Adult education – a challenge for Quaker meetings

In my last post, I shared some of the background of the Sunday School movement, which began in the late 1700’s as a way to teach reading and writing to children of poor and working families. Sunday School has evolved a great deal since then, but it remains one of the primary ministries of many churches today.

Many Friends meetings enthusiastically adopted the goals and methods of the Sunday School – not very surprising, since Quakers have been strong supporters of education since our earliest days.

Sunday School was not just for kids. Many congregations organized large adult classes, which not only helped to educate their members, but provided a strong “glue” of fellowship and social interaction.

But Sunday School has been suffering for quite a while now. Up until the 1960’s, attendance at Sunday School was often equal to or greater than attendance at worship. By the 1980’s, a Sunday School was counted as strong if attendance reached 50% of the numbers at worship, and most churches struggled to reach 25%.

The “classic” adult Sunday School tended to recruit and group class members by similar ages. A new class would be started every few years, and people tended to stay in that class, growing old together, for the rest of their lives. Classes often depended on a strong, wise or charismatic teacher – here at Springfield Friends, adult classes were named after teachers who were revered for many, many years after they had passed on.

Besides learning material, adult classes socialized together, elected officers, raised money for mission and service work, helped out with the meeting budget, and were often very competitive with other classes in attendance, fund raising and other activities. They formed a “second family” and looked after each other. They rejoiced when children were born to members of the class, and grieved and supported each other when someone died.

This type of lifelong, age-grouped class created deep loyalties and strong friendships, as classes helped each other through thick and thin. It could also face big problems whenever there was a divorce and class members felt they had to choose sides. And a class could also face REALLY big problems when a long-serving teacher or group leader died, moved away or lost mental acuity.

The educational goal of most “classic” Sunday School classes has generally been to learn more about the Bible. Sometimes a gifted teacher would prepare their own lesson plans from scratch. More often, teachers relied on some type of prepared curriculum, either from a Quaker publishing house or some other source. Many used some form of the International Sunday School curriculum, which cycles through the major sections of the Bible on a 3-year basis. If your class used the ISS curriculum, you could visit any other class in the country when you were on vacation, and be assured that you would fit right in, with the same lesson folks were studying that Sunday at home.

Not all prepared curriculum is well done; a lot of it can become really boring. When I was recruited to write lessons for a Quaker press, I was given a list of Scriptures and topics to work on. I read through some samples and it was clear that they had never been “field tested” with an actual class. The questions for each lesson were intended to guide everyone to a pre-determined conclusion.

So, first I shared the Scriptures for each week with an actual class. I wrote down the questions they really asked, including the digressions and including the background where no one in the class understood what was going on. Only then did I try writing a lesson for publication. It turned out to be the best curriculum the press had published in a LONG time, and Quaker meetings from all over the U.S. asked for more.

Not all adult Sunday Schools use a prepared curriculum. Some typical alternatives include:

  • current events: needs a strong teacher who is able to keep the group focused. This kind of group can easily crash and burn when things get too controversial, or when one person dominates the discussion or holds too strong a POV (either too conservative or too liberal)
  • talk about the sermon: requires people who really pay attention. It can be a good way to give feedback, which many speakers complain about not getting. Unfortunately, it can also easily degenerate into a roast and can fuel division in the meeting.

Few meetings today are willing or able to sustain the kind of life-long age-based classes which used to be the norm. Most meetings which want to build a better adult experience have turned to
short-term study groups. The commitment varies according to the group – it can be for 2-3 weeks, a semester, or a year, but people aren’t expected to stay in it forever. I think it’s better to organize groups with a definite time frame, rather than simply let them go on till they die or just run out of gas. A time frame helps keep up enthusiasm and keeps things moving.

Most groups need some type of leader. In Quaker meetings, the leader is usually less an authoritative teacher and more of a moderator or facilitator. Training an abundance of such leaders, or helping them discover their leadership ability, needs to be a priority task for any meeting which wants to grow its education program.

There’s a lot of advantage to holding groups on Sunday morning (or whenever worship is held). More people are usually present, and the content and fellowship of the group can help build up the worship time. However, groups which meet at other times of the week, either at the meetinghouse or in homes or other places, can build a very strong sense of fellowship as well.

Another question is whether a group requires any advance reading or homework outside of the times it meets. A group where people can simply drop in can be very attractive to newcomers and visitors. But a “drop in” group with no additional expectations can also be shallow and unsatisfying to folks who come every week. If the meeting is large enough to sustain more than one group at a time, I recommend offering both a “drop in” group and one or more “longer term” groups which have higher expectations for reading and commitment.

There are many different types of reading for a group to center around – the Bible, of course, but also journals, biographies or Quaker books. I’ve been part of some very successful groups which read books like:

  • The Journal of John Woolman
  • The Journal of George Fox
  • Autobiography of Allen Jay
  • Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting
  • Practicing Our Faith by Dorothy Bass
  • Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli
  • Social Sources of Denominationalism by Walter Rauschenbusch
  • Peculiar Treasures by Frederick Buechner
  • Money, Sex and Power by Richard Foster
  • Eighth Day of Creation by Elizabeth O’Connor
  • A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly
  • Sabbath by Wayne Muller

Book discussion groups require that all participants buy a copy. This can be a financial burden for students and people with low income. It can be a big help if the meeting can offer to quietly purchase books for those who can’t afford them, or have extra copies in the meeting library.

Not all discussion groups read books – some read articles, or watch the QuakerSpeak videos which cover a wide variety of subjects (though QuakerSpeak tends to be heavily slanted towards unprogrammed meetings).

Less common (but very interesting) are groups which correspond with mission workers, do crafts, share their own writing or poetry, do maintenance, gardening or improvements, or focus on practical, hands-on types of ministry.

I’ve also been part of some great small groups focused on Quaker queries, the 7 deadly sins, exploring a new hymnal, the meeting’s history, theology of Friends, Quaker missions, prayer, and getting more out of unprogrammed worship. There are also thousands of other videos available on a dizzying range of topics – a video-based group will need to have a strong/fast internet connection, and it’s very helpful to have large smart TV.

One of the other key “missing pieces” for a strong adult education program, especially one built around short-term groups, is an active oversight committee. This group doesn’t necessarily need to be made up of teachers and facilitators, but it needs to include imaginative and widely-read people who are willing to plan several months ahead, and who will attend and be connected with different groups and classes and bring feedback to the planning committee.

Adult education is an immensely important part of the ministry of any meeting. It takes time, effort, and sometimes a modest amount of funding. But the payback in the life of the meeting can be enormous. Too many meetings have adult education programs which are dying from inertia, from lack of imagination, or from putting all their time and energy into other areas.

In my next post, I want to talk about other ways in which Quaker meetings can provide opportunities for people who want to want even deeper study and fellowship. As always, I welcome your questions and feedback!


2 Responses to “Adult education – a challenge for Quaker meetings”

  1. 1 John Jeremiah Edminster December 9, 2021 at 10:49 am

    Thank you for this, Friend Joshua! I’m passionate about the need for Adult Religious Education among Friends, and therefore delighted to pass on the information that Earlham School of Religion, my alma mater, has just announced the establishment of a six-course certificate program in Quaker Studies:
    I can’t remember whom to credit with the observation — Mark Twain? — that “There’s one thing worse than ignorance, and that is, believing what ain’t so.” In my observation, there’s a lot of believing what ain’t so among Quakers, about Quakerism.
    For those who lack the free time, or the money, for ESR’s Certificate Program in Quaker Studies, I recommend buying the Nickalls edition of The Journal of George Fox and making yourself read it, and also making yourself read the King James Version of the New Testament, so you’ll recognize all the Bible-language used by the early Friends. Hint: Fox’s phrase “right use of the creatures” is an allusion to Wisdom of Solomon 2:6, in the Apocrypha.

  2. 2 Lois Jordan December 9, 2021 at 10:50 am

    Josh, I resonate to your thoughts about adult education. Right now we are having two classes – one on Quakerism and one on the book: Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. Both are good. I remember the Bible study group we had with you that was supposed to last 1 year – and lasted 3 + years. We had lots of questions to ask!

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.



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