet a more essential issue—the truthfulness and clarity in the presentation of God’s Word. This post seeks to offer some theological guidelines that pastors and other congregational leaders should use in discerning whether or not to utilize a particular curriculum in the Lutheran Sunday School. Diagnostic questions are included after each section to help you analyze a given curriculum.
A Primary Distinction
In evaluating Sunday School materials, the crucial element we look for is the Gospel quotient of the lessons. Both Law and Gospel are necessary. Without the Law, the Gospel will collapse into a generic philosophy of tolerance and acceptance; it becomes confused with a generic declaration of God’s love. Without the Gospel, the Law will crush with its unrelenting demands. The Gospel can never be assumed. It must be carefully articulated as it declares that God in Christ reconciles the world to Himself through the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:15–21; Colossians 1:15–23; 1 Timothy 1:12–17). The Gospel—not the Law—contains the power of God for salvation and the life of faith (Romans 1:16–17.)
A clear sign of the muddling of Law and Gospel is seen in statements that suggest salvation is a matter of human choice or decision, ignoring the biblical truth that sinners are spiritually dead and therefore incapable of doing anything, including “inviting Jesus into my life,” to bring about their salvation. When it comes to salvation, God does it all (Ephesians 2:1–7).
- Does the material clearly distinguish between what God demands (Law) and what He gives (Gospel)?
- Does the material clearly distinguish between justification (God’s work of declaring sinners righteous for the sake of Christ’s atoning work) and sanctification (the ongoing struggle to put the old Adam to death)?
- Does the material coerce, cajole, or challenge believers to a life of obedience, or does is set forth Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, as the center and foundation for the Christian life (Galatians 2:20; Colossians 2:7)?
How Does the Curriculum Use the Bible?
In evaluating a Sunday School curriculum, we should pay close attention to how the material treats the Holy Scriptures. The prophetic and apostolic Scriptures alone contain the source for all that we say of God and His will. The Bible alone serves as the norm, or yardstick, used to measure all teachings in the Church (2 Peter 1:16–21; 2 Timothy 3:14–17). We rightly attend to the Word of God only when we put ourselves under His Word, when we receive from God what He gives us in the words that His Spirit caused to be written for our learning. Any material that questions the reliability of the Holy Scriptures undermines the goal of all genuine Christian education—saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Solid Sunday School materials not only confess that the Bible is God’s infallible Word; they also demonstrate how the Scriptures must be rightly interpreted according to the mind of the Spirit, who inspired them. This means that the curriculum should be guided by sound principles of biblical interpretation. Questions such as “What do you think this passage means?” or “What does this story mean to you?” become subjective and divert learners from what God actually says in the text. The material should contain questions and exercises that engage the student with the biblical text, providing him or her with the opportunity to grow in the knowledge of the Bible and in the skill of properly interpreting the Scriptures.
- Is the Bible understood to be the inerrant Word of God, or is it seen simply as an elevated form of religious literature that perhaps contains or bears witness to God’s Word?
- How does the material understand the clarity of the Scriptures? Does the material show that Jesus Christ is the light of the world and that it is only in and through Him that the Scriptures are clear (John 8:12; Luke 24:25–27)?
- Do the materials allow “Scripture to interpret Scripture”?
- Is the ability of the Scripture to do what it promises clearly taught (Isaiah 55:11; John 6:63; John 20:30-31), or is the Bible seen as a collection of spiritual principles that Christians must now implement?
- Is a reliable and accurate translation of the Bible consistently employed throughout the curriculum?
Where Do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper Fit in the Curriculum?
The Lord Jesus Christ instituted Baptism (Matthew 28:19–20) as the means for granting us the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38–39), the new birth of the Spirit (John 3:5-6; Titus 3:5), and deliverance from death and the devil (Romans 6:35; Galatians 3:27; 1 Peter 3:21). Baptism is solely the work of God. In Baptism, He claims sinners as His own with His name and clothes them with His blood-bought righteousness. God intends Baptism for all people without regard to age.
Likewise, the Sacrament of the Altar, in which Christ gives us His body to eat and His blood to drink under the bread and wine (Matthew 26:26–28; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26), is not something we do for Christ, but rather His gracious action for us. The Supper delivers Christ’s own gifts of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to those who repent and trust in His gracious promises.
Departing from the teaching of God’s Word, some make Baptism a human rite of initiation into a church or identification with Christ. Such teaching robs Baptism of all that the Scripture teaches us concerning the power God places in this Sacrament. Likewise, some push the Lord’s Supper to the edge of the church’s life, reducing it to a meal that Christians partake of in the memory of Christ. Some Christian publishers elect not to treat the sacraments at all, or in a marginal way, in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Lutherans find these approaches to the sacraments in Sunday School curricula to be complete unacceptable. Our Lord commands His Church to teach all things He gave us (Matthew 28:20). The sacraments are not an optional element in a Sunday School curriculum.
- What does the curriculum teach about the institution and benefit of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper?
- Are the Sacraments omitted or minimized in the curriculum?
- Are the Sacraments understood as the work and gift of Christ, or are they seen as rituals performed by Christians?
- What is taught about the Baptism of infants?
- Is the Lord’s Supper understood in a symbolic fashion?
Look for additional evaluation questions in How Good Is Your Curriculum? (Part 2)