How (not) to Write A Sunday School Lesson

Suppose your pastor asked you to lead a Sunday School class studying some passage (just to make it concrete, i’ll pick one: Malachi 1:1-5), and asked you to create a curriculum for the class. What would you do?

(Go ahead and think about it … that’s okay, take your time, i’ll wait … )

My guess is you’d do one or more of the following:

  • Carefully study the passage in question yourself (i hope you’d do that!), maybe making some notes
  • Read a few commentaries to learn more about the passage, and maybe the background of the book
  • Look around for any existing study guides, or check out (which in this case would give you 49 sermons to steal learn from)
  • Think of some questions to to get people to think about the passage, what it means, and how to apply it
  • Write out some observations on the passage, some questions, and maybe some resources for further study

(You’d probably be clever enough to do a few other things as well.)

Here’s what you probably wouldn’t do:

  • Define what is to be learned, through
    • Needs analysis: what is the problem, and how do we solve it? (in general, i.e. why hold Sunday School at all?)
    • Task analysis: what is the job or content?
    • Instructional analysis: what must be learned?
  • Specify how learning will occur (design an approach) through questions like
    • What are the objectives?
    • How will we know if the objectives are met?
    • What instructional strategy will achieve the objectives?
    • What media and methods are most effective?
  • Develop instructional materials by
    • deciding what they’ll say
    • evaluating the look and sound of media
    • evaluating whether the materials meet quality standards, and whether the students will learn from them
    • seeing if the materials can be improved
  • Teach the class (implementation)
  • Determine the impact of the instruction by asking questions like
    • Have we solved the problem?
    • What is the impact?
    • What needs to change?

(Yes, that was an ambush.) The preceding outline (taken nearly verbatim from the introductory chapter of Making Instructional Design Decisions, by Barbara Seels and Zita Glasgow) describes “the generic instructional design model”. In a nutshell, instructional design is about deliberately planning and developing learning materials to meet objectives.
So here’s my point: why don’t we (you and me alike) think about learning and Sunday School like this?

Some bad answers:

  • Sunday school is a spiritual thing, and whether anybody learns anything is all up to the Holy Spirit [perhaps true in some ultimate sense, but it’s a cop-out: you wouldn’t be happy if your pastor used this rationale rather than preparing sermons]
  • This is a secular model of instruction [why should the Devil have all the effective approaches to learning?*]
  • Hey, people don’t come to Sunday School to learn, they come for the cookies and fellowship! [then how will you teach them to obey what Jesus commanded (Matt 28:19-20)?]
  • Nobody will remember this lesson by the end of the football game this afternoon anyway [maybe that’s because we don’t take learning and curriculum seriously]

and some more reasonable (but still unsatisfactory) answers:

  • Our own experience provides (limited) models for how Sunday School works, and we unconsciously adopt them [time for new wineskins! (Luke 5:37-38)]
  • Thinking about these questions is hard, time-consuming, and sometimes requires expertise we don’t have [fair enough: maybe somebody else should be helping to create the curriculum, and we should definitely be sharing things that work well.]
  • Hey, i’m just trying to help out because the pastor asked me, i’m no Bible scholar![it’s good that you’re honest, but don’t you want to serve your family as best you can? (Col 3:23-24)]
  • I’d gladly work on curriculum to accomplish our objectives, if i could just figure out what they are.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, and raised a lot more questions than i’ve answered. But this last psuedo-answer — what are our objectives? — seems like the heart of the matter, and i think there’s plenty of room for the church to take its mandate of Christian discipleship and education much more seriously. The starting point (for further study after today’s class) is analysis: what is the problem Sunday School is attempting to solve, and why do we want people to go there in the first place? I don’t think easy answers like “growing in knowledge of the Word” go nearly far enough.

* Larry Norman notwithstanding, Luther never uttered the famous line “why should the Devil have all the good music?”. That quote apparently came from a sermon by English preacher Rowland Hill in 1844 (see Bartlett’s Quotations: it was actually “good tunes”). What Luther did say, however, while in a similar spirit, was also relevant to the topic at hand:

I am not of the opinion that all arts are to be cast down and destroyed on account of the Gospel, as some fanatics protest. On the other hand, I would gladly see all arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them. I therefore pray that every pious Christian would be pleased with this [the use of music in the service of the gospel] and lend his help if God has given him like or greater gifts. As it is, the world is too lax and indifferent about teaching and training the young for us to abet this trend. [Luther’s Works: American Edition, vol. 53:316, cited here: emphasis mine]

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