There are some things that are just difficult to teach to a Sunday school group that is diverse.
My Sunday school class is studying a book called The Great Commandment Principle by David Ferguson. There are a few very good things about this book, and I'm glad. There are some pretty difficult ones from both a personal and a teaching view.
Ferguson more than once demonstrates his bias toward the "family church" mentality. This is very different, in my view, from the "church as family" mentality. The "family church" mentality views the church as a group of families--and if someone doesn't have a family at church, let's just pretend. Single adults should be friends with other single adults; married people should focus on their spouses. If something emotionally intimate is shared, it is obviously shared within the confines of these relational boundaries. The following quote demonstrates this.
the Friday night service was nearing conclusion. I was speaking to about a thousand pastors and lay leaders gathered for one of our regional ministry training conferences. My text was Romans 12:15: "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." During our time of worship we experienced the first part of that verse, rejoicing together in God's goodness and grace. Then I emphasized the testimony of love that results when we share our hurts and discouragements with one another and receive God's comfort from one another as the Bible instructs.
At the close of my message I encouraged everyone to turn to someone nearby—spouse, family member, or friend—and share a memory of personal pain. It could be as small or great a pain as they cared to disclose, something recent or from the past. As each individual spoke, his or her partner was to listen and express godly comfort.
As people shared their hurts and comforted one another, many exchanged spontaneous, tender embraces, and a few tears began to flow. I slipped away from the platform and circled behind the crowd near the main doors, rejoicing as I contemplated the Father's joy. His children were moving beyond hearing his Word to actually experiencing it.
While I stood there watching, the door opened behind me, and a man walked in. He was about thirty years old, nice looking, and casually dressed. I found out later that Ray, who was not a believer, lived in the neighborhood and was out for an evening walk. Curious about why the church parking lot was full on a Friday night, he had stepped inside to take a look.
He walked over near me and surveyed the sea of people. Obviously perplexed at the sight, he asked, "What are they doing?"
"They're comforting one another," I explained.
Ray continued to watch the people share their hurts and tenderly embrace—married couples, single adults, and entire families. Tears formed in his eyes, and there was a longing in his voice. "That's what I need." (pp. 1-2)
I wondered if Ferguson imagined that anyone might attend that conference without their family and thus be sharing a painful memory with someone who is not their spouse--perhaps even a stranger.
Ferguson does a decent job of discussing the aloneness that single people can feel in a family-oriented society in chapter 3; but he lets me down later in the book. His assumption that all of the single person's friendships are with other singles assumes first of all that there are plenty of singles around, second that they have enough in common to sustain a friendship, and third that there is really no need or reason to nurture friendships with anyone who is married. This includes friendships between single and married men or friendships between single and married women. He betrays his bias most when he says, "His desire for every marriage, family, and single adult friendship is a deep, loving intimacy with himself and others." (p. 54) On p. 60, he goes so far as to propose that the relevant church is one where if someone does not come with a family, an artificial family of sorts gets created for them.
Come with me as we look in on a service being conducted in a Great Commandment church. Imagine that this may be what a relevant twenty-first-century church looks like. What you are about to witness may seem implausible or unrealistic. You may wonder if this kind of service is practical in your church. Let me assure you that this type of service is happening in many churches in this country and around the world.
As we enter the church hall for an evening service, the congregation is clustered in small family groups: moms and dads with their children, single adults—and teens unaccompanied by par ents—gathered in groups of three or four, or participating as "extended family," temporary "aunts" and "uncles" in the family groups. The minister has just completed his teaching on Christ's perfect love and is leading the congregation in reciting together 1 John 4:18: "Perfect love drives out fear."
Now he prepares to lead the congregation to make application of the passage by experiencing its truth. He places a slide on the over- head projector, and the following assignment floods the screen:
"Take turns verbalizing your love and commitment to each member of your group. Be specific and sincere."
This passage disturbed me to the core when I was preparing for the lesson that week. If I was in that scenario, it would just remind me that I was alone and expected to pretend to be family while the real families are all around me experiencing genuine family. I tried to put my own feelings aside; but I asked someone to read the passage aloud in class so that people could discuss it. One of the other single adults said that she would feel extremely uncomfortable with this kind of set-up.
Chapters 9 and 10 focus on very deep marital issues. As a divorced person, I anticipated some emotional difficulty with these chapters simply due to the bias. They were not as difficult as I expected; but it is difficult to teach about dealing with a troubled marriage in a class where a significant percentage of the group are single. We did this last week. The married people were uncomfortable with the delivery of the book material (not my teaching). David Ferguson married very young and experienced deep trouble in his marriage. In these two chapters, he and his wife share very deeply about their healing process. Interestingly, I was comfortable with this. I have been through a divorce; so the concept of trouble and healing really does not bother me. I am also accustomed to the idea of writing about trouble for the purpose of teaching about growth. However, some people are not comfortable reading dialogues like the Fergusons share. One person said that she felt like she was viewing their private life. I can understand why.
Chapter 11 concerns relationships with one's children. Again, this will be difficult to teach with a diverse group which includes some who have never married and some who married and never had children. Attendance is unpredictable. In order to teach this chapter adequately, I'd like to have at least two members present who have children.
The bottom line of this post is that I really would like to see Sunday school material have a broader focus unless the group is especially single-minded (e.g. young marrieds), and I think that is something very much worth taking into account in choosing the next study material. Jim Wallace's The Call to Conversion went very well, and I think that sets a good standard. This book really does not meet that standard.