Education

A Survey of Christian Religious Education in the United States

Abstract : Prior to the landmark Supreme Court decision of June 1963, which banned public prayer from the public schools, Christian religious education was often a routine part of the overt instruction provided by the American public school system. However, in the wake of that legal milestone, even though instruction in the Judeo-Christian interpretation of religious history continued to be taught covertly, American churches began relying more heavily on providing Christian religious education. This article briefly presents Christianity’s contemporary status in the United States and reviews such religious education methods as Sunday school, vacation Bible school, Christian youth groups, catechism, private Christian schools, Youth Sunday, and children’s sermons. The survey concludes with a look at the growing interface between such education and the lessons of psychology as well as training and certifying Christian religious educators.

Before reviewing Christian religious education in the United States, it is important to realize that Christianity has never been monolithic. In fact, internal sectarian divisions have existed since the first conflicts between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem Church. The Book of Acts reports that Paul made at least three trips to Jerusalem (36, 49, and 57),1 and that each one was marked by dissension and disagreement between him and the actual disciples of Jesus Christ.2

During his first trip, most of the disciples, who “were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26-30), rebuffed and rejected him. Acts 15:1-35, which consistently gives the most favorable interpretation possible to Paul’s actions and thoughts, reports that his second trip resulted in conflict over his unilateral decision to set aside much of the Mosaic Law for new Christians, regardless of whether they had originally been Jews or Gentiles. Although this book insists that Paul won that conflict, this assertion seems to be refuted by the events of his third trip: Once again he was accosted by the leaders of the Jerusalem Church for having set aside major provisions of the Mosaic Law, and had to perform penance by performing the religious rites of a Nazirite (Acts 21:17-26).

This conflict between the Pauline and non-Pauline branches of early Christianity was never resolved satisfactorily. Thus a fundamental schism between the Pauline church, to which most of contemporary Christianity traces its roots, and the non-Pauline church appeared. However, this is only one example of the diversity that has existed in Christian thought since the end of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. Scholars of early Church history talk about Judeo-Christianity (exemplified by the early Jerusalem Church, which maintained the Mosaic Law and for whom Jesus was not divine or part of any godhead), the Adoptionist movements (e.g., the Nestorian, Ebionite, and Arian churches, all of which rejected the concept of Jesus Christ as God’s “begotten”3), and the various Gnostic movements (e.g., Docetism).

Christianity in the United States
During the intervening centuries, Christian sects and denominations have proliferated steadily. There are now 23 Christian denominations in the United States with at least 1 million members, 33 with at least 500,000 members, and 49 with at least 200,000 members.4 The 10 largest selfproclaimed5 Christian denominations are the Roman Catholic Church (59.9 million), the Southern Baptist Convention (16.4 million), the United Methodist Church (8.6 million), the National Baptist Convention USA (8.2 million), the Church of God in Christ (5.5 million), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (5.2 million), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ([Mormons] 4.5 million), the Presbyterian Church–USA (3.8 million), the African Methodist Episcopal Church (3.5 million), and the National Baptist Convention of America (3.5 million).6

In general, each denomination can be classified into one of three categories: Catholic (both Roman and Eastern rite), which in many ways are the most accurate upholders of Nicene Christianity; mainline Protestant (e.g., United Methodist, Episcopalian, and the Presbyterian churches), which typically have become more humanistic and social-welfare oriented over the last 40 years, are the most lax in stressing the basic Nicene doctrines, and which often are influenced by an allegorical or nonliteral interpretation of the Bible and basic Christian doctrines; and the “religious right” (e.g., fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and Evangelicals), which typically insist on the Bible’s infallibility as God’s word-for-word divine revelation and are the most active in providing their own brand of religious education and idiosyncratic interpretation of Christianity.

When these three are joined with those who adhere to minor denominations and nondenominational churches, the United States now has perhaps more than 160 million Christians. In contrast, there are over 7 million Muslims in North America and 4.3 million Jews (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform).7 Fourteen percent of all American adults profess atheism.8 A longitudinal examination of denominations between 1960-95 reveals several noteworthy trends. First, there have been significant demographic based increases in the Eastern Rite Catholic church denominational membership (e.g., 164.9% for the Orthodox Church in America, 231.2% for the Armenian Orthodox, and 62.5% for the Greek Orthodox Diocese of North and South America). Second, there has been a relatively consistent growth in Roman Catholic Church membership (a 42.2% increase), and a marked decline in mainline Protestant membership (e.g., 19.9% for the United Methodist Church, 07.8% for the Presbyterian Church–USA, and 27.3% for the Episcopal Church). Also evident is a phenomenal rise in church membership in many “religious right” denominations (e.g., 346.4% in the Assemblies of God, 289.4% in the Church of God–Cleveland (TN), 185.7% in the United Pentecostal Church International, 1,011.1% in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, 429.8% in the Christian & Missionary Alliance, 632.3% in the Evangelical Free Church of America, and 162.7% in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel). Controlling for the population’s increase during 1965-95, results indicate a tremendous increase in denominational membership in “religious right” churches, a slow but steady increase in most Eastern Rite Catholic denominations, a relatively static growth rate for the Roman Catholic Church, and huge and disturbing decreases in church membership for most mainline Protestant denominations.9

Given this, it is not surprising that the “religious right” has started to impose its idiosyncratic beliefs onto most major governmental policy decisions. Being well-organized, amply financed, and tending to dominate Sunday morning religious programming, this group has a major influence on the federal government’s domestic and foreign policy, as well as on state and local governments. This is seen clearly in foreign policy decisions involving unqualified American support for Israel. Members of the “religious right” typically believe that Jesus Christ will return to usher in the Final Days only after the Jews rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Hoping to accelerate his return, its members ally themselves with Israel and the Jews’ desire to rebuild the Temple.

A second conclusion concerns the massive decline in denominational membership among mainline Protestants. This would seem to lead to an inevitable decline in inculcating traditional Christian moral and social values into the nation’s social fabric. Rising divorce rates, the mass proliferation of gambling,10 the post-1950s increase in premarital sex, and persistent drug abuse would all appear to be symptomatic of this decline.

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