Stupid Christian Education

I keep getting requests for copies of this article and permission to reprint it so I thought I would just re-post it here.  I originally posted it last November.

What do you know about God?  What have you learned about Jesus Christ in the past few weeks?  How readily can you apply what you learn to your daily life?  Recent research into the learning patterns of United Methodist adults indicate that these questions are irrelevant.  Four-out-of-five UM adults (80.4%) report “little” or “no” interest in Sunday school, Bible study, or small group formation experiences.  Two-out-of-five (39.1%) claim that believing that Jesus Christ is God’s true son is enough — since they have a guaranteed spot in heaven, there is nothing else of value to learn.  An additional 48% believe that attending weekly worship is adequate, and that there is no need for any other formational experience in their lives.

bored“Boring” is the number one word or phrase associated with Sunday school (among all adults), and “fellowship with friends” is the number one reason adults attend Sunday school classes.  Those adults who attend Bible studies find them “interesting” and “informative,” but only 1-in-6 (17%) report finding practical information that applies to their daily lives. We asked participants in the study to “grade” the United Methodist curriculum they use in Sunday school classes. The most frequent grade is “C-“. (Disciple Bible Study I & II, B+; other Disciple Studies, B.) Satisfaction with a class or study has more to do with liking the instructor or liking each other than it does liking the materials.

Among congregational leaders with some teaching responsibility, 50% feel very satisfied with the classes, studies, and small groups they lead.  Of course, that means that 50% are less than ‘satisfied.’  Teaching provides deep satisfaction for many teachers, but also contains more than a few frustrations.  Getting new students is a struggle.  Meeting the needs of existing students is basically simple — the people who like classes and studies tend to stick with them.  This is a mixed blessing — many teachers report seeing the same people over and over — good for community, not so good for launching disciples.

The vast majority of Christian educators report that most students see classes and studies as an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end.  Information is a higher value, it seems, than either formation or transformation. Fewer than ten percent of the teachers in the sample (8.3%) said that they had a purpose in teaching beyond sharing information and generating discussion. The sense that there is little “practical knowledge” in Bible studies and other Christian Education experiences is shared by both teachers and participants alike.

As to succession statistics, only about 1-in-70 regular students step forward to teach.  Generally, a handful of committed teachers teach for a long period of time — 12% of the sample surveyed have been teaching for 20 years or more; 55% have been teaching for at least ten years.  Getting new teachers is difficult; getting rid of long-time poor teachers is even harder.

Interestingly, people outside the church seem more interested in Christian education than churchgoers.  Those who teach in prisons, at universities, at nursing homes, in public schools (after hours, of course), etc., find that their audience is much more interested in learning about the faith than is the audience for those who teach in churches.

Retention rates are exceptionally poor.  About one-third (31%) of regular Sunday school attendees can remember what their class was about within the first 24 hours.  This drops to less than 10% after one week, 3% after two weeks, and essentially 0% after three weeks.  Of course, retention is slightly higher when a series is taught over time, but only slightly.  Most Christian educators do not employ any tool or process to monitor or evaluate learning and retention.  Nine-out-of-ten teachers use attendance as the primary measure of how well their class is going, not any clear sense of what people are learning or how they are growing.

Most adults who do not believe there is any value in Christian education for themselves are adamant that Christian education for children and youth is essential.  Interestingly, 87% of the survey respondents said they are not interested in what is being taught in children’s Sunday school, but an equal amount believe it is important for children to attend.

Some of the responses to interview questions pose some interesting reflections:

  • “I don’t have time.  I want to learn things that help me be a better person.  Church history and Bible stories really don’t apply to my life.”
  • “I went to Sunday school when I was a kid.  I learned what I needed to learn to believe in Jesus and join the church.  I tried an adult class a few years ago and all it was was more of what I already learned.”
  • “Sitting in a room pouring over dusty books and dustier ideas isn’t going to feed the hungry or stop domestic violence.  We need to do more, not just talk more.”
  • “I go for the people.  I can’t tell you what we learned last week…”
  • “I teach because I like teaching.  I really don’t care whether people like what I teach — I just want to do a good job teaching.”

4 replies

  1. Truth in this. The most significant classes I have taught were those with some accountability for what the class members learned: Bethel Bible Series and Disciple, teacher training phases. Also, I remember reading Rick Warren’s lectures on Saddleback’s adult education program and noting that the classes were mandatory for membership and set up like college courses where students were actually expected to learn and retain before going on to the next class. We UMs have not recently been known for being a high demand church.

  2. I attended an adult class in which the topic was forgiveness. The class teacher summarized the book, AMISH GRACE and engaged us in discussion about this book which had to do with the response of the Amish community to the killing of Amish school children and the forgiveness extended by the Amish to the family of the murderer.

    The class was personally helpful to me in distinquishing between forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation. Each one distinct and not the same as the other. I believe it had the same effect for the other participants.

    What was also significant was that the Amish teach by practicing their faith, not just talking about it. The fault of much Christian adult ed is that it doesn’t engage people at that level but remains in the realm of ideas, as though ideas were enough to bring about personal change, and they are not.

    Sarah Flynn March 23, 2009

    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah. There are good classes, and there are good education processes, and I don’t want anyone to think that we didn’t find positive things in our study. In fact, one of the great frustrations of many who teach and lead very valuable processes is that so few are interested in availing themselves of life-affirming, transformative, and truly education experiences. It is always good to hear of positive experiences, and what specifically made them so valuable.

  3. Wish I could say it is better among Southern Baptists, Dan, but probably not a lot different. I’m becoming more and more convinced that the key is not a denominational-wide emphasis, or even a local-church initiative, but rather at the individual class level. That’s the premise of my new little book: Connect3 (“to the third power”): The Power of One Sunday School Class, which can be downloaded free at I know of one UM church in Indiana that is using it.

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