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NEEDED REFORMS IN INSTRUCTION AND METHODS

IN THE SUNDAY SCHOOL.1

BY REV. A. E. DUNNING.

came.

This topic has been chosen for consideration in our National Council because present conditions demand important changes both in methods and instruction in the Sunday school. In three respects these conditions are insistent for reform.

First. New and wonderful discoveries have been made concerning the Bible. Whatever this Hebrew and primitive Christian literature is which has been so potent a force in forming Christianity, it did not come to men just as our fathers believed that it came, and as the American children of the last generation were taught that it

The hand and mind of man were more prominent in producing it than our teachers had discovered. It may be said truly that the new discoveries are only incidents in the history of the giving of the divine revelation to men. To substitute the study of these new things for the study of the word of life is to deform the Sunday school, not to reform it. Yet these new things must be taken into account, and we must find how to do it.

Second. New knowledge is available concerning the soul and its operations. It may be said truly that a clearer apprehension of the phenomena of human consciousness does not involve

any

radical change in human nature. Personal experience of fellowship with God is gained in the same way now as it has been in all Christian times, by knowledge of him through Jesus Christ and by repentance for sin and trust in him. This is still the purpose of the Sunday school. To substitute a science of psychology, or rather experiments in psychology, for this experience, is not to reform the Sunday school. Yet its leaders cannot ignore the new knowledge and still maintain the power of the Sunday school.

Third. A new education claims to present the necessity for important modifications in teaching, chiefly these :

That education should recognize the fitness of different minds for different work;

That the process of education should not be forbidding;

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That natural science should have a larger place than in former educational systems.

It may be said truly that professional educators are far from being agreed as to the application of these principles in mental discipline and development in secular schools. The attempts of amateur educators to apply these principles for the creation and culture of spiritual life may easily fall short of reforming the Sunday school. Yet it would be folly not to take account in our religious teaching of movements which profoundly affect the secular education of our children.

This age has given us a new Bible, a new psychology, a new pedagogy. These new things must be known, appropriated, and used by ministers and teachers. That is the substance of the reform needed for the Sunday school. But these new things do not change the essential things of which new knowledge has been discovered. We have the same truth from God, the same characters and the same relations between the teachers and the taught that our fathers had. The end of the Sunday school is always the transformation of human souls into the likeness of God and into harmony with him. If any movement for reform is to succeed, those who lead it must place the end above the means and must honor the end gained, whatever means are employed.

No extended co-operation in reform will be secured without fair recognition of present excellences of the Sunday school. It has made as great advance within the last twenty-five years as any other religious institution. As an adjunct of the church it has fully kept pace with the church. Its literature, in quantity and quality, has progressed as worthily as that of any department of knowledge. The class of minds engaged in Sunday-school teaching shows as high a degree of mental discipline as in any calling which is not confined to expert service. In many communities not less than twenty per cent of the teachers in the Sunday school are college graduates. Its work has been reduced within the present generation to a science, which awaits the skill to adapt it successfully to the heterogeneous masses of people of all ages and degrees of mental and spiritual attainment who may be gathered into the Sunday school. When that is done, reform will be an accomplished fact.

Accepting these premises, we may turn our attention to four principal matters in which reform is chiefly sought.

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The first of these is the methods of studying the Bible. It may be taken for granted that methods generally employed in Congregational Sunday schools are in harmony with the main conclusions of conservative and constructive higher criticism. It is impossible to escape from the influence of these conclusions even for those who contend against them. They are adopted in all modern Teacher's Bibles, so far as I know. They are assumed in all our lesson helps. They have taken their place in the vital religious thought of our time.

But the study of the processes by which these conclusions were reached cannot have any prominent attention in the Sunday school. The making of the Bible, its human authorship, structure, and method of inspiration, must be kept subordinate to the end of informing the soul with the words which are spirit and life, to making influential in disposition and conduct the truths revealed in the Bible proved through experience to be divine. We are chiefly concerned to find the best way to do this service.

It is not easy to describe many of the methods of Bible study whose advocates have labelled them with such adjectives as inductive, synthetic, catechetical, kindergarten, biographical, ethical, historical. Some of them mutually exclude one another. For example, one method would begin by introducing the child Jesus to Christ, and would make him the starting point and centre of instruction. Another would withhold from children the knowledge of Christ until the period of adolescence, teaching them first Old Testament biographies with stories of classic and Christian heroes and saints. These and many other schemes tempt to closer analysis, but no space for this is here available.

No one method to attain the highest end of the Sunday school through Bible study is best adapted to all persons at all times. One may do successfully what others cannot do. Some teachers are natural catechists. Others are born story tellers. Others are cxegetes; and a rarer company, whose ways cannot be described, are inspirers of faith and action. The sin of the Sunday-school reformer is to exalt the method he has invented or adopted, above the purpose of the Sunday school, as though apart from him it could do nothing. The wise policy is to encourage every one who has a plan which commends itself to put it to use. All methods must be judged by their fruits.

The International system of lessons demands special attention, because it has prevailed over all others throughout the tests of use in many nations for twenty-eight years. It has maintained the foremost place largely because of its simplicity. It is in fact only a flexible outline within which many methods may be employed. The most effective of the abundant adverse criticisms are directed, not against it, but against ways in which it is used by lesson writers and teachers.

Yet it goes without saying that under any treatment it is far from an ideal system for a homogeneous Sunday school that can be organized after the pattern of a public school. Its proper sphere is to help the helpless. A large proportion of Sunday schools cannot be compared with public schools. They have no leaders who could prepare a scheme of lessons. They accept this scheme because it is simple, because it comes to them approved by their denominations, and because it brings within their reach expositions of the Bible adapted to their understanding by experienced teachers.

This system has steadily improved for its acknowledged purposes. It has appropriated new knowledge of the Bible, and has recognized new methods of teaching; but it is plainly capable of further improvement. Its topics are often more extensive than its texts. The exigencies of publishers require that not more than a dozen verses of Scripture should be chopped off and labelled as a lesson. The label is often a libel. The committee ought to indicate the Scripture which belongs with the lesson, and to leave with editors and publishers the responsibility of rejecting such portions as they cannot find room to print. The committee resolved to do this, but retracted its position at the importunity of publishers. Probably the greatest mechanical hindrance to the usefulness of these lessons is the custom of printing such parts of them as can be put into a given space as though these parts were the whole. That book of the Bible which is being studied should be the only text in hand, and such text books, at a reasonable price, would be welcomed in many schools.

The imposition on the International System of quarterly lessons on the use of intoxicating liquors, an excrescence for which the committee is not responsible, is justified by no principle of pedagogy or morals. Lessons on specific lines of personal conduct, social reform, civil government, and other important matters may have proper place in the Sunday school even when they are not found in the ordinary course of Bible study; but they should not be made to appear as part of a system to which they do not belong.

It is believed by many that a graded system of Biblical lessons would be an improvement on the present system. These lesson outlines have been graded with growing skill to give to each department, primary, junior, intermediate, and senior, the treatment of the text best adapted to that department; but the demand seems to be growing for separate lesson topics for each department. Strong pedagogical reasons support this demand; but the difficulties in providing such courses for general use, as the International lessons are used, are, I believe, at present insurmountable. Our Sundayschool membership, teaching force, and administration are too heterogeneous, and opinions of those who advocate such courses as to what principles should govern their selection are too diverse, to warrant any general adoption of any one of them. Nevertheless, the experiment ought to be tried, and the lesson committee has allied itself for this purpose with an association of editors, to prepare three courses of study. Other persons are working toward the same end, and progress toward an ideal may at least be expected.

But no one system of lessons has preeminent claim on our Sunday schools. Those who can help themselves or others to a better system than the International ought to do so. If one is found better than this for the largest number, it will not long lack recognition.

The reform in Bible study methods, then, calls for improvement in the present system and encouragement of experiments to find better ones, but with fair consideration of conditions which make any system that might be ideal for a local school inapplicable to the mass of schools that most need help.

The second field of reform is in the teaching force of the Sunday school. With capable and fit officers and teachers, the best methods of study will certainly be found. The key to solve the problems of the Sunday-school reform is the teacher.

But the solution will not be found through attempts to model the Sunday school after the pattern of the day school, or to limit its leaders to those who pass standard examinations in the art of teaching or in the subjects to be taught. We might scare away some earnest men and women from their voluntary service by telling them of the tremendous responsibility they assume in attempting to guide immortal souls to their destiny without expert knowledge for

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