Sunday School and the Problem of Biblical Illiteracy

Bill Leonard, a professor of church history at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, has written an article on the sociology of Sunday School.  In his article, Leonard provides a brief review of the history of the Sunday School movement and its influence in the life of the church.

Below is an excerpt from Leonard’s article in which he describes the problem of Biblical illiteracy in American churches today:

These days, clergy and laity, professors and students alike generally agree that basic knowledge of the Bible is fast disappearing among Americans conservative, moderate and liberal. Indeed, in recent years I have occasionally received notes from undergraduate and graduate students reminding me that they “did not grow up studying the Bible,” and are not always clear as to the meaning or context of such phrases as “prodigal son,” “woman at the well” or “rich young ruler.” Such comments take me back to Sunday school, past and present.

Leonard’s article goes on to discuss the several contributions of the Sunday School to Christians over the years.  Some of these contributions include teaching the content of the Bible to generations of believers and instructing Christians on the basic teachings of the Bible.

He also provides several reasons why the Sunday School is losing its influence in the education of Christians.  Some of these reasons include the increase of biblical illiteracy inside the church, the decision of some churches to eliminate Sunday School for certain groups, and the intermittent participation of church members in regular Bible study.

I have written several posts on the problem of Biblical illiteracy.  See below a list of posts dealing with the problem of Biblical illiteracy.

The problem will not go away as long as Christians do not recognize the importance of regular, in-depth Bible study. Many churches have eliminated Sunday School in order to develop multiple worship services. The result is that a person can come to church to worship God without ever bringing his or her Bible to church.

Many years ago, a church of which I was a member announced that they had a box full of Bibles that were left in church over a period of several months. The pastor announced that people should come by the church office and claim their Bibles.  After several weeks of making the same announcement in church, not one Bible was claimed.  People had lost their Bible in church and never missed it.

I still believe that the Sunday School is one of the most effective ways to combat the problem of Biblical illiteracy that is so evident in America today. But since the Sunday School’s influence is waning, the church must find a substitute for the Sunday School, and find it fast.

Posts on Biblical Illiteracy:
Religious Illiteracy in America
The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy
The Problem of Theological Ignorance
Talk About Ignorance!
The Bible Comes to Disney World
How Much Bible Do You Know?
The Book of Hezekiah Again
Hezekiah 3:16
The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy
The Relevance of the Old Testament
If Your Mother Says She Loves You
The Looting of New Orleans

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6 Responses to Sunday School and the Problem of Biblical Illiteracy

  1. Kelly Wunderlich says:

    This is a problem, Many people think going to Church Service once a week is sufficient. Some people wake up and say… Wow I have not learned anything for 10 years, some leave their old Churchs, to try to find somehting that makes them feel like they are growing. The old saying still rings true… ” You get out of life … what you put into it”…. Here is to… praying… that people wake up!

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    • Kelly,

      The problem you mentioned in your comment happens often in today’s church. People have lost the sense that it is important to read and study the Bible. This is the reason Biblical illiteracy is so prevalent in our churches today.

      Claude Mariottini

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  2. chad brown says:

    Dr. Mariottini, While I agree with you that Biblical illiteracy is a huge problem, it does not naturally follow that “Sunday School” is the solution. There are other models including Christ Church of Oakbrook’s new model of integrating faith into the home where parents play a primary role in spiritual development. There are other sociological reasons why the old model of SS isn’t working. In addition, I think it’s a leap to conclude that offering multiple worship experiences diminishes the connection to Holy Scripture. The form, style and options of worship have little to do with this issue. While SS worked in the past for various reasons, I would be very interested in a study that shows a direct correlation between the loss of SS and a diminished Biblical understanding.

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    • Chad,

      I do not think Sunday School was the ideal solution. I also agree with you that multiple services do not diminish people’s connection with Holy Scripture. Time and space does not allow me to provide a full answer to the issues you raise. Let me say this: today’s Christians know very little of the content of the Bible. Thus, when people ask them a question about the Bible, many Christians cannot answer the question. Also, in today’s church, people come to the service, listen to a sermon, and then go home. They do not even have to bring a Bible to church because the text is projected on the big screen. The sermon may be a great sermon but most sermons do not provide enough knowledge of the content of the Bible. Thus, biblical illiteracy grows in our country.

      Claude Mariottini

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  3. Wellington King says:

    Dear Prof. Marionitti,

    Thank you for highlighting the interesting article by Bill Leonard.
    His original article, your post, and the comments so far do not directly discuss the changes that have occurred in the curricula and pedagogical methods used in Sunday school and other religious education. From what I know, religious education classes are less likely to cover the entire Bible, less likely to integrate rote memorization, and more likely to focus on subjective matters. Also secular education is less likely to include reading the Bible and classics that make frequent use of Biblical imagery. I think these changes have made recent generations more Biblically illiterate.

    I would suggest the idea of expecting people to bring codices of the Bible to church may be dated. Just as in response to late 18th-century social circumstances, Christians developed Sunday schools; perhaps, Christians actively and inventively need to incorporate the Bible into their smart phones, tablets, and iPod. Sunday school redeemed time students had dedicated to “inappropriate behavior.” Perhaps, creative applications of new technology in worship and religious instruction can similarly redeem the “free” time people now dedicate to “inappropriate behavior” with their electronic devices.

    Please pray for me and correct my mistakes,

    Wellington King

    P.S. When I followed the link in the blog post, I could not find the article: http://www.abpnews.com/opinion/item/6784-the-sociology-of-sunday-school#.UXhzkLWmj9o .

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    • Wellington,

      Thank you for your comment. I apologize for the delay in answering your comment. My blog was out for several days for repairs.

      The difference between Sunday School (and all other forms of Bible study) in the past and today, is that in the past Sunday School emphasized content which then concluded in application. Today the emphasis is on application with little emphasis on content. Thus, a person may know one or two lessons about the prodigal son without knowing where the passage in found in the Bible and without knowing the details of the story.

      It is fine for people to have the Bible in their iPhones or iPads, but they will only read the text without studying it. With an iPhone you cannot underline the text or make notes on the margins for future reference.

      Don’t get me wrong. I am all in favor of reading the Bible, but there is a difference between reading and studying the Bible.

      Claude Mariottini

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