The Big Little Book

By Daniel Schantz

 

This compact Bible commentary from Standard Publishing has been helping teachers since the days of President Eisenhower.

I had no idea how big Sunday school was until I read Robert Lynn’s book, The Big Little School.

Turns out, some very big names were once Sunday school teachers, including Francis Scott Key and General Robert E. Lee. Several U.S. presidents were Sunday school teachers: James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter. Numerous business tycoons were teachers, including John D. Rocke-
feller (Standard Oil), William Colgate (toothpaste), James Kraft (cheese), and H.J. Heinz (ketchup). Even some modern celebrities teach Sunday school, such as comedian Stephen Colbert and author John Grisham.

The Sunday School Times once had the largest circulation of any magazine in America. Literature has always been one secret of Sunday school’s success.

A session of Congress once dismissed early so that congressmen could march in one of the many Sunday school parades held in big cities around the country. As many as 75,000 children at a time marched in these parades.

If Sunday school is the “big little school,” then the Standard Lesson Commentary is the “big little book.” This compact Bible commentary from Standard Publishing has been helping teachers since the days of President Eisenhower. In its various versions, it annually appears on best-seller lists from the Evangelical Christian Publisher’s Association.

What’s so big about this book?

 

Big Applications

The Standard Lesson Commentary is used mostly by teachers of adults in Sunday school classes.

The cover of the first edition of the Standard Lesson Commentary alongside this year's 60th anniversary edition.
The cover of the first edition of the Standard Lesson Commentary alongside this year’s 60th anniversary edition.

I started preaching as a freshman in Bible college and I was also expected to teach the adult class at my church. I was teaching adults two and three times my age, but I was not afraid. I was not some 10-year-old kid, after all, I was 17, for crying out loud. And I had taken the Bible Survey course, so I knew almost all there is to know about the Bible. I soon discovered that all I really knew for sure was contained in the Standard Lesson Commentary the church gave me for free. It became my best friend.

Soon I discovered the book was also useful for writing sermons. After all, it featured an outline, Scripture exegesis, and—most important—illustrations that would stretch my sermons from 10 to 19 minutes. I purchased back issues at the library book sale, and they became my secret stash of sermon starters.

When I became professor of Christian education at Central Christian College of the Bible in 1968, I used the commentary to train two generations of teachers. It was the required textbook for my practice-teaching class. The book’s lesson plan: Into The Lesson, Into The Word, Into Life, was easy for college students to grasp. On Wednesdays, we used the book’s ideas to brainstorm ways to teach a lesson, and then one student would teach us that lesson on Friday. We found that the book’s ideas could be adapted as far south as junior age.

The book inspired some of the most creative and hilarious lessons I have ever witnessed. One female student, for instance, built the city of Jericho out of cardboard boxes, and marched us around it. Alas, it was precarious and fell down too soon, spoiling the narrative a bit. I’m still laughing.

I then used the Standard Lesson Commentary to lead my student discipleship group and the faculty prayer meetings that met in my home. Its discussion questions and group activity suggestions were perfect for small group use.

My wife uses the commentary for her personal devotions. She has a deep aversion to those “girly” devotional books that are printed on pink, perfumed paper, and filled with stories of kiddies and kittens. “I want to study the Bible,” she says, with redhead fervor. “I like the way the book shows the whole year’s lessons at a glance
. . . it gives me a sense of direction in my devotions. I wouldn’t want to be without it.”

 

Big Ideas

The Standard Lesson Commentary has something for everyone. My minister-father was an outstanding Sunday school discussion leader. He could ask a question like, “Why didn’t Jesus choose some female apostles?” and the conversation that erupted would rival a TV talk show. It wasn’t until later that I discovered his stimulating questions were right there, in the commentary, for any teacher to use.

A favorite part of the book is the pronunciation guide, because the Bible is filled with mysterious names of people and places. I could pronounce Goliath OK, but stumbled when I came to the other giant David encountered, named Ishbibenob.

“Hmmm, would that be Ishbee or Ishbye? The book made it easy: Ish buh BEE knob. However, not even the commentary could help me with Jonathelemerechokim in the introduction to Psalm 56.

For more daring teachers, the commentary provides a page of “Involvement Learning” activity ideas. Suggestions like, “Put all the classroom chairs in a long row, like airplane seats, and take your students on an imaginary trip to the Holy Land, to introduce this lesson on Bible geography.”

Or, “Give each student a helium-filled balloon and a marker. Ask them to write a prayer on their balloon, to be released to the heavens after class.”

You have no idea how much young adults, especially, enjoy these diversions from the lecture method, until you dare to try them.

I wrote that section of the commentary myself for a few quarters. Then one day I found myself in a class where the teacher was about to use “my” idea. I began to perspire, and I prayed, Lord, I sure hope this idea works, or, if it doesn’t, don’t let anyone notice my name in the front of the book.

Fortunately the method worked well, and then I was tempted to blurt out, “Hey, that was MY idea,” but I didn’t.

Most Sunday school teachers use the book as just one resource, and add their own ideas to it, but others are very dependent on the book.

I remember a Sunday school teacher who came to class, “loaded for bear.” He had the commentary, plus several Bible versions, a file folder stuffed with articles, and a legal pad filled with notes. Yet, he never seemed to get through more than five verses of the text before the bell rang.

I also remember an old man who was brand new at teaching. He began class by saying, “Let us pause for prayer,” and he began praying a beautiful prayer. All of a sudden he stopped. There was a rustling of pages and then he said, “I’m sorry, I have the wrong lesson, that was last week’s prayer.” And he began again. He went on to read every word of the commentary, even the page numbers. We interrupted him a few times with questions, which he answered with the wisdom of an old man.

Looking back, I would have to say that the old man had the better lesson. The lesson writer was excellent, for one thing, and the old man was a good reader. And the man’s fine character enhanced his teaching.

 

Big Confidence

The Standard Lesson Commentary is written by some of the most trusted Bible college professors and ministers in the country, but it’s not written for scholars. It’s designed to be used by farmers and housewives, store clerks and truck drivers—the people who teach our Sunday school classes.

Two of the early writers for the book are typical. R.C. Foster and his son, Lewis Foster, were brilliant professors at Cincinnati Bible Seminary. Alexander Campbell taught J.W. McGarvey, and McGarvey taught R.C. Foster, and Foster taught my dad. I once visited the campus with my father and sat in on Foster’s class. I understood most of what R.C. said, except for the word synoptic. I still don’t understand that word, nor do I get why education—of all fields—is littered with jargon, like synoptic, rubric, and matrix. The Fosters had the gift for making things understandable, in spite of their stratospheric intelligence—or maybe because of it.

Ronald Nickelson, the editor of Standard Lesson Commentary, tries for a balance in his writers. The authors are from different colleges and churches, in different parts of the country. Some are theologically very conservative, some more liberally conservative. Some writers are especially good at storytelling, others are masters of incisive questions, or of Greek and Hebrew word pictures. Some writers are male and some female, with more females appearing recently. Some writers are younger, some older.

One writer was both young and old. Orrin Root was the first editor of the book, and he was still writing for it when he was 98 years old.

Owning a copy of the Standard Lesson Commentary is like having your own private staff of trusted spiritual advisers.

 

Steady As She Goes

Even though the “big little school” has taken a beating in recent years, the “big little book” is stronger than ever. It’s now available in 12 editions, including two Bible versions, large print, and electronic formats. It is available at standardlesson.com, standardpub.com, and in bookstores everywhere, as well as from Amazon, Apple, and Logos Bible Software.

Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri. 

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