An old black and white photo depicts children sitting while a Sunday school teacher speaks.

Is Sunday school doomed?

by

Historical photo of Sunday school, 1946, Kentucky

Sunday school may be remembered fondly by many baby boomers, but it began as a method of controlling unruly British children, before it’s transition into a cheery, pastel memory of childhood.

Writing in the Visalia Times Delta, Melissa Pandika laments the overscheduled child and implies that Sunday school attendance is down because children are too busy, and societal betrayals have hurt our trust in the Church and institutions in general.

From the article:

We live in an era defined by a confluence of two big trends: Parents, especially middle-class ones, have become ever more concerned about the welfare of their children, whether it’s demanding chemical-free playgrounds or ensuring they get into the best preschool. At the same time, Christian churches have been rocked by a series of sex-abuse scandals that are the worst nightmare for any parent, from youth groups being coerced into sex acts to priests’ confessions of molesting boys. Even if the revelations have subsided somewhat in recent years, “people know the reality has been exposed,” says Robert Orsi, a professor of religion at Northwestern University. “I’m sure parents are thinking of this.”

Pandika centers the story on St Paul’s Episcopal Church of Oakland, California, where the children’s music director is typically stuck singing alone while the children dance to the pre-recorded hymns. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of the difficulties that adults face in engaging children in learning about God and the Church in an increasingly secular and pluralist society.

Sharon Ely Pearson, who works in Christian formation, tackles Sunday school from a critical perspective in a multi-part essay she’s running this week titled “Christian Formation in a Changing Church”. Part one focuses on the history of Sunday school, and part two explores how Sunday schools operate in our modern culture. You can read these stories–and the upcoming pieces–on her blog, Rows of Sharon.

Pearson pushes for a more radical approach to Christian formation and children, calling on Christians to show their work outside of the traditional confines of a Church.

From the article:

We need to focus on ministry “with” and “for” instead of “to.” What if we embraced the meaning of diakonia as in the Early Church? What if we were out in the community acting like what we believe as Christians can really make a difference in the world? Ivy Beckwith, team leader of the United Church of Christ’s faith formation team suggests we focus on safety, mission, and identity. How can we practice “four acts of love” that are born out of reasons why many people no longer go to church. None of these are tied to any program: (1) radical hospitality; (2) genuine humility; (3) fearless conversation; and (4) divine anticipation). Listen to Ivy here, and check out her recent book, written with Dave Csinos:Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus.

 

Posted by David Streever

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Sharon Pearson
Guest

Paul and Kevin have named key issues. We need to focus on adult formation and help parents practice faith with their children at home. One hour on Sunday morning (if they even came every week) doesn't do it. 1958 is not 2015 - we don't separate boys and girls and there are a whole lot more choices (which for some children is not a choice) for what one can do on a Sunday morning: sleep (after an exhausting week), sports, work, custody swaps, school trips and obligations, and on and on.

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Paul Woodrum
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Circa '58 or earlier. Where I went to Sunday School, nursery through high school in the 40's and 50's, boys and girls were together in the nursery. From 1st through 9th grade we had separate boys and girls classes, the boys taught by men, the girls by women. 10th through 12th was one class of about 100 teenagers, on Sunday morning and, in the evening, youth fellowship. Only about 10% were girls. Can't remember much about the curriculum, but had some great teachers, great parties and joined with other youth groups for "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" and an annual Easter Sunrise Service on the shores of a nearby lake. Big cultural difference: all stores closed on Sunday and there was no competition from the public schools.

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George A. Bennett
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George A. Bennett

I use to be a Sunday School & VBS volunteer. It was a joy to see the kids and their innocent faith in God, which came directly from lessons from the Bible (i.e., creation, Adam & Eve, Noah, Jonah, Solomon, David...). I have trouble reconciling that at a certain point, these young people will be told, 'it's all just allegory. '

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Geoffrey Brown
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Take another look at that photo and notice the overwhelmingly female makeup of that class! Perhaps even then we were already failing in formation for males, but large numbers of then-docile women camouflaged the problem. To me, it appears that a longstanding approach to Sunday School attractive principally to girls predates "the good old days" we yearn for. Couple that with our subsequent failure to adapt to changing roles for women in society, and we have our work cut out for us!

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George A. Bennett
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George A. Bennett

My guess is the photo is circa 1958?...the boys were in a different classroom.

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George A. Bennett
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George A. Bennett

correction: 1946.

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Matthew Kozlowski
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I am new to Forma, and thankful for the wisdom shared above. My two cents (gleaned from others) is that a main purpose of Sunday school is the building of relationships.

Especially for children, faith development depends on having multiple trusted relationships with adults who model and teach Christian faith. This comes through teaching, but also through adults being who they are.

I can only remember one or two things that Mr. Wells or Mrs. Sugg taught me; but mostly I remember them. I remember their commitment to church, their love of Jesus, their generosity, and the way they lived their lives.

There are many contexts in which children can build relationships with Christian adults. Sunday school, in the right situation, is one such context. And there are many others too.

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Kevin Carroll
Guest

To understand why the formation of our children is floundering the church needs to closely examine its failure to form adults. The tradional Sunday School model was based on a premise that the kids were coming from Christian homes, well versed in scripture and matters of church. In general families in the 19th and early 20th centuries prayed, read the Bible, read Christian publications and worshipped togather on a regular basis. Sunday School was frosting on the cake.

In order to form our kids we need to reinvigorate the formation of adults. Kids don't drive themselves to church or teach themselves when they get there. We can hire all the professionals we want and buy the best curricula, read all the best blogs and websites, but, if the kids return to spiritually deficient homes it will all be for naught.

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Sharon Pearson
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Thank you Day and Kyle for adding your perspective. My writing stems from a presentation I gave at the Episcopal Church in Connecticut's "Spring Training for Mission" day this past Saturday. In my workshops the conversations were rich as many agreed that how we "used" to do Sunday School (and we weren't just talking about children) doesn't work in many congregations today. But there were great models shared as to what is working and how we need to move away from a 1950-70s model (which so many of our adults grew up with) of education. Instruction does not form disciples - but education in the context of application to one's life can. Our post-modern world has much to teach us as to how we can adapt new teaching models in our churches and to adapt the many tools at our disposal for helping to share the Gospel with others. Stay tuned for more at www.rowsofsharon.com in the days to come from my Saturday workshop.

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Kyle Oliver
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I can't say it any better than Day has above. I don't think Pandika's article was very good, but I'm always grateful for the chance to reflect on whether we are (or ever were) well-served by Sunday School as we know it. The article chose not to go there, but that doesn't mean we can't.

Is Sunday school doomed? I don't know. But creative, life-changing Christian formation certainly isn't. And as Day said, that's what we're ultimately about.

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Day Smith Pritchartt
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Day Smith Pritchartt

Kudos to Sharon Pearson and the other Episcopal Christian Formation professionals of Forma (http://episcoforma.org) for hosting a meaningful conversation about how faith is formed in the 21st century. Readers of Episcopal Cafe know that people are formed as disciples of Jesus Christ when the Spirit integrates the experiences of worship, education, outreach and fellowship to draw souls more deeply into a life that is centered in God's love. Sunday School is nothing more, and nothing less, than the traditional delivery channel for the education piece of the formation mystery.

As we discern how to feed the hunger for God that brings people to church, we must ask whether the delivery systems that have worked well in the past continue to match how our congregations today may receive the good news we have to share. So much has changed, especially how people join communities and how they seek information. Pastors and teachers are one resource among many, and church membership is one of many valuable experiences.

It is in this context that many congregations, including the one I serve, are looking critically at what we do well and how to build on our strengths to deliver the "education" piece of Christian formation. While the results may not resemble the traditional model, the message and the motivation to share it are unchanged.

The Pandika article is poorly constructed and fails to identify any mission of Sunday School or of churches. Readers of Episcopal Cafe, especially those who find themselves in a place of wondering about the effectiveness of traditional Sunday School, would be far better served to follow the writing of Sharon Pearson and the work of Forma.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly

It seems to me that talk about formation begins with the mistaken assumption that "faith" in gravity is somehow different than faith in Christ.

In my own life, baptised as a teen, shifting to a sort of Buddhist, confirmed two years ago at 71, faith in something important and non-defined was always there (as experienced with gravity and Zen).

I didn't come to my church with a "hunger for God," I came to take stock in a quiet (7:30 am), ritualized (like Zen), space...to listen and reflect.

Of course, my Episcopal church does reach out to suffering people in our community, but it has no interest in the un-churched, media-centric, workaday, bill-paying, non-seeker majority (The Simpsons). That preference for sufferers is, unfortunately, directly comparable to "white man's burden."

Sixty years after baptism and forgetting I noticed that a somewhat cranky neighbor, with whom I often disagreed while admiring, was a member of what became my Episcopal church, I visited. I wasn't seeking God. He found me.

I was raised by church-goers who didn't mention faith. I was always taken to Sunday school, was also a Cub Scout and Boy Scout. Parents and Scouts were more important to my character than was Sunday school and the Gospels were forgotten.

Here's my thinking: Children (like me at 73) don't need to hear Bible stories, they need the history of Christianity, beginning with the history of Judaism and moving into the Gospels. The Passion is too strange to continually stress. He did die for our sins, but faith is the point.

Do you think children might be excited by a simplified version of Samuel (for example), focusing on Daniel's amazing determination to be righteous? As a Sunday school kid, all I remembered about that had to do with slingshots.

I think it's not a good idea to focus on the Gospels before putting them in Jewish historical context. The history is more convincing than our cartoonish Gospel summaries.

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