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Choice and Diversity Supplant Denominational Identity and Traditional Curriculum in Sunday Schools

Time was when a vacationing Baptist could drop in on any church in the South and pick up a copy of the same Sunday school quarterly used back home. Today, more churches have ceased shopping exclusively at the company store, turning to a variety of publishers and formats catered to the needs and interests of their classes.

The trend is being felt in large denominational publishing houses, which no longer hold a monopoly even within their own denomination.

In August the United Methodist Publishing House laid off 30 of its roughly 500 employees in Nashville, Tenn., citing lower sales of traditional Sunday school curriculum.

LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention also said sales of traditional Sunday school courses have declined, though overall sales are up. In addition to its regular quarterly Sunday school lines, the SBC publisher relies on alternatives like videos and instructional guides by author and teacher Beth Moore.

“There’s a shift in the American church,” LifeWay spokesman Chip Turner told The Tennessean. “There’s going to continue to be the hardcore traditional, 11 (a.m.) to 2 p.m. (Sunday) thing. But people are kind of tired of showing up to church and checking a religious box for their spirituality.”

That trend is magnified among moderate Baptists sent shopping for alternatives to SBC literature that increasingly promoted a fundamentalist theological agenda into a wide-open market driven by consumer choice.

Established in 1991, at a time when many churches were abandoning Sunday-night classes going by names like discipleship training and church training, the Baptist Center for Ethics determined early on if there was a future for study of applied Christianity in moderate Baptist churches, it would be during the Sunday school hour.

The BCE’s publishing arm, Acacia Resources, began offering undated, on-line Bible study material as a low-cost alternative with “Real Baptists,” a 13-week study analyzing revisions adopted in 2000 to the Southern Baptist Convention faith statement The Baptist Faith & Message.

Other units followed on various books from the Old and New Testaments and in seasonal studies for Advent and Lent. Most recently BCE has branched into DVDs. Last year’s “Always Therefore: The Church’s Challenge of Global Poverty,” was the first DVD study, supported by a PDF student study guide and leader guide.

Last month BCE rolled out “Golden Rule Politics,” a film exploring the appropriate place of faith in politics while countering arguments of the Religious Right. A new DVD, “The Nazareth Manifesto,” describes the Luke 4 Bible passage providing the theme for a major Baptist gathering scheduled early next year in Atlanta.

Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., typically holds a January Bible Study, inviting a guest speaker over a weekend. Next year Aidsand Wright-Riggins, executive director of National Ministries of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., is scheduled to lead a study of BCE-produced “The Agenda: 8 Lessons from Luke 4.”

The American Baptist official is one of the writers enlisted for the study–available on-line and free of charge–which supports the theme of a New Baptist Covenant Celebration for Baptists from across North America scheduled Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in Atlanta.

Ten adult Sunday school classes at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., departed from their schedules for a simultaneous study of the Luke 4 lessons kicked off Sept. 2 in a church-wide convocation. The eight-week study will be followed by emphases on stewardship, Baptist heritage and Advent.

Deborah Friant, Bible study coordinator for NorthHaven Church in Norman, Okla., said the 3-year-old congregation affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist General Convention of Texas uses both traditional and non-traditional Sunday school materials. Friant said churchgoers definitely like having more choice.

“We are a congregation with varied backgrounds but have many members who have been long-time Christian scholars,” she said. “We have a very high number of retired or former pastors, missionaries or those who were active lay workers in Baptist life. Many are ‘survivors’ of the changes in the convention and they welcome the opportunity to have choice in their decisions regarding their curriculum as well as its delivery method.”

Friant said having choices also goes over well with visitors.

“One of our main goals as a church is to provide inclusion and a welcoming spirit to anyone who attends, whether they are members or not,” she said. “By making selections of materials based on current needs we can more fully minister to our members as well as our community. This also applies to making choices about current events which influence our beliefs and values as well as our affiliations and this makes the availability of on-line and media-connected lessons more valuable.”

The 15 adult classes at Westwood Baptist Church in Springfield, Va., “are all over the place in their choice of curriculum materials,” said Mark Brasler, minister for spiritual development at the church.

“We give the classes a major say in what they study, and most like this freedom,” Brasler said. “They also think it’s good that guests can use the various studies to differentiate classes.”

While Brasler said he likes the concept of choice, it actually makes his job harder. “Rather than ordering curriculum once a quarter, I’m constantly purchasing material,” he said. “And I have to keep up with various studies to help the classes in their choices.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.