We sounded a somewhat irreverent alarm over 25 years ago about the state of children’s curriculum in churches. The book that my wife Joani and I wrote, Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church, caused quite a little discomfort.

At the time, most student materials were inundated with silly busywork–word scrambles, puzzles, and fill-in-the-blanks. I’m sure the writers were well-intentioned, trying to be creative. But the results were very disappointing. Precious time was squandered on empty activity that did not help children’s spiritual growth. And the “hidden curriculum” of such activity was dangerous–sending a message that the Bible is a tedious exercise, intentionally obscuring its truths.

How far have we come since then? Though we’ve seen some progress, many curriculum providers continue to churn out banal worksheets that pickle kids’ minds. A recent review of current children’s Sunday school and vacation Bible school materials revealed many examples of meaningless busywork. Here’s a sample:

The vowels are missing below. Fill them in to read an important message.
G___ ___ D  TH___NGS  W___LL  C___M___  T___  TH___S___  WH___  ___R___
F___ ___ R ___N  ___V___RY TH___NG TH___Y D___.

This constitutes a pathetic waste of time–especially when we consider most churches have just an hour or less to spend with children per week.

In our book, we quoted educator Frank Smith, who said such word puzzles and fill-in-the-blanks “teach children nothing about the way people employ spoken or written language. Filling in blanks is not the way anyone uses language, spoken or written. No one ever says to a child, ‘Put on your _______________ and we’ll go to the game as soon as you guess the missing word.'” Smith, also author of Insult to Intelligence, said such classroom exercises are “irrelevant and misleading.”

This is advice we’ve passed along to our curriculum developers at Group Publishing for decades. You won’t find this stuff in Group’s curriculum or VBS. Instead, we’ve sought to model our teaching times after Jesus’ healthy approach–using stories, meaningful experiences, and conversation to embed life-changing learning.

But others persist in using counter-productive methodology in the church. In fact, the fill-in-the-blank contagion has spread to adult Bible studies and even sermon times. Again, I’m sure it’s well-intentioned. But it raises questions of stewardship when we have no time to waste.