Staying in Sunday School
"Have more sympathy for the teachers. They didn't train for the job. There is almost no training available, and what is available is often taught by people who also have no training. They are doing a volunteer job in a volunteer church, trying to be responsible members of the church community. And there probably aren't enough really good teachers in any congregation to fill all of the teachings jobs. Someone has to do the job, and few are especially good at it."
This is the response I am most sympathetic to. Since I joined the LDS Church I have been given a lot of assignments that I am not good at. I think I've accepted all of them, which means that I've often done something in a way that others surely found unsatisfactory. I understand that the more of us who take responsibility for the congregation, the better it functions—even if the talents needed aren't distributed among us in the way they would be in an impossible perfect world.
But my sympathy and appreciation for the teacher don't make the class any more interesting, informative, or spiritually uplifting. Why not just cancel Sunday School if it isn't giving us what it should? Many people take that option, "cancelling" it for themselves by skipping.
For me the answer to why I should be in Sunday School is found in understanding it as an inexplicit liturgy. Liturgy is not a word that Mormons use often because our ordinary worship is relatively informal, but (of course) we have a liturgy.
Temple worship is the most obviously liturgical worship we have in the LDS Church. Temple worship is so highly liturgical in comparison to regular Sunday worship that the first experience of it is a shock for some Mormons. On Sunday the only obviously liturgical moment is the Sacrament. In spite of that, it helps me to think of Sunday School, indeed of most church instruction, as liturgical.
The word liturgy comes from an ancient Greek word that meant "public service," which explains why in English we often refer to "worship services." Catholic theologians have long pointed out that within Christianity, the service or work done in worship is an event rather than a product: the liturgy is an event that makes public our relationship to God.
For example, the ordinance of the Sacrament (what others call the Eucharist, Communion, or the Lord's Supper) doesn't just remind us of the body and blood of Jesus Christ and of the atonement worked through that body and blood, though of course it specifically does that. When the priests bless and we eat and drink the sacramental bread and water, something powerful happens: God blesses those elements at the request of the priest, and partaking in them allows us to re-enter into covenant with God. We covenant to become one in Christ's family by taking his name and to do the things that he has asked us to do, with the divine covenantal promise that he will be with us through his Spirit. (Taking his name and being obedient may be one thing rather than two.)
In a similar way, if Sunday School class is liturgical, perhaps something like an informal call-and-response, then being in class is about something other than calling past events or present doctrines to mind or about exploring something intellectually. Remembering and discussing are relevant to what happens in Sunday School, but they are not the essence of what we do there. Sunday School is to make a body of those we call brother and sister. In it we recognize our joint-heirship in God's Kingdom.
Understood liturgically, taking part in Sunday School is an expression of my membership in a faith community, an event in which we not only rehearse the beliefs we share, but are brought together in the body of Christ, neither intellectual nor nonintellectual, "neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all" (Col. 3:11).
The formulaic repetitions that I would otherwise cringe at concretely express the unity of Paul's neither-nor. In Sunday School that unity is no longer merely theoretical. Neither is it something that applies only to heroic or exceptional circumstances. Sunday School class brings to our attention that awareness of who is smarter, who is of what social class, and who has more experience in the Church is irrelevant to our renewal together in Christ. In Sunday School we perform that unity. When I have difficulty with Sunday School, that says something about my unity with the saints.
Seeing the hour between Sacrament and Priesthood as liturgical doesn't suddenly make it intellectually enriching. It doesn't mean that we can't hope for better teachers than we sometimes have. But it changes the meaning of the time, giving me a proper place within Sunday School as we celebrate being together in preaching and hearing the gospel in plainness and simplicity.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.