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 When publicly funded schools superseded that initial purpose, churches seized the opportunity to reimagine Sunday Schools as vehicles for religious education, that is, for forming children into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.