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Let’s talk about Sunday School

Let’s talk about Sunday School

by George Clifford


Let’s be honest about Sunday School.


In my experience, clergy and laity widely regard Sunday School as an essential element of a congregation’s programming but equally widely hope that someone else will take responsibility for ensuring that Sunday School happens. This tacit disdain for Sunday School is evident in our delegating responsibility for Sunday School to newly minted and therefore inexperienced curates (in those few remaining parishes fortunate enough to have a curate) and fervent prayers that longsuffering volunteers will serve one more year. The proffered justification that youthful clergy will somehow instinctively relate better to youth and children lacks prima facie credibility. What that justification really communicates is that Sunday School may be necessary but is not one of the rector’s top priorities.


Sunday Schools began as a church-sponsored initiative to teach children to read and write in the days before universal public education. When publicly funded schools superseded that initial purpose, churches seized the opportunity to reimagine Sunday Schools as vehicles for religious education, that is, for forming children into mature Christians who actively participate in the life of the Church.


Given that purpose, then today, as for several prior generations, most Sunday Schools are abject failures. Children who grow to adulthood attending Episcopal Sunday Schools (or Sunday Schools of another denomination) generally do not remain faithful members or even faithful Christians. If they did, our pews would be full (or at least measurably fuller) of people between the ages of 20 and 60.


Sunday Schools fail for multiple reasons. First, some parents and congregations view Sunday School as a sanctified babysitting service intended to permit adults to worship (or perhaps to enjoy Sunday brunch) in relative peace and quiet. Second, some parents believe that sending their children to Sunday School will satisfy their vague sense of obligation to educate their children in the basics of Christianity. Yet many of these parents yet opt to minimize their own participation in the Church, implicitly communicating by example that, at best, religion is for children and not adults. Third, Sunday School teachers often teach by default a literal interpretation of the Bible. Teachers want children to learn the biblical stories and are ill-prepared to differentiate myth from fact. Children subsequently discover that this literalism is untenable as they mature and their education in science, history, and other disciplines progresses. Fourth, a great many Sunday School teachers volunteer because nobody else steps up. These good hearted souls frequently lack both a genuine calling and passion for communicating the faith to children.


More broadly, the Church acts as if it has little understanding of how to form children into mature Christians. Numerous programs have initially generated excitement only to produce disappointing results when replicated or failed to achieve promised results when assessed with the benefit of hindsight. For example, the once promising idea of Eucharists designed and implemented by youth (with the assistance of a priest, of course) has proven ineffective as a vehicle for forming youth into mature Christians who will populate our pews.


Well intentioned groups continue to market new programs. Journey to Adulthood (J2A) has promised more that it has been consistently able to deliver. Godly Play similarly often falls short of its advocates’ aspirations for forming children into mature Christians. Both are good programs that I have used and in some places produce striking results. Yet neither is a panacea for forming youth and children into mature Christians.


When programs such as J2A and Godly Play do help youth and children become mature Christians, the program succeeds because the youth and children catch the faith from their parents and other Christian leaders involved in the program.


Faith is caught, not taught, according to a well-known adage. Most Christians can point to one or several “saints” from whom they caught the faith. Religious education programs, no matter how creative or initially exciting, fail if they ignore that truth. Catching the faith necessarily precedes effective Christian formation.


Therefore, let’s stop wasting precious resources and efforts on fundamentally ineffectual religious education programming. In the absence of inspired Christian teachers and leaders from whom children and youth can catch the faith, cancel Sunday School and other youth programs. Invest those resources in efforts more likely to produce positive results, e.g., caring for the most vulnerable in our midst. Ineffectual programming harmfully contaminates congregational morale with guilt.


Parents who are committed Christians and from whose actions and words their children can catch the faith are the most effectual source of Christian formation. The Church beneficially invests its resources in complementing those efforts. We can encourage and support parents and supplement their efforts with church programming. However, even with the best of parenting and ecclesial help, some children will still leave the Church for a season and occasionally for all of their days. No set of Christian formation efforts can ever guarantee positive results.


The preponderance of children and youth with parents who are not committed Christians and from whose actions and words their children are unlikely to catch the faith pose an evangelistic rather than educational challenge. Until an individual catches the faith, until s/he says yes to the one who stands at the door knocking, until s/he experiences an inspired moment in which s/he acknowledges God’s loving touch, then religious education is little more than the transmission of data and not genuine Christian formation.


Effective programming for children and youth begins by understanding its goal with respect to each individual. Is the aim Christian formation for one who has caught the faith? Or, is the aim evangelism, i.e., the leader or teacher assisting the individual in a non-coercive manner to recognize and affirm God’s presence in her/his life by openly revealing that same presence in the leader or teacher’s life? This openness includes not only mountain top experiences but also times of doubt and when the person has traversed the valley of the shadow of death.


Packaged programming for children and youth succeeded for its originators precisely because they opened themselves to program participants, allowing those participants to see God’s presence. From that experience, participants caught the faith, recognizing that what they saw in the leader or teacher resonated with their own, perhaps heretofore unacknowledged, experience of God’s loving presence. Packaged programming works only when leaders and teachers are Christians from whom participants can catch the faith.


Let’s drop the pretense that Sunday School is an essential program for every congregation and regard it as one tool among many for sharing our faith and forming new Christians.




George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of Hawai’i, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now blogs at Ethical Musings.


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Philip B. Spivey

I don’t think we suffer “Sunday School” so much as we have not caught up with current thinking about how children grow to become sentient, moral and faith-filled beings. This is not the forum for that discourse and nor do I profess expertise in this area. Rather, I would say that “the tried and true ways of bringing our children to Christ” may not be the best ways, or for that matter, ensure church attendance.

Three observations: Children these days who are bombarded with myriad distractions, are not likely to sit still long enough, and be quiet enough to hear the “still small voice of God” even if they wanted too. Too many of their sense organs (primarily eyes and ears) are plugged into one device or another. This is a practicality. Parents might afford their children more time for daydreaming and time with us so that our little philosophers (children) can ask the Big Questions.

Church and Sunday School only more or less augment what a child will acquire through her own perceptions of the world. I do believe children seek God in very tangible ways through others: they seek charity; generosity; honesty and unconditional love. The child seeks these things, above all, and they find the world doesn’t always provide these things. Children must grow to trust their environment before they can truly have faith in the existence of a intangible and loving God.

I believe that faith is not taught, but cultivated by adults and surroundings that honor the still small voices of our children.

Ann Fontaine

I know a family that is not attending church but who has Sunday as a “no screen day” for the whole family. They have a family meeting on that day where everyone shares their concerns and their joys of the week. They pray. Maybe “home church” (like home school) would work for those who are over scheduled.

Paul Woodrum

As far as immersion in the church is concerned, I have a premonition there is a great gulf fixed between Before Television (BT) and those after television (AT) and now those Before Social Media (BSM) and those After Social Media (ASM).

For us BT folks, Sunday was a day for church, Sunday School, Worship, family dinner, Sunday paper, and Youth Fellowship. For the ASM folks, it’s just another day when anything goes and everything does. In post war (#2) commercialized America, it was a 24 hour blank canvas just waiting to be filled with sales, sports, parades, entertainment, rest, work and, for some, even church when convenient.

We’re back to the beginning when the first day of the week was just the first day of the week. Now, to figure out what to do with this revoltin’ development.

Mary Anne Chesarek

I grew up with mixed religious influences. I attended Sunday school weekly and heard the childish lessons provided by my (Mormon) church. I also attended a private school, where we had 1928 prayer book Morning Prayer daily and Holy Eucharist weekly. Children from 5 to 18 attended the Morning Prayer service and listened to the KJV Bible readings. After the obligatory questioning of faith in college, I yearned to return to a faith community and chose the one with the beautiful liturgy and the appeal to an adult mind. I am not opposed to Sunday school, but I wonder if the curricula have kept up with the world. Our parish’s 12 year olds know the approximate age of the earth and have a fairly good comprehension of evolution. The Bible’s creation stories are beautiful but cannot be presented as fact.
May I suggest a questionnaire, in which we ask adults if their Sunday school lessons kept them in church or if it was something else. Was it the liturgy, fellowship, inclusion of all, community outreach? What keeps us here? What brought us back?

Paul Woodrum

The best education is children at mass with their parents.

The formal education program should go from pre-schoolers through adults and be built around the church’s lectionary and calendar.

There should be a total plan for Christian formation that starts with the liturgy and includes church school, baptismal and confirmation preparation, pre-marital and adult education. Even the choir. as well as Summer church camp and teen youth fellowships that are service oriented, democratically organized and with adults as advisers, not leaders.

Include diocesan programs for wardens, treasurers, etc, or ecumenical programs — maybe an Episcopal-Lutheran youth group — that should be taken into consideration. And don’t forget the clergy who also need time and support for continuing education and formation.

Most of our congregations are relatively small. Looking at education as coordinated Christian formation for all should work better than the too frequent hit or miss approach.

PS: If the program is put together by small discussion groups, it will probably be far more effective than if handed down by the rector or vestry.

Linda Riley

I have been involved with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for the past 12 or 13 years. It has been life changing for the leaders and our children. It does require a huge commitment from our parish and the leaders who must take 90 hours of training for the Level I children, ages 3-6. While it is not a “perfect program”, I am sure there is no such thing. We have several leaders who have continued their training for our children ages 6-9 and 9-12 so that we have all 3 levels at our church. We are not ready to give up on “Sunday School” but also agree that the parents are still the most important aspect if Christian formation.

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