What's Wrong with Following the Lectionary for Sunday School?
a feisty article by Neil MacQueen
This original version of this article was written for Scroll, a CE magazine, and was posted at our old rotation site. It has been updated here. A lectionary is a list of Bible passages assigned to be used on certains days and Sundays, usually in a three year cycle. The idea is to "read through the Bible". Over a dozen mainline denominations follow the Common Lectionary for determining which scriptures to use in Worship. Many Sunday School curriculums follow that lectionary, and some create their own list or "story of the week". The Workshop Rotation Model does follow a "lectionary" of sorts. We call it a "Scope and Sequence". But as you will read, our concept of what to read and how often to change the story, is quite different than the traditional model of Sunday School.
The impossibility of following THE Lectionary for teaching our kids is plain to see when you look at a typical lectionary schedule of stories from a traditional lectionary-based curriculum:
This week: Deuteronomy: The Ten Commandments.
Next week: Romans: Paul's understanding of the Law.
Week after that: Matthew: Jesus' story of the Workers in the Vineyard.
The rate of change ALONE creates problems, let alone the jumping around. And then there's the issue of finding yourself teaching stories from the less kid-friendly parts of the canon.
WHY should a third grader be reading in Deuteronomy like their parents, when they don't yet know the story of the Exodus or the Cross?
HOW can a third grader learn enough about the Commandments in 45 minutes to make them meaningful and memorable? This is how Bible illiteracy happens!
WHAT have we done to that poor teacher by making them come up with a brand new creative lesson plan for a different story every week, ...and being asked to teach "the Commandments" in 45 minutes or less to a group of kids who have never heard of them before? ...and good luck coming up with a creative lesson on the story of the Workers in the Vineyard, or Man with the Withered Hand, or David and the Priests at Nob, or....
What business does that third grader have in Romans if they don't remember the lesson from the week before, and don't yet know the basic story of Jesus? And how developmentally appropriate is it to be teaching important concepts to a 3rd grader using Paul's rhetorical arguments instead of a more simpler story?
Is the story of the Workers in the Vineyard one of the most important Gospel stories we can teach that third grader (on par with the Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan, or Stilling the Storm), or is it a "second or third tier story" for when they're older?
Even the newer lectionary-based curriculums for kids continue this insanity.
Here's a three week sequence of lessons from a new curriculum published by my denomination:
Week Two: The third graders are in James, "exploring what it means to live in Christian community."
Week Three: The third graders are in Mark reading about Peter's declaration of Jesus as Messiah.
Even if these were really creative lessons, they move too fast, and our kids end up not knowing the major stories. I like the Letter of James, but it is more important than the Gospel of Matthew for our kids? No. And we only have so many classes with them. If you were in third grade and missed Week 2, you never get the lesson about the importance of living in a Christian community.Nice graphics and website, though.
Basic Educational Rule:
If it's important to teach once, then you have to teach it several times in order for it to stick. And since we can't enforce attendance or attention, we need to prioritize which stories we want to MAKE SURE our typical attenders get repeated.
The CYNIC in me notes that changing the story every week, and trying to plow through vast quantities of scripture in 3 year cycles, --which is what following the Common Lectionary does, is a great model if you're selling paper, or if you're a denominational writer, or if you're preaching, or if you're a seminary professor who sits on the Lectionary committee. It makes no sense for kids and teachers and the reality of Sunday School today.
Using lectionary-based curriculum is advertised by publishers as a way for "parents and kids to be able to talk about the same story at home." Nice idea but....
Dad: "So kids, what did you think of the Deuteronomist's version of the Commandments?
To them I simply say: When did our children become adults?
What business does a child have learning from Judges and Thessalonians when they don't yet know Genesis or the Gospels? And again, we only have SO MANY SUNDAYS. And it takes repeated lessons to create long-term memory. Why are we switching the stories so fast?
We have 50 years of Sunday School lectionary-style curriculum and also 50 years of bored kids, boring lessons, and a Bible illiterate generation. Coincidence? Perhaps it has not only NOT worked for the kids, but not worked for the adults as well.
And yet they keep re-packaging this idea...
The publishers want us to believe that if we only purchased a BETTER lectionary-based curriculum, or a better list of stories, we'd solve this problem. (If you agree, order today.)
But there is another solution that's educationally and theologically sound:
~ SLOW DOWN & Repeat Key Content ~
Repetition is the cornerstone of ALL learning, and it takes time. Let's take our time with kids learning the MAJOR stories of the Bible in-depth. This is true whether you're learning how to shoot a free-throw, or understand a story.
If they don't know the Parable of the Prodigal Son or Story of the Cross, what business do we have taking valuable time in Romans, or Judges, or some of the minor sayings in the Gospels?
The lectionary does repeat, but teaching a key story one week every three years isn't a great idea either. Try that with playing golf, and teaching your baby how to walk. The basic brain science says: TEACH and REPEAT, ...and REPEAT.
Repetition is the key to volunteer teaching too. We all know how to teach something better after we've taught it for the first time. The Rotation Model takes advantage of these truths by spending four to five weeks PER MAJOR STORY.
If you're looking for a model of Sunday School that...
- slows down the rate of story change for the kids
- focuses on the Major Bible stories
- let's teachers teach creatively without having to come up with something new every week
- and doesn't require the purchase of expensive lectionary-based curriculum
...then look into the Workshop Rotation Model at www.rotation.org.
Why are we still using the current lectionary in worship with Biblically illiterate adults?
Some re-thinking needs to be done there too.
Lectionaries are tools. But too often they are designed to be shovels.
And we know from decades of experience that shoveling scripture at kids and adults doesn't work.
It only makes the hole deeper.
Neil is a Presbyterian minister, rabble rouser, and contributor to rotation.org.
This original version of this article was written for a CE magazine and was posted at our old rotation site. It has been updated here.