40 (Serious) Sunday School Ideas

Quick Thoughts Jul 18, 2018

Lest I be accused of vaguery, I’m sure somebody is going to ask, “What do you mean by a serious Sunday School class?”

Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way: all classes are only as good as the teacher leading them and the content that’s taught. This is a basic form and content integration that marks all good education. So a serious class needs a great teacher and great materials.

We can talk about great teachers some other time, but in terms of great materials, there are 66 books in the Protestant bible, so that’s 66 Sunday School class ideas right there. If we add Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, and Biblical Theology, that’s another 3 classes. A church history class that looks both at pre- and post- reformation eras is another 2 classes.

That totals to 71. But if serious-minded Sunday school leaders are looking for ideas a little more off the beaten path, below is a brainstorm of 40 more ideas in no particular order at all.

1. Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger

An exploration of the development of the Old Testament canon and why protestant Bibles exclude the Greek additions. I’m stealing Catholic researcher, Gary Michuta’s title here, but I think it’s a good framing of the discussion.

2. The Apocrapha: History and Legends of the Silent Years

Protestants should know what the Apocryphal books are and what they do. The above idea focuses on the debate about the apocrypha, this one looks at the material itself. It’s probably a two part class (one of the historical books and one for the more exciting ones). 

3. Josephus: The Man Who Wrote History

Virtually every New Testament study will lean heavily on Josephus. This class can be taught as a normal historical class, just using War of the Jews as the source text (I think Antiquities might be a bit long, and doing his whole corpus might make it too fast, but it’s worth exploring)

4. How Weird Are We? Denominations in Context

If you’re a member of denomination (or not), knowing the difference between all the denominations (and whether the number of denominations is really aren’t 30,000) can help us situate ourselves both theological and historically. I also think that, as denominational gives way to nondenominationalism, we can have thoughtful conversations about the those distinctions free from some of the partisanship. Dr. Buschart’s Exploring Protestant Traditions might be a good source text.

5. The Days the Earth Kept Going

As our culture becomes more and more apocalyptic, it would be worth exploring all the times somebody prophesied the end of the world and the arguments/evidence they marshaled to their cause. As a bonus, it could also help contextualize the rise of various movements that grew out of those moments (like Seventh Day Adventism or Jehovah’s Witnesses)

6. Weird Church Controversies

I’ll admit this is more of a light-hearted, self-reflected class, but a lot of internal squabbles are illinformed about the history of internal squabbles. Boring worship songs, the use of the organ, the Worship Wars etc. But there really is nothing new under the sun and “controversies” always have interesting stories and characters. Getting familiar with them could help us navigate our own disagreements

7. When Leaders Fall

Sort of the heavier version of “Weird Church Controversies”, the Bible does not shy away from telling “fall” stories. Church history is filled with characters who fell from great heights. Telling those stories honestly and accurately can provide a context for dealing with our own hurts and disappointments. 

8. The Bible at the Movies

Most classes will add a movie viewing to survey class (“Now that we’ve read Genesis 6-9, let’s watch Noah!”). This class aims to watch half-a-dozen or so Bible movies and discuss their depictions. The movie watching itself will have to be done before each class, but the discussion should center around narrative criticism and the artistic license. It might even help to go through a script writing book to help frame move-making discussion in terms of actual movie-making.

9. Taryag: The 613 Commands of the Law

Our churches like to talk about the law, but we don’t usually go through it and explore what the commandments actual are. Couched in the Jewish tradition of taryag mitzvot, this class explore the history and legal tradition of Torah and how it influences Christian interpretation and application today.

10. The Babylonian Talmud: The Law Applied

Most evangelicals have a charachatured understanding of Jewish tradition. This class aims to remedy that by showing the rationals of the legal tradition and how it grew from the destruction of the second temple

11. Isms in Real Life

This is an survey and interview class. Each “-ism” is introduced and discussed by somebody who actually adheres to it and provide a meaningful defense and responsive discussion. It also serves a good way to learn how to respectfully interact and genuinely love people of different belief systems.

12. Protestants and the Jews

There’s an ugly side to the history of our theological tradition: the holocost. The discussion and theologies that led to that tragedy deserve frank assessment and discussion. Michael Brown’s Our Hands our Stained with Blood could be a good source text.

13. The Civil War as Theological Crisis

I actually did this study with some friends of mine, going through Mark Noll’s book of the same title. The book is short, but it is dense. With so many people have opinions about Christian views of chattel slavery in 19th century America, this book explore the theological and political arguments of both sides.

14. Invitation to Biblical Greek (and Biblical Hebrew)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you can’t use biblical Greek in church, where can you use it? If your sacred text was not originally written in your native tongue, then we should at least try to be somewhat familiar with the original languages.

15. “Look at the Birds of the Air”

The sciences often take a back seat, but in Christian theology, science is simply the exegesis of general revelation. This class aims to build a theology and philosophy of science and see what God writes in His creation.

16. Mission, Missions, and Missiology

Missions Sunday is maybe one of the great indicments of our how little we seriously interact with world mission. This class aims to tell the story of the missions movment and connect missiology to the local church.

17. Christian Story in Song

Christian worship has a rich and profound heritage. Part church history, part music history, this class begins with the hymns of the New Testament explore how Christians have put their message to melody. This may also be a good place to explore the Worship Wars and denominational perspectives on instrumentation. And the whole class should probably culminate in a field trip to a live performance. 

18. Christian Story in Art

A similar format to Christian Story in Song, this class looks the Christian heritage in visual media (and it’ll probably be worth it to include architecture). There may also be a place to address issues of iconography and image theology. And, again, the class should conclude with a trip to a gallary or cathedral.

19. “Children, have you caught any fish?”: A Theology of Food of Hospitality

Scripture speaks a lot about role of food in both physical health and community health. There’s a tendency for health nuts to make these kinds of classes, well, nutty. So there will need to be a guard against that, but a reasonble exploration of the subject would have a big benefit. And it should probably meet around a dinner table rather than a traditional classroom. 

20. Cultivate: Grounding Our Faith

Much of the biblical characters were working in agrarian context, this is why there are so many agrarian metaphors (planting, harvesting, growing, fruit, etc). This class could double as the start for a community garden on the church grounds.

21. Islam: The Second Largest Religion in the World

There are a number of classes that could be centered around a comparative religions class that compares and contrasts Islam and Christianity. For American Christians, Islam is less of an issue compared to regions of the world with large Christian and Muslim populations. So an introductory class will probably double as world missions class.

22. The Gospel According to Q

The overlap between the synoptic gospels makes for an interesting collection of passages. A Q class can make for a more creative entrée into the Gospels discussion and provide an opportunity to discuss early gospels transmission.

23. Did Jesus Say That?

This is sort of reverse gospels class that approaches a gospel survey apologetically by going through a critical presentation. The Jesus Seminar produced a volume that evaluates all the sayings of Jesus and provides a commentary on why the contributors think a saying or story is original or a later embellishment according to a 5-point scale. Reading through the text and their argument would provide much food for thought and discussion.

24. Family, Church, and State

How is a society to be structured and governed? Human history has been filled with proposal and theories. This class aims to pause partisan allegiances and wrestle with real politics at the municipal level (environmental issues, zoning issues, care for the homeless, religious freedom for diverse and even opposed traditions, etc). This isn’t a class to promote partisan hackary, but promote serious and sober-minded examination of real-world issues in light of biblical values. It might also be a good bridge-building opportunity to host local officials and lobbyists who can explain the issues in all their inherent complexities.

25. All About the Denarius

Scripture speaks often of wealth management, employee treatment, and civic leadership responsibility that often accompany material possession. Addressing ethical issues surrounding wealth distribution, patronage, bribery, tax obligation can provide a lot of material for serious discussion.

26. Vocare: The Call to Work

The call of humans to work is blessing given by God before the fall. But grounding the grind in spiritual meaning be a serious challenge. Since our work can make up 40 hours of our week, it needs that grounding. Building a theology of work is well worth the time and effort. 

27. Life in the the Dead Sea

Everyone knows about the Dead Sea Scrolls, but few probably realize that less than half of them contain biblical text. The other half of the discovered fragments contain non-canonical and other writings of the community and time period. Exploring these texts provides a window into a long-lost community and the world they inhabited. 

28. Institutes of the Christian Religion

Calvinism is a word that causes much reaction, but what did John Calvin actually teach? This class is a guided tour of his monumental and deeply influential work, Institues of the Christian Religion.

29. Age to Age: The Bible, The Sciences, and the Age of the Earth

The greatest struggle in the origins discussion is how many specialized disciplines come to conclusion but struggle to interact with each other. This class will provide a interdisciplinary presentations about origins from linguistics, church history, theology, astronomy, geology, biology, physics, and chemistry.

30. Spiritual Life: The Power of Discipline

Nobody likes discipline, but those who exercise it, know its power. God made us to have discipline and prescribed practices to align our lives with His design. This class explore the spiritual disciplines and texts and traditions from which they come.

31. Communism, Capitalism, and Christianity

Few political positions have been as diametrically opposed as capitalism and communism. But with both sides claiming biblical support, how are we to sort it out? Taking a close examination of texts, values, social concerns, and political affiliation, this course tries to answer the question, which ideology is more Christian?

32. Translation Wars

Every attempt to translate the Bible has been met with suspicion, skepticism, and opposition. Whether the project is the Vulgate, the Tyndale Bible, the RSV, or the TNIV, Bible translation projects illicit strong reactions from all sides. These stories can help our text-driven community appreciate how tension found between tradition and change and the temperaments, arguments, and tactics used by the forces that fight for them.

33. “When You Pray, Pray Like this…”

The life of Jesus is filled with prayer and instructions for prayer. The apostles and church fathers follow suit. This class examins the purpose and method for praying. As a comparative/contrastive element, it might be worth examining meditative and mantra practices as well as contemporary Jewish and Muslim prayer to explore what the differences are and why they matter. 

34. The Trinity in Real Life

Most Christians (excluding obvious communities like oneness Pentecostals) are Trinitarian by default, but few know the story behind the early church controversies that codified the doctrine into Orthodoxy and how it defines every aspect of faith and practice. This class traces those origins and veins and transform the Trinity from an assumption into cause.

35. “If an immigrant lives with you…”

Patterns of immigration to the United States have brought the opportunity for world mission into our cities, giving us an opportunity explore Biblical stories and mandates about ethnic tensions and cross-cultural outreach.

36. Protestants and the Catholic Invitation to Return to Rome

If you ask Catholics why they’re Catholic, they’ll tell you why they’re Catholic; if you ask protestants why they’re protestant, they’ll tell you why they’re not Catholic. There is much to explore in the protestant reformation, but post-Trent, post-Vatican II, and post- Evangelicals and Catholics Together, do we still need Protestantism? If so, what’s the positive case for Protestantism today?

37. Hypothetical Theologies

What happens when science fiction becomes real life? If we meet extraterrestrials, will they need salvation since they aren’t descendants of Adam? Do cloned humans have souls? If artificial intelligence becomes sentient, is it fallen? 

38. Ready for Launch

Christians have been at the forefront of social activism and community building for centuries, so why not help entrepreneurial ministers start a nonprofit? In today’s western culture, building a Christian organization means a standard set of infrastructure to keep the effort above reproach. A series of organizational leaders, legal exporters, financial advisers, and technology wizards will help attendees pull together the organizational principles and best practices in place so they can move efficiently navigate these early-stage projects and get to work on their mission.

39. The Apostolic Fathers

Using Michael Holme’s translation (or, if you have Greek students, a book study on the Greek text is an option), this is a read and discussion of The Letter of Polycarp, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistle to Diognetus, and the Fragments of Papias. I’d probably focus on one, rather than do all of them, but on a rotation, I think it can add some historical color.

40. Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament

It seems like this collection of early writings gets perennially published and marketed as a major find (I have a copy that was published in 1979 that claims, “And yet, until they were first translated in this century, they were the peculiar esoteric property of the clergy and other learned people, available only in the original tongues.”) They are reading, discussing, and exploring their authorship will help to explain why they were not and are not considered Scripture within Christian traditions and communities.

Go Where the Passion Is

Working with leaders at various levels in churches and nonprofits, I find that a good number of them are trying to imitate what they think they should do rather than build something around their God-given passion. Granted, it takes a special level of self-awareness to know when there isn’t enough overlap between your passion and the attendees’ interest, but that overlap is exactly what’s needed to develop a serious class. 

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