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Moderate Baptist Publisher Dropping Preschool, Children’s Lines

The unofficial publisher of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is discontinuing Sunday school curriculum for children and preschoolers, saying not enough churches use the material to justify what it costs to produce it.

David Cassady, executive vice president and publisher of Smyth & Helwys Publishing in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Macon, Ga., in December wrote churches that have purchased the FaithSteps preschool and children’s curriculum to notify them the line would be discontinued after the first trimester in 2006, which ends April 30. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
A privately owned, for-profit business, Smyth & Helwys is listed as a “partner” of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but, according to its Web site, does not receive funding from any denomination or outside group. Cassady said Smyth & Helwys has invested nearly $1 million in children’s Christian education over the years, but failed to develop a large enough “critical mass of users” to overcome losses in the children’s and preschool products.
 
“For a variety of reasons, many churches have not found FaithSteps to be the best choice for resources to support their ministry with preschoolers and children,” he said. “We realize that our efforts at providing quality Bible study for preschoolers and children have not been compelling enough to attract churches to the series.”
 
As a result, Cassady said, Smyth & Helwys “has reluctantly chosen” to cease print publication of FaithSteps at the end of April 2006. Churches unable to find replacement curriculum by that time may request a free CD-ROM containing files for enough teaching guides, leaflet pages and resource kits to cover through August.
 
Established in 1990 as a book publisher, Smyth & Helwys began producing Bible study material after churches demanded alternatives to curriculum of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Sunday School Board (since renamed LifeWay Christian Resources), which increasingly adopted a fundamentalist slant.
 
Smyth & Helwys launched its adult Formations Bible study curriculum in the fall of 1991 and added children’s and youth material a year later, giving the publisher a full graded line of Sunday school curriculum.
 
The company launched FaithSteps in 1996. Introduced as a flexible and fun-to-use resource for “teaching children how to grow with God,” the curriculum sought to both impart knowledge and encourage children to use their own creativity and imagination.
 
While children’s literature was “never a money-maker” for Smyth & Helwys, then-company spokesman Ben McDade, who now works for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said in 1995, “it’s a line we’re committed to.”
 
But in his letter to churches, Cassady said much has changed in Christian education since Smyth & Helwys began publishing children’s literature in 1992. Today churches are more likely to use a variety of resources than a single product, and some have even taken to writing their own children’s curriculum.
 
While 95 percent of Protestant churches have some form of Sunday school, pollster George Barna says, trends suggest it is becoming a lower priority for many. Fewer pastors list Sunday school as their church’s No. 1 priority, and increasing numbers of churches were dropping Sunday school for younger and older children.
 
The fastest-moving shift in Sunday school, Barna said, is the move toward “customized” curriculum. Nearly one church in five (18 percent) now creates its own curriculum for elementary-age classes, nearly double the percentage three years earlier.
 
“These realities have made it difficult for FaithSteps to reach the critical mass of users required to support the publication of such an expansive curriculum,” Cassady said. “For more than 13 years Smyth & Helwys Publishing has gladly invested nearly a million dollars in children’s Christian education resources. Since we have chosen to remain free and independent, no funds from external agencies are used to help support these publications. Ultimately even the strength of our investment is not enough to overcome the size of the deficits the series is producing.”
 
According to the company Web site, more than 3,000 churches use Smyth & Helwys resources. The company will continue to publish Vacation Bible School material for children, and plans upgrades for its adult and youth resources in the coming year, Cassady said.
 
“Smyth & Helwys has deeply appreciated the opportunity to participate in your ministry with children through FaithSteps,” Cassady said. “We hope that the stories and activities in our materials have enriched the growing faith of your preschoolers and children.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.