In two separate articles by two different theologians, separated by continents (America and Europe), and 100 years, I read the budding frustration of what was happening within Sunday School education, followed by the flowering of the present state of adult education in the Western church today.
P. T. Forsyth was suspicious of the effeminate in contemporary religion in his day. The same charge has been levelled at the church today: a place for women, children and the deluded. I’ve heard that said with my own ears.
In an address to the Sunday School Union in 1900, Forsyth set his sights on the shapelessness of what passed for Sunday School teaching:
“The Sunday School is too much left to well-meaning and hard-working people, who, with all their earnestness, have no experience of controlling others, and no sense or power of discipline. The teachers are . . . . gentle and fear to hurt feelings; or they are too tender about ejecting black sheep . . . . They have young ideas about what Christian love means. They are too anxious to be loved and not enough concerned to be obeyed . . . . I am afraid that many teachers have more interest in the affections of their scholars than in their souls.”
P. T. Forsyth ‘As Congregational Minister’ by Clyde Binfield in ‘Justice the True and Only Mercy,’ pg. 172-3
Admittedly, some of his language needs qualifying today. I would want to rephrase notions of control and discipline; ‘ejecting black sheep’ is a little mysterious; and finally what would mean to obey in this context? I am not afraid of these notions, just that my 21st century conditioning requires that of me, as any misreading/misapplication of this could quite easily slip into authoritarianism. The thrust of Forsyth’s comment is about right, and continues to be about right for today.
What Forsyth bemoans in the bud, Michael Hardin bemoans in the flowering. For if Forsyth was right (and he was), the inevitable consequence will be what Hardin observes in today’s church:
In his ‘What The Facebook’ (pg. 65-66) he writes,
“…I have met thousands of Christians and have been in countless churches. Sadly, most of those I have met do not know their Bibles….How can we encourage Christians today to take the Bible seriously enough to pay attention to its narrative flow, to its novelistic detail, to its story or plot line? . . . . .
. . . .We desperately need more and better Bible education in the churches. Adult Sunday School classes in so many churches teach little more than pabulum. There is no real thinking going on or engagement with the actual text of Scripture. Often education in the church has become a mushy squishy touchy feely “what do you think?” as though the pooling of ignorance is beneficial. It is time for the rest of Christianity to knuckle down and for everyone to learn how to read Scripture, to learn its story and reap its benefits. If we don’t get serious about our biblical literacy we might as well cede the Bible to the Fundamentalists and that is something I will never do. Will you join me?”
Obviously there are exceptions here and there. These comments are macro-observations by two sharp cultural critics who have a high value on theological and biblical literacy.
‘Let your light shine’
A Devonshire Summers day