Respect your elders, don't smoke or drink, choose your friends carefully.

They'd heard this standard advice countless times from parents, teachers, and relatives. But when the Sunday school class at Westmoreland Congregational Church heard the same advice from the oldest members of their church, something bizarre happened.

For the first time, they believed it.

"I always listened to it before," said David McLaughlin, 12, "but when they told us, I knew they must be right. They've been around long enough to know."

McLaughlin is one of five junior high-age students who took part in the experimental Sunday school curriculum this semester. Instead of following a textbook, studying theology or "just sitting around doing nothing" as one student put it, the students interviewed the six oldest church members, who range in age from their 70s to 101.

Students wanted to know what Sunday school was like in the 19th century, (it hasn't changed much, they learned), what the old church building was like and what tips the old timers would offer for everyday life.

Hugh Wingard, 82, said one thing he learned from the interview is "they ask hard questions! How do you tell them in a few seconds what the world would be like without churches?" he laughed. "It was all you could do to stop and think what in the world is [life] all about?"

Wingard said he became good friends with 12-year-old Andrew Dutton as a result off his interview. "It was such a moving experience to think this little fellow picked me out to interview over the whole list of church members."

Roy LaCross, 73, said he learned that kids today "are so much more aware of what's going on in the world and how the church fits into it."

The students said they particularly enjoyed talking to 101-year-old Keturah Baldwin, who told them about commuting every Sunday morning from Baltimore to Washington when the church was Mount Pleasant Church and still on 14th Street NW. Baldwin is now confirmed to Springvale Terrace nursing home, where the students visited her.

Don Vandrey, the Sunday school teacher who accompanied the students on their interviews, said he got the idea for this approach to church history from the previous teacher who believed the curriculum was 'unnecessarily dull for 12-year-olds."

And Andrew Dutton said the experiment worked. Unlike previous semesters, when he said he would have preferred staying in bed to going to Sunday school, Andrew said he looked forward to the interviews each Sunday.

On Sunday, which is church school Sunday at the church on Westmoreland Circle in the District, the five youths will play taped excerpts of the interviews and tell the entire congregation of their experience.