by Kezia McNeal Curry

Do you remember the horror you felt when your friends described the girl or guy that you’d been set up with as “loves the Lord and has a great personality”? You thought that could mean only one thing . . . ugly! Often that same level of fear parallels the apprehension of many weekend students who make their way to our Sunday School classrooms, especially when they face a teacher who simply “loves kids and loves the Bible.” They automatically think . . . boring! Of course, you and I want our special someone to “love the Lord and have a great personality.” And who doesn’t want a Sunday School teacher who loves kids and the Bible? The problem comes when those descriptors become a nice way to cover up for important missing ingredients. Actually, the results could be dangerous.

Change, change, change

The Word of God does not change. It has not, and it will not. It remains relevant for all people, in all places, at all times (Isaiah 40:8; Hebrews 13:8). However, in recent times, the family of God, particularly in the United States, is experiencing change. Due to a large demographic shift, ethnic and cultural diversity is increasing, and our churches are beginning to reflect even more of the rich diversity found throughout the world. This change is good, because it is giving us a chance to practice for Heaven (Revelation 5:9). Diversity matters to God-first because He made us all individually unique and also because He has distinctly planned out what kinds of diversity each of us would posses (Acts 17:26).

Failure to assimilate change

K-12 schools in the U.S. were among the first to encounter increasing cultural diversity, but unfortunately too many of them have not risen to the challenge, as is evidenced by the disparaging academic achievement of students from diverse backgrounds and the lower levels of accomplishment of mainstream students in those schools. The church seems to be following suit in not addressing the critical needs of the changing population. According to the most recent report from the American Religious Identification Survey (2008), 86 percent of Americans identified themselves as Christians in 1990, while only 76 percent identified as Christians in 2008, showing a 10 percent decrease over the past 18 years.

Two significant factors that account for this change are the rejection of any form of organized religion, and “religion changing” coupled with increased Hispanic immigration. In essence, Americans are ceasing to look to the church for spiritual answers and guidance. Yes, evidence of spiritual decline is an expected sign of the end times (Matthew 24:3-12), and the survey’s definition of Christianity is too broad (Matthew 7:14). However, we cannot overlook our responsibility to the Great Commission and chalk it up to fulfillment of prophecy and ignorant people. The goal of the church is to make sure that people know Who Christ is. The primary teaching arm of the church, Sunday School, is implicated in this matter if we do not position it to be effective to reach those who are headed for destruction and lack knowledge.

Valuing diversity, engaging active learning

The K-12 schools that have been successful have intentionally focused on creating learning environments in which students’ diversity is valued and students are engaged in active learning. Interestingly, we can see these same principles in how the Master Teacher, Jesus, interacted with others and crafted His lessons (Mark 2:1-12; John 9:1-12). In fact, in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33-37), Jesus laid out the core principles of multicultural education that are found in current literature. In short, these principles address the need for educators to teach critical knowledge and skills using a variety of resources that are relevant to the diversity of students, are necessary for being productive citizens, and that promote authentic relationships in communities of action. Implementation of these principles in our Sunday Schools would help us in our efforts to edify the saints and reach the lost.

Valuing student diversity is both a recognition and inclusion of the differences students bring. To value diversity means that a high level of worth is assigned to students’ differences. The most seemingly obvious differences are often ethnicity, language, and socioeconomic status. Yet diversity is significantly present in even the most homogeneous class. For example, in a class of all African American students, there will be at least one who cannot sing well.

Let students know they are treasured

Learn and use the correct pronunciation of students’ names. A person’s name identifies who he or she is (even if it has 27 syllables and no known meaning), and it is one thing that truly belongs to a student. Teachers should make every effort to learn the names of students no matter how difficult. If students see that you are trying, they will extend grace and offer help. Saying to a student that his name is “strange” and coming up with a nickname for him because it’s too much work to use the correct name tells the student that you are not too concerned about him as an individual. Don’t be surprised when that student does not show interest in saying the weekly Bible verse correctly. In the Bible, God spends a great deal of time with names, even changing some (e.g., Jacob/Israel in Genesis 35:9, 10), because names are intended to define identity.

Conduct a student profile to learn about students’ backgrounds, interests, and skills. One of the key elements of public speaking is “know your audience.” This is true for a Sunday School class too. The better you know the students in your class, the easier it is to relate Biblical truths to their lives. A student profile does not have to be exhaustive in terms of content or energy. It is simply a collection of pertinent information about your students that helps you contextualize each one as a whole person, and not just as “Bob, the terror” in the junior high class. If the profile records are kept in some type of notebook, you can easily access them for reference while preparing a lesson.

Some of the items that can be included in a profile are family religious background, number of siblings, ethnic identity, birth order, organizational affiliations (e.g., Girl Scouts, community baseball team), spoken languages, and important family/cultural celebrations. Other kinds of items, such as special skills and interests, Bible knowledge, most happy/sad moments, and dreams and goals provide a snapshot of the lives and thoughts of the students. Of course, many types of items can be included, but the goal is to understand some of the factors that make the students unique, not to intimidate them. This endeavor is helpful even in a class in which the students have been part of the church all their lives. Inevitably a teacher will find out something new about a student that could very well be used as a turning point to enhance the student’s walk with Christ.

Provide each student at least one opportunity to be the center of positive attention. We all have a need to be recognized. For younger people, it often does not matter if the attention is positive or negative, just as long as someone notices them. During the course of a Sunday School lesson, there are multiple opportunities for a student to shine. For the primary-age student, being responsible for a particular job is rewarding, while older students often do well when they are responsible for presenting information to the class or gathering the information to be presented.

For example, our church has a bus ministry in which underprivileged children from the community are picked up on Sunday mornings for breakfast and church. I had the privilege of interacting with a young man who I’ll call Dylan. Now Dylan is very “energetic” and “verbose,” with not all of his energy and vocabulary being directed toward the things of the Lord, if you will. In other words, Dylan is a ruffian! His antics can make even the sweetest grandmother of the church readjust her wig!

One Sunday morning, Dylan was a complete livewire and was about to enter into a physical altercation. I removed Dylan from the situation and took him to a corner of the room to regain his composure. After he calmed, he went back to class, but I knew that he was still ruffled internally.

During the church service that morning, I provided special music. Before I sang, I called Dylan up to the front to stand next to me. I had discovered earlier that Dylan loves to sing, and during our talk, I told him that if he wanted to sing with me at service time he could. His nerves had gotten the best of him, so he didn’t want to sing. However, I proceeded to tell the entire congregation about Dylan’s leadership abilities and what he was learning about responsibility. I asked them to encourage him to use his leadership skills to become a great man of God who would do great things for the Lord. Finally, I asked the congregation to give him a hand to let him know how special he was. Ever since then, Dylan has become a new person. His conduct is improving and his prayers are becoming earnest conversations with the Father. At times he still goes into “retro-ruffian” mode, but he is making progress, and most importantly, he is growing more interested in Jesus. If nurtured, that growing interest will lead him into the arms of the Savior.

How to engage learning

Engaging students in active learning is the second principle that supports a positive learning environment. We know that only hearing the Word without acting on it is delusional (James 1:22). In a multicultural Sunday School class, especially one in which extensive diversity affects the communication process, it is crucial to connect the truth of the words being said to right actions. Following are two ways that can assist in making those connections.

Use student profile information to develop the lessons. Although the Biblical truth is central to the lesson, the information gained from students’ profiles can be helpful in making the point stick. For example, if one of the students is from a military family, teaching about the armor of God can take on new meaning. The student is more likely to see the importance of seeking God’s protection. Or if a student has limited English proficiency, having her translate John 3:16 into her language will give her a sense of what the apostles experienced on the Day of Pentecost, and it will simultaneously help her acquire better language skills.

Use technology to integrate cultural simulations from the Bible into lessons. Along with being the Word of God, the Bible is a book of cultural diversity that should be highlighted as such. In fact, God sovereignly chose Jewish culture and ethnicity as the backdrop for introducing Jesus. Re-creating some of the cultural conditions in the Bible gives students an opportunity to see what life was like for the characters involved. This adds a more human dimension to the heroes of the faith. “Traveling” to ancient times is possible now through the various modes of technology available. Many times, diverse students do not have ready access to the most current technology, and their technology skills need to be honed. Using the Internet, PowerPoint, video cameras, cell phones, iPods, etc., to teach the lesson helps to close the “digital divide” that exists between the haves and the have-nots.

Just like in New Testament churches

While these teaching suggestions are optional, the need to establish multicultural Sunday School classes is not. Our changing demographic is not unlike what the early church experienced when God was adding to the numbers daily. Not everyone in those numbers was Jewish, and challenges arose (Acts 10; 11). God’s answer was clear: “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (10:15). Whether the diversity in our classes is great or small, we have an obligation to God and man to “become all things to all men, that [we] might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Kezia McNeal Curry (PhD, Emory University) was assistant professor of education at Georgia State University. Recently she married Randy Curry, a GARBC U.S. Army chaplain, and the couple has just moved to Hawaii to begin serving the Lord there.