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January 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 1 · pp. 7–11 

Trends in Christian Education in Mennonite Brethren Churches

John Unger and Dennis Becker

“The only trend we have is that we have no trends,” responded a friend when he heard of our assignment. It seemed to him that each church was going its own way and doing its own thing. This may in one sense be true, for we do not have a single Christian Education program developed by our conference offices for our churches. But as each church charts its own course, certain patterns emerge. Things are happening in many churches which, while happening separately, do form trends.


When people think of Christian Education, they usually think first of Sunday School. For a number of years this has been the primary agency of Christian Education. Today, however, churches are utilizing many different agencies of Christian Education: Sunday School, Midweek Clubs, Children’s Church, Libraries, Small Group Bible Studies, Cradle Roll, and National Youth Conventions. Each of these is flourishing somewhere among our churches.

The Sunday School is alive and improving. Some think the day of the Sunday School is past. We think not. It has its problems but also {8} its strengths. Decreasing attendance and the difference between Worship Service attendance and Sunday School attendance has brought a new awareness of the need to teach the Bible in a life-related way and to be concerned about the quality of teaching. This awareness will strengthen the Sunday School, and it will remain a center for Bible study.

Many churches are developing strong Midweek Programs centered around the club concept for children. Christian Service Brigade, Pioneer Girls, Awana, and Success With Youth programs have been leaders in this area. Midweek programs of equal strength must be developed for adults.

Children’s church has many proponents and opponents. Opponents think that children should learn to worship in the adult setting. Proponents want a worship service suited to the needs and interests of the children. A number of churches have reached a compromise in having children’s church during the “sermon” part of the regular worship service. As publishing companies have developed materials for Children’s Church, an increasing number of churches are using this agency for the nurture of young children.

The church library will come into focus as a tool for Christian Education. With the secular emphasis on continuing education, adults are reading more. The success of a church library often depends on the individual librarian. If the librarian is aggressive in promoting the library, interested in reading, and willing to work, other people in the church will also read.

Small Group Bible Studies have been the “in” thing for a number of years. Some Mennonite Brethren churches are using them very effectively. For some adults, they have replaced the Midweek Bible Study. Perhaps the reason is a need for more intimate fellowship. This may be one way to develop a strong midweek program for adults.

We see a trend toward varied summer ministries in our churches. Some churches have Day Camps, others Back Yard Bible Clubs, still others some kind of family ministry. Children and young people from almost all churches are involved in a summer camping program, either a church or denominationally sponsored camp or that of another church organization. There is a trend away from Vacation Bible Schools. First, the ten day school dropped to a five day school. Then a shorter evening session was substituted for a three to four hour day session. Now we see many churches dropping Vacation Bible School altogether in favor of other summer ministries we have mentioned.

Youth activities which give a wider exposure than does the local church group shows that young people and their leaders feel a need for greater fellowship and learning opportunities than are currently {9} available in a local church setting. “Banff’ for Canadian youth and “Glorieta” for U.S. youth have met this need. The wide range of workshops in these settings show that young people are not only ready for fun but also for fellowship and learning in many of the areas affecting their lives.

Along with all the agencies tied directly to the local church, new emphasis is being given to the home. More parents are accepting their responsibility for the Christian nurture of their children. Churches are holding family conferences. Family camps are a part of almost any large camping organization. Individual churches are having family campouts.

Are these agencies effective? Has the Sunday School “had it”? Is the midweek program worthwhile? Periodically churches must answer these questions.

One question we then need to consider is “What is the agency of decision-making in our Christian Education programs?” Where do children, young people, and adults make decisions regarding their Christian lives? Salvation and dedication decisions were at one time made in “revival meetings,” or Sunday School. It now seems that most decisions, at least among children and youth, are made in some kind of summer ministry—either Vacation Bible School, summer camps, or other summer programs. Churches today are focusing on day to day Christian living rather than on decisions for salvation and/or dedication.

In all the Christian Education agencies of the church, there is an attempt to “downplay” numbers and to be more concerned with the content of the learning experience. The emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.


What are people looking for in their Christian Education curriculum materials? Churches formerly wanted to know how much a curriculum cost and how easy it was to teach. They are now looking for more than this. They are looking for a curriculum to meet their needs. People are searching for new spiritual moorings. People in our churches want to know what the Christian life is all about and how to live it.

We also sense a concern that our curriculum express our identity. The curriculum must be consistent with our beliefs. Who are we as Anabaptists? Who are we as Mennonite Brethren? Who are we as the people of God?

Curriculum publishers are moving rapidly to meet the trend toward relationships in Christian Education. The pupil in the class wants to express his feelings and ideas, not just listen. Pupils want to relate to each other. They want “body life.” With the move toward relationships {10} comes the need to understand people. It is not enough just to exchange ideas and feelings. People want to understand each other; they want to take time to listen.

Do people feel that the present curriculum is meeting these concerns? Officially our denomination recommends Scripture Press materials; however, churches are free to choose whichever curriculum they like. A majority of our churches are using Scripture Press but are expressing some concerns about it. Others are completely satisfied with the materials.

Materials other than Scripture Press are increasingly used in our churches. Many churches use Gospel Light materials in some part of their education program. A smaller number are using David C. Cook curriculum items. Electives are becoming popular at the adult level. This popularity is also sifting down to the high school classes. Curriculum publishers are producing materials to be used as electives on these levels. There is a danger that the Christian Education program becomes fragmented if electives are not supervised. There is also the danger of moving from the study of God’s Word to the study of man’s ideas.

A new Anabaptist curriculum will soon appear as The Foundation Series. This is a cooperative publishing project of the Brethren in Christ Church, the Mennonite Church, and the General Conference Mennonite Church. It is an attempt to teach the Anabaptist interpretation of the Christian faith in a believer’s church setting. Curriculum materials for grades one through eight will be available in September, 1977. The Mennonite Brethren Church has chosen for various reasons, including theology, not to become a publishing partner in this venture.

Currently there is some discussion among Mennonite groups about the possibility of extending the Foundation Series to include youth and adult curriculum. This has again raised the question of our participation. We feel that our denomination has become even more polarized on this issue since the last discussion. We find people who favor the use of the Anabaptist curriculum and people who oppose it. As the curriculum reaches the market, we will want to review it seriously.

We previously mentioned the movement toward the home as an agency for Christian nurture. Various groups are developing materials to meet this concern. “Sunday School Plus” from Renewal Research Associates is finding acceptance in some of our churches. Only a few churches are using the materials, but a larger number are looking at it with interest. The U.S. Christian Education Commission is developing a Family Life Curriculum to help people make the home an agency for Christian Education. This is an elective study course which focuses on the home and can be used in many church agencies. {11}


Two trends appear in the organizational aspects of Christian Education. One is a restructuring to allow greater flexibility in the Christian Education program. Churches are creating Christian Education boards to do open-ended thinking about the entire range of Christian Education activities. Another reorganization possibility that some churches are using is that of “age-level” coordinators. Certain people are made responsible for a particular age group. Both approaches allow Christian Education Boards to think creatively about the total Christian Educational program of the church without defending any particular agencies simply because they are personally involved in it.

The second organizational trend is the move toward a multiple staff ministry. More and more churches have salaried associate pastors in the area of Christian Education and youth. In these areas churches are sensing a growing need for specialized training. Churches are also sensing that the work of the pastor is so complex that no one man alone has the gifts necessary to fulfill the responsibility alone.

In addition to specialists on the church staff, churches in increasing number are sensing a need for specialized training for their lay leadership. John Unger and Dennis Becker are both available for local staff training and find good response and interest in the churches which they visit.

In addition, churches are finding training opportunities in interdenominational organizations. Gospel Light’s International Center for Learning (ICL) is finding wide acceptance in our churches. Scripture Press is also developing a teacher training program. Pioneer Girls and Christian Service Brigade offer training opportunities to churches using their programs. Our own Service Training Program is being used in some churches.

We sense a greater emphasis being placed on spiritual gifts in the Christian Education ministry of the church. More and more churches are appointing their Christian Education staff on the basis of the individual’s spiritual gifts rather than on the basis of a church election.

Christians are brought to full maturity in Christ in many different ways. It is our hope that in the future a greater emphasis on Christian Education in the local church will contribute to “presenting every man mature in Christ.”

Dennis Becker is Executive Secretary of the Board of Evangelism and Christian Education (U.S.A.) Fresno, California
John Unger is Executive Secretary for the Board of Christian Education (Canada) Winnipeg, Manitoba
Unger and Becker were asked by Direction to submit a report on trends in Christian Education among Mennonite Brethren Churches. Although they caution that this article is based on observation rather than on formal research, their travels among the churches (John Unger for the past two years; Dennis Becker for the past year) give weight to their observations.

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