Five Rules for How to Use Media in Christian Education

We’ve all been there – whether planning a Sunday School lesson, a youth group meeting, or a Young Life club talk; that moment when we ask ourselves: “What video clip could really illustrate this point well, perhaps better than Scripture itself?”

It’s a deeply spiritual and philosophical question that is two-fold (when should and I use media and how should I use media) that often leads to deeply theological tangles (“Does Monty Python truly reflect the epistolary messages of Paul in their doctrinal fullness?”) that have no clear-cut answer (except in the case of Monty Python, when the answer is almost always “yes”).

To help with this distressing process of pedagogical discernment, I offer some much-needed insight from a little book I recently stumbled across:

Blackboard 1
The Blackboard in Sunday School (Henry Turner Bailey, 1899)

See here The Blackboard in Sunday School, published in 1899 – right on the heels of The Blackboard in the Sunday School, published in 1884 (because if one book about blackboard use by Christians is good, two is better).

In 1899, the blackboard was the height of advanced technology – in the church, anyway. It was pretty well established in every public and private school across the country for 50 years prior. But we do so often wait until we’re very sure that something can be used by the Lord before we appropriate it from the wicked world into our own sacred milieu.

The book opens with a properly spiritual hook, a tragic narrative about another adolescent boy gone wrong (a hooligan, a ruffian, a petty criminal), a boy who at one time had regularly attended Sunday School.

Bad boy. Bad Sunday School. Bad church. Woe unto us.

Enter: The Blackboard. (There’s a few more plot points in the narrative, but I’m condensing for ease of space and time, a strategy often used in presenting the Gospel.)

Per the author, in 1899:

“Among all the workers for the coming of the kingdom of God, none, perhaps, ought to be held in higher estimation than faithful Sunday-school teachers. As a rule they are among the busiest people in the world, every hour of the week filled with crowding duties, every volt of energy required to do that which their hands are forced to do by the conditions of our congested life. Yet these, who most need a Sabbath of rest, cheerfully devote that day to teaching, give to their classes their best thought, and patiently continue year after year a self-sacrificing service without remuneration, perhaps without a word of encouragement or appreciation.

“It would be cruel to add one straw to the burden such men and women are carrying, especially by a word of harsh or cold criticism. But sympathetic criticism is never unkind. The truth, spoken in love, and the truth only, will enable us to see ourselves and our work in clearer light and move us to self-improvement.” (24)

Then follows a long essay on why over-busy, under-appreciated, un-paid Sunday School teachers should learn how to use the blackboard.

[In fairness, the pedagogical premises in the book are solid: 1. Learning is dependent upon interest and attention; 2. Ideas must be taught by means of their appropriate objects; 3. Never tell a pupil what he may wisely be led to see for himself; 4. Proceed from the known to the related unknown; 5. Correlate with the life of the pupil.]

And then follows all a person needs to know about how to effectively use graphics and media to supplement and enliven the teaching of God’s truth.

  1. Use fonts purposefully:

blackboard fonts

2. Use emojis freely:

blackboard emojis

3. Use photo-editing judiciously:

blackboard photoshop effects

4. Use info-graphics intentionally:

blackboard infographic

5. Use visual data liberally:

blackboard visual data

Above all, remember this:

“The Sunday-school teacher who understand all mysteries and all knowledge, who speaks with the tongues of men and of artists, but who has not insight, good sense, wisdom in adapting means to ends, will fail…When the question of the week is not, ‘How shall I teach that lesson?’ but, ‘How can I find a blackboard illustration for that lesson?’ it is high time to ask another question: ‘Is it wise to use the blackboard every Sunday?’ The answer must be simply, No. Because one can use the blackboard is no reason for always using it…The blackboard should be a servant, not a taskmaster.” (88)

Thus do our ancestors whip our little media-frenzied technology-addicted butts into shape.


Naughty teens, pernicious literature, and scare quotes: a glimpse at 1884

Youth's Golden Cycle

132 years ago – when (according to some) people slipped seamlessly from childhood into adulthood – John Fraser (Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, University of Chicago) published a 439-page-thick doorstop book titled:

Youth’s Golden Cycle: or, Round the Globe in Sixty Chapters: Showing How to Get on in the World, with Hints on Success in Life; Examples of Successful Men; The Blessings of Loving Mothers, Careful Housewives, Clean, Cozy Homes; What and How to Eat and Drink: What to Read and How to Write; the Structure and Uses of the Most Important Members of the Body; How to Be and Keep Strong; The Wonders of Creation, Science and Art; Little Things-their Importance; Entertaining Stories of Animals; Animals-their Language and Habits; (etc.)

Back in 1884, titles were often as cumbersome as the books themselves.

This book was written for adolescent readers in response to “the rapid increase of the evils that result from the reading of pernicious literature,” “immoral fiction,” “bad books,” and other things being written by “vile writers” and being marketed by “worse publishers.”

Shocker: the market has been targeting teens for quite a while now. And adults have been afraid about the commercialized culture for as long as the market has been targeting teens. As the author says in his introduction:

“Every hour, the havoc wrought by the perusal of immoral fiction by our school-boys is assuming graver aspects. Almost daily we read of bands of youthful desperadoes, just entering their teens, being broken up by the police, and nearly always it is found that the organizations so broken up were directly suggested by dime novels…”

In other words, young teens and the media marketed to them have been viewed with alarmist fear for – well, for quite awhile now, even long before 1884. Cell phone apps and music videos may be new; the fears surrounding them are not. Nor are our lofty attempts to replace the offending filth with something nobler.

This particular book attempted to do just that: “Now the express object of this book is to counteract the evil influence of this vicious literature, and to furnish youth with reading that will be as exciting as any novel, and at the same time instructive, wholesome, manly, and fresh. Nor will it be of the ‘goody-goody’ order, to which so much of our Sunday-school literature belongs.”

Ouch. Genuine scare quotes in 1884. “Goody-goody” used pejoratively in 1884. Sunday-school taking it on the chin in 1884.

In some ways, things haven’t changed at all.