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Historic Uniform Series Now Meets 21st Century Needs

Click here for details of 130th Anniversary Celebration March 17 in Orlando

March 12, 2002, NEW YORK CITY - A remarkable, 130-year exercise in Christian unity quietly undergirds the church school lessons millions use every week.

The "Uniform Series International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching" are prepared and used by Christians of widely diverse theologies and understandings of Scripture. Moveover, they help 21st century children, youth and adults apply Scripture to such life challenges as loss, disability, racism, drugs and cults.

The "Uniform Series" has its origins in a resolution of the National Sunday School Convention, meeting in Indianapolis, Ind., April 16-19, 1872. The convention asked for "a general study of the whole Bible," and recommended the lessons’ "adoption by the Sunday schools of the whole country."

The first International Lesson Committee was appointed at that Convention, thus beginning the historic work that continues to this day. Various institutional mergers along the course of U.S. ecumenical history brought the work into the National Council of Churches at the NCC’s founding, in 1950.

NCC Committee on the Uniform Serieshe NCC Committee on the Uniform Series (pictured, left and below) meets annually for a one-week work session (this year, March 15-21 in Orlando, Fla.), followed by interim assignments.

The 46 writers, editors and Bible scholars hail from 18 mainline, historic African American and evangelical denominations, ranging from the United Methodist Church to the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., and from the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.) to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. After a hard work week of study, debate and prayer together, they invariably reach accord on another year of outlines and lesson guides.

"The overwhelming sense of the group during the week is that God is with us and it’s our job first to listen," said Marvin Cropsey, Editor of Adult Study Resources for the United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, Tenn., a nine-year member of the Committee on the Uniform Series who will serve as its chair for the next two years.

NCC Committee on the Uniform Series at Work"I can’t see how it would work without God willing it to work," he said. "When you look at the wide variety of theologies and understandings of what Scripture really is and at how the different denominations operate, for them to come together annually to create the foundations for a common Bible study is more than remarkable. It’s just stunning. It’s powerful. It’s the most important and wonderful week I have every year."

To give curriculum writers and publishers plenty of time to work with the outlines, the team works several years in advance. At this year’s March 15-21 working meetings in Orlando, the team will finish outlines for 2005-2006 and sketch out plans for 2007-2010.

Dr. Mary Love, Editor for Church School Literature for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Charlotte, N.C., is the committee’s outgoing chair. She remarked at how lessons prepared years in advance prove uncannily relevant at their appointed time of use.

"For example, right after September 11, we moved into a study on ‘The Light for All People,’" she said. "Several members of my denomination asked how we knew we would be coming out of a period of darkness and seeking light. How could we know? We didn’t know! It had to be God."

Under Dr. Love’s leadership, the Committee on the Uniform Series has implemented a new format, which includes a "matrix" of new resources for curriculum writers. The first new "Guide for Lesson Development 2004-2005" was published last year.

Each lesson includes a theme and goals, noting special considerations for children, youths and adults. "Learner," "Scripture," "Faith Interaction," "Teaching Strategies" and "Special Interest" matrices provide additional guidance for curriculum writers - and, ultimately, a richer end product.

For example, "Special Interest" notes help learners accept their own and others’ differences; relate the Exodus to the civil rights struggle; distinguish appropriate Christian commitment from cults; interpret Bible texts about healing when physical illness or disability persists; deal with loss; put concern for others into action, and more.

"Different cultures even within North America will look at Scripture differently," Mr. Cropsey said. "For example, when Paul so glibly talks about slavery, those passages are going to have special meanings and really create some pain or concern for cultures that have experienced slavery in the past.

"When Jesus heals paralytics, how is this Scripture to be received by someone who uses a wheelchair and has no expectation of living without that chair? What does healing mean in those circumstances? In our new ‘Guide for Lesson Development’ we open up such lessons for a deeper, more insightful discussion than ever before."

"The outlines have been wonderful for decades, but now we know so much more about how people learn and how faith is developed and supported," Mr. Cropsey said. "That’s what it’s really about. It’s about presenting God’s word in meaningful ways for the 21st century."

The Committee on the Uniform Series is part of the National Council of Churches’ Ministries in Christian Education, an umbrella for 14 ecumenical "teams" working in diverse areas of educational ministry. These program committees and project teams represent the work that the denominations do together to support local congregations in educational ministries.

The National Council of Churches is the nation’s leading ecumenical agency, with 36 Protestant and Orthodox member communions comprising 50 million adherents.


WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 17, 2002, Carter Tabernacle Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, One South Cottage Hill Road, Orlando, Florida.

WHAT: 130th Anniversary Service of Celebration of the "Uniform Series: International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching" 

Every week, many millions of Christians – including children, youth and adults in "mainline" and "evangelical" churches and of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds – study the same Bible passages in church school. 

Undergirding their study is this remarkable, long-lived exercise in Christian unity, a program of the National Council of Churches.  The "Uniform Series" outlines and guide for church school lesson development are used by 18 denominations (including NCC member and non-member churches alike) and 33 independent publishing houses. 

The "Uniform Series" resources also are used as the basis for several Bible study and devotional guides for home use and for reference materials for teachers -- for example, The United Methodist Church’s "New International Lessons Annual."

SERVICE DETAILS:  Carter Tabernacle C.M.E. Church uses church school curricula based on the "Uniform Series."  The Rev. Roderick Zak is pastor.

Preaching at the "Uniform Series" celebration will be the Rev. Dr. Delores Carpenter, Professor of Religious Education at Howard University Divinity School and Senior Pastor of Michigan Park Christian Church in Washington, D.C.  Liturgist will be the Rev. Dr. Sid Fowler, Minister for Worship, Liturgy and Spiritual Formation of the United Church of Christ.

Heads of local judicatories and ecumenical officers are invited to "robe" and participate in the service.  Local church representatives will participate with Christian education banners.  Following the service, a reception will be held at the Grosvenor Resort (in the Walt Disney World Resort), 1850 Hotel Plaza Blvd.

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