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January 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 1 · pp. 3–6 

The Uncertain Future of Christian Education

Loyal J. Martin

Where is Christian Education going? The answer depends largely on the orientation of the educators, whether mainline Protestant, evangelical, or Roman Catholic.

Robert Lynn, a student of nineteenth century American Protestantism, sees the future of liberal Protestant education as very uncertain. Mainstream Protestant Christian Education is rooted, he says, in the ethos of the last century and has not found itself in this one. Lynn and Elliott Wright point out that the Sunday School developed as

an expression of nineteenth century evangelical Protestantism and seems unable to thrive in any other theological climate. The churches that are having the greatest response to the Sunday School today—the Assemblies of God, Pentecostal Holiness churches and the Southern Baptists—are the churches that continue to profess the fundamentalist, nineteenth century evangelistic Christianity out of which the church school sprang. 1

Mainline Protestant churches have decided that this individualistic thrust of evangelical Protestantism is irrelevant and so find the Sunday School unsuited to the soil they are trying to cultivate. What Lynn and Wright either ignore or haven’t the courage to say is that the spiritual foundations of the mainstream they describe has crumbled. Therein lies the cause of its uncertainty.

But evangelical educators are also uncertain about the future shape of Christian Education. Delegates to a 1975 Christian Education conference called by Scripture Press Publications seemed to concede that evangelical Christian Education will continue to rally either around personality styles like Elmer Towns (aggressive growth) or Richards and Getz (renewal experiments) or will remain in fairly traditional molds. While the conference papers are collected under the title The Sunday School Today and Tomorrow 2, no real predictions were proposed. Futures were expressed with the modesty of “oughts.” Gilbert {4} Peterson, director of the School of Christian Education at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, did see some movement from the school model of Christian Education to the family model and the tutor-apprentice-discipleship model.

1. Will there be a resurgence of progressive education? If so, what form will it take? He thinks the influence of progressives like Holt, Moran, and John Westerhoff may already be waning. Whatever form the new ideas take in the next two decades, they should appeal far beyond a “small coterie of like-minded professionals.” Change must once more become the property of the layman, Lynn says. “Ironically . . . the most instructive model of that sort of movement in Christian Education is the very organization which stirred the first generation of progressives into rebellion and action—the Sunday School system of the nineteenth century.” 3 If Lynn is right it may well be that in this age of the laity a revival of the Sunday School is imminent. Certain signs would point to this revival of progressivism among lay people. Public school teachers have sometimes introduced very progressive ideas into their church work. Farmers, managers, and salesmen have transferred successful ideas from their businesses to the work of education. Such moves cannot help but spawn confidence in the viability of a nonprofessional yet progressive Christian Education movement.

2. Lynn further asks whether the church will be able to come to terms with a media oriented age. The network moguls are “the value brokers of contemporary America.” “Never before,” declares a research report from the Anenberg School of Communication, “have such large and heterogeneous publics—from nursery to nursing home, from ghetto to penthouse—shared so much of a system of messages and images, and the assumptions embedded in them.” Lynn says, “If you don’t watch television more than four hours a day, you’re in the culture, but not of it.” 4

Lyle Schaller voices the same concern. 5 Curriculum is written and taught today by persons born before 1950, quite often by those born before 1940. They were still raised in a culture that emphasized verbal skills (speaking, reading, writing, and listening). But in the last twenty-five years American society has placed more stress on non-verbal skills. The result is that children and young people who are visually oriented are taught by teachers with a verbal orientation using curriculum centered around verbal skills. The result is cultural dissonance. Such teachers do not overcome this dissonance by adopting technographic media: TV (broadcast, closed circuit, taped), movie production and viewing, audio cassette and eight-track cartridge. Our children think in whole new thought frames, and Christian educators must adapt to their style.

3. Lynn’s final question raises an almost contradictory issue. Will {5} Christian educators be able to work in a post-youth culture? “Few modern countries have been so obsessed with the virtues of being young.” 6 But “ageism” has taken its place alongside “racism” and “sexism” as a discriminatory word to be avoided. As the median age of the population shifts upward in the late 1970’s and 1980’s Christian Education will be hard pressed to adjust. A century of “reaching children and youth” is a tradition hard to change. Lynn points out that in each decade since World War I adult education “has been discovered, widely touted and praised, and then forgotten, only to be rediscovered several years later.” Repetition of this forgetfulness in the next decade will be a costly mistake. Westerhoff agrees with Lynn, saying the church urgently needs education for adults by adults in more adult ways. Another question one might add to Lynn’s as a focus on the future is, “Will the church be able to choose wisely if it copies society’s pell-mell rush to innovation?” Alvin Toeffler’s concern that mankind learn to control and plan technographic advancement rather than be dazed by future shock must become the concern of the church. There are a few hints that the rush to new programs, new curricula, new personnel has slightly abated. Rather than simply asking for new ideas churches seem more willing to evaluate needs, focusing more systematically toward these needs in planning programs.

The church will also need to look more critically at those who offer new programs. If “The Search for Noah’s Ark” is any omen, there will be a rash of programs and tools produced for the church by organizations with a secular orientation. There is a market in religious items, and the business world has only recently caught on. In a radio interview, the author of the book In Search of Noah’s Ark indicated that he had been approached by the producer who eventually filmed the movie “because they were looking for titles of appeal to the religious public.” Such producers may do an excellent technical job, but the church will need to be discerning of the advisors who interpret the Biblical and theological positions that are incorporated into these productions. Milliken, a long-time producer of teaching tools for public schools, has just released an entire line of overhead transparency and ditto master books of Bible studies and topical themes appropriate for church use. Careful review of the offerings of such publishers will be needed before their biblical and theological trustworthiness has been established.


What might one say of the future of Mennonite Brethren Christian Education? Urbanization and acculturation have weakened distinctives we once cherished. For this reason the forecasts dared for the rest of the church world will surely also be true of our denomination. Certain items may also distinguish us. {6}

As an upwardly mobile ethnic group we have been utilizing the education and the tools of the wider culture to promote that mobility. For that reason we are often caught copying things that are already losing their attraction in other circles. Or we sometimes adopt untried schemes to prove that we “have arrived.”

We are professionalizing and enlarging paid church staffs while main-line churches have already slowed the process of enlarging paid staffs. This is due both to affluence and the increased sophistication that we assume. Higher incomes and less free time drive people to the use of appliances, implements, and tools to buy time. The practice is carried over to church by buying professional help for the time we are no longer willing to volunteer.

We will continue the trend to diversity. There seems no inclination in the brotherhood to have one set of interests or directions set the pace for the whole. Interests among us range from Mennonite Central Committee peace convocations to Sunday School conventions, from Lyman Coleman’s Serendipity experiences to Bill Gothard’s Basic Youth Seminars, from Engstrom and Dayton’s management workshops to MacGavran’s church growth seminars. These are not necessarily contradictory, but they indicate the range of influences which inform our directions.

An Evangelical Covenant pastor remarked about Mennonite Brethren in the 1960’s. “Fifty years ago we were where you are now. I don’t wish you the pain but you will be changing.” That Christian Education—and Mennonite Brethren—have a future may be taken for granted. Their future shape remains uncertain.


  1. Robert W. Lynn and Elliott Wright, The Big Little School (New York: Harper and Row, 1971). Robert Lynn, “A Little More ‘Know-Why’, Please” (pp. 186-96) and Rachel Henderlite, “Asking the Right Question” (pp. 197-206), in A Colloquy on Christian Education, ed. John H. Westerhoff III (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1972). Quotes are from the chapter by Henderlite.
  2. Papers presented at the National Christian Education Study Seminar, Dec. 2-4, 1975, Scripture Press Ministries, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
  3. Robert Lynn, “A Historical Perspective on the Future of American Religious Education,” Foundations for Christian Education in an Era of Change, ed. Marvin J. Taylor (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), pp. 7-19.
  4. Lynn, 1976, p. 17.
  5. Lyle Schaller, The Parish Paper, March, 1976, p. 1.
  6. Lynn, 1976, p. 18.

Additional bibliography: David T. Collat and Roger D. Blackwell, Direction 1980: Changing Life-Styles. An Interpretive Analysis for Senior Executives (Columbus, Ohio: Management Horizons, 1972); Lawrence O. Richards, Interchange, Vol. I, No. 5; Lyle Schaller, The Change Agent: The Strategy of Innovative Leadership (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972).

Loyal Martin is assistant professor in Christian Education and also registrar at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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