Failing Christianity


We discussed this article over on theophiles a while ago – but it just popped up in my blog reader again and, given my recent experience teaching an adult Sunday School class, I figured it was worth commenting on over here.  Here’s the paragraph which, sadly, mirrors my own experience:

The only place the course backfires is in the unit on Christianity. Students who have spent every Sunday of their lives in church may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but they rarely have any idea how those books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know that this makes them Protestants, or that the Christian tree has two other major branches more ancient than their own. Very few have heard of the Nicene Creed. Most are surprised to learn that baptism is supposed to be a one-time thing.

Let me sum up how I see the problem, “For a lot of the people populating our Churches, they don’t see themselves as being connected to the story of either the Bible or Church.”  Oh, folks might seem themselves as part of the story of their local congregation (“My parents were members here!”), but how that congregation is connected to the larger story of the Church doesn’t really matter all the much.  People might be vaguely aware that they are Mennonites, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, or non-demoninationalists (ironically, a denomination) – but these vague notions don’t have any idea how various denominations connect to the larger story of the Church.  How any of these small traditions connect to the Biblical story, and what impact the Biblical story has on our own experience, isn’t part of the program in a lot of our congregations.

This became apparent to me after two recent experiences as a pastor.  The first was when I was called in to sub for one of our adult Sunday School classes – a class that has been meeting for decades.  Their study book had finished up the week before Sunday School ended for the summer and so they asked me to write a lesson to finish up the year.  So I adapted one of the lessons from my Biblical Evangelism study – the New Testament lesson entitled “The Mighty Acts of God.”  My lessons are always keyed into the arc of the Biblical narrative, because very little in the Bible makes sense without such a perspective.  What became apparent to me was just how poorly this congregation has done discipleship for decades.

  • The class had no idea why John the Baptist would wonder if Jesus really was the Messiah, or why Jesus’ answer was important.
  • The class had no idea which empires took the two Israelite kingdoms into exile – actually, I’m not even sure the class had an idea that there were two Israelite kingdoms.
  • There was no awareness as to how the Exile lead to the very Messianic hope Jesus fulfilled.
  • No one had any clue as to how the exile formed the very structures of every day Judaism that structured Jesus’ own religious life.
  • There was only a vague understanding as to what people were expecting in the Messiah in Jesus’ day.

I could go on, which is depressing – but you get the picture.  Why one earth should pastor of this congregation expected the people to base how we did life together on the Biblical story of God’s redeeming Creation through Jesus?  Few have even known the story well enough to understand that this type of basis was important!  After teaching this class it is absolutley no surprise that our church by-laws neglect the ideas of calling, giftedness, and purpose – when a congregation is a private club, that is what the by-laws are going to reflect.

Lest I be seen to be coming down on one group, let me say that I doubt that the majority of any group would be able to pick up on the same points mentioned above.  We have a few people who are Biblically literate, and that’s more than I can say for some of my friends who are pastors – but we’re not nearly where we need to be.  Making people aware of how the Biblical narrative, the Church’s narrative, and our congregational narrative are intimately inter-twined is perhaps the most important work I’m called to do here as a pastor.

This is not, however, just a problem with Central.  I will, in all likelyhood, be taking up the teaching of our High School students for Sunday School next year.  My goal is to help them become literate in the score of the Biblical narrative.  To put it in excruciatingly simple terms “I don’t just want them to know that David defeated Goliath, I want them to know at what point in his life he did so – and how it impacted his later experiences.”  So, I started looking for materials.

I know that Youth Specialties had a curriculem in the past called “Backstage Pass to the Bible.”  Several people from Central went through it – it flopped (it wasn’t anyone’s fault, the culture of discipleship in Central hadn’t yet rebounded enough to be a helpful exercise).  Given where we’ve been brought in the last several years, I thought it would be a good time to try it out again – so I looked it up to see if it had been updated in the last four years.

It hadn’t been.

It’s out of print.

What YS does have are wonderful topical studies on “The Case for Christ,” “Good Sex,” and “Life Together.”  But their curriculum that gave students a glimpse at the arc of the entire Biblical narrative – the curriculum that gives all these topical studies the context required for them to make sense – is out of print.

Now, it looks as though there is a replacement coming – which makes me happy – but that doesn’t help me for the coming year.  I want to be able to hit the ground running – and Backstage Pass was the best material I’d seen yet for what I want to do (it’s not perfect, by any stretch, but it’s certainly usable).  Other searches turned up even more topical studies – I can only assume that these companies are assuming that congregations are teaching their members the arc of the narrative.  It’s a really bad assumption.

Eventually, I’m going to have to write my own materials.  Until then I’m going to be looking at the used book shops to find the material I wanted to use.


  1. adam mclane says:

    Hey man, I join you in longing for my students to know the bible as opposed to skipping from one topical thing to another.

    It’s too bad that backstage pass is out of print… but if I could make an unsolicited recommendation of another YS product… Creative Bible Lessons. Each of these studies takes students through a book of the Bible.

    I used them in my SS class with MS/HS students and they really got a lot out of it. I wouldn’t just take them and use them stock, just invest 20-45 minutes in making them apply right to your group and you’ll love em!

    Adam McLane — YS community guy

  2. wezlo says:

    Thank Adam, it’s neat to get a response from a YS guy. I’d love to see Backstage Pass updated and reprinted – but thanks for the CBL recommendation. After I give students here an “arc” introduction, I’ll be sure to give them a look.

    Is “Storying” going to help with teaching people the arc of the narrative?

  3. adam mclane says:

    Wes, as I shared via the email… I’m looking into it. It’s a holiday weekend, so I should hear back from the right folks in the next couple of days.

    Thanks again!

  4. wezlo says:

    Yup, thanks again Adam. I wrote this before I e-mail you – figured people might like to hear about what’s coming up from YS.

  5. Mel says:

    I am very excited about your plan to go through topics in context. One of the reasons I stopped going to sunday school right after highschool (asside from the fact that noone my age had a class at that point) was because I was tired of the lack of context. I was quite tired of learning about Joseph, moving on to Moses, skipping to Daniel and then plowing through bits and pieces of Jesus’s life with it seemed little else in between.

    Either that or going through some other study about how God relates to your life – which invariably looks at awkward social situations where you can make the right decisions (such as about sex).

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