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Books: Stealth Sunday schools

Books | Has the humanistic education of public schools found a home in some Sunday schools and youth groups?

Issue: "End of the innocence," Jan. 30, 1999

The relativism, subjectivity, and pop-psychology of contemporary educational theories have wreaked havoc in America's schools and America's culture. So now they are being implemented in some evangelical Sunday schools. In their book Spiritual Junk Food, Cathy Mickels and Audrey McKeever show how the very ideas and methods many Christians have been battling in the public schools-from values clarification to touchy-feely exercises taking the place of academic content-have been enshrined in some Sunday School curricula and youth ministry programs. Many curriculum writers openly declare what they are trying to do. Thom Schultz, president of Group Publishing, wrote a book, Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church, in which he offers "cutting edge secular education models to help any church reinvent its approach to learning." What this means in practice is adopting the same fads from public schools that have made them ineffective. In today's curricular world, there are no wrong answers. Teachers can be reduced to non-directive "facilitators" because the emphasis often has switched from having students learn content (the memorizing of Scripture, for example, is ridiculed in many curriculum guides) to staging exercises that give the students various kinds of experiences. These are not necessarily even religious experiences-rather, they are experiences of self-actualization, group belonging, and other bromides of psychotherapy. The new curriculum borrows secular methods, and often borrows a secular worldview. Mrs. Mickels and Mrs. McKeever cite many examples, such as the lesson from Group that is designed to help Christian young people "think green." It includes an activity in which they are blindfolded and literally hug a tree (afterwards, as always, discussing how that made them feel). The Gospel According to St. Bernard, from Zig Ziglar, bills itself as "one of the most comprehensive theological and practical Christian courses available to the churches." The St. Bernard in the title is not the medieval monk, but the dog. The course is a series of videos and worksheets about Bernie, a St. Bernard who is really an angel, who has come down to earth to teach children supposedly biblical principles for daily life (many of which are highly questionable). Not only is there not much Jesus in this "Gospel," but Mrs. Mickels and Mrs. McKeever point out how this dog, in effect, replaces Jesus. It is Bernie who loves children, receives their love, and reveals God to them. The curriculum even encourages children to draw pictures of Bernie and hang them in their room to remind them of God's love and protection. (Is there a lesson on idolatry?) The authors devote most of the book to examinations of youth ministry programs. They demonstrate how many of them, even in conservative churches, are modeled after the "encounter groups" of humanistic psychology. A leader, using the techniques of "non-directive counseling," encourages participants to "open up," exposing their inner selves to a group. This supposedly helps in the process of "self-actualization." Today, many psychologists are concerned lest these techniques break down inhibitions that are natural and healthy. But, at any rate, encounter groups have almost nothing to do with biblical Christianity. Mrs. Mickels and Mrs. McKeever show how many of the ice-breaking activities and youth programming staples are borrowed straight from encounter group manuals. Readers will painfully recognize the "trust walks" with the blindfold, falling backwards into the group's supporting arms, "risk taking" wilderness experiences, and the ever-popular "ropes." Parents might be surprised at some of the activities common today in church youth groups, many of which are "touchy" as well as "feely" (with lap sitting games and touching exercises to show how you feel about the other person). If a major problem of young people today is peer pressure, why, ask the authors, are churches teaching their youth to put so much trust in their peers? If youth need to learn how to resist the temptations of the crowd, why are they being taught group conformity? "There is overwhelming evidence that the main objective of many contemporary youth group curricula is not about getting to know God," conclude the authors, "it is about getting to know yourself. The apparent objective is not about putting trust in God, it is about putting trust in others in your group. The inferred goal is not about seeking fellowship with God, it is about exploring your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences in an environment of relativism rather than absolutes." Are these approaches the only way to reach today's teenagers? Or are they, in fact, relics of the '60s that aging baby boomers are trying to impose on a more tough-minded generation, which finds such activities hopelessly lame? While most church's youth programs-which almost invariably use this approach-are not particularly well attended, there is evidence that young people today are hungering for spiritual content. A study by Barbara Resch, a music professor at Indiana-Purdue University (Ft. Wayne), found that teenagers from all church backgrounds-including the unchurched-overwhelming prefer traditional hymns, rather than pop compositions, as being "right for church." The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article on the religious traditionalism among young people today, for whom Gregorian chants and ancient prayers are now in vogue. The church needs to focus above all on what their children need in order to survive in an increasingly caustic spiritual environment. They need biblical literacy. They need moral and spiritual formation. And they need to be trained in discernment. As this book demonstrates, the same could be said of the adults who are supposed to be caring for them.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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