Whatever happened to Sunday School?

Whatever happened to Sunday School? July 28, 2009

Sunday School attendance has been dropping across virtually all denominations. This has attracted the attention of The Wall Street Journal. From a column by Charlotte Hays:

The decline in Sunday schools appears to be gradual but steady. A study by the Barna Group indicated that in 2004 churches were 6% less likely to provide Sunday school for children ages 2 to 5 as in 1997. For middle-school kids, the decline was to 86% providing Sunday school in 2004 from 93% in 1997. Similarly, there was a six-percentage-point drop in Sunday schools offered for high school kids — to 80% from 86%. All in all, about 20,000 fewer churches were maintaining Sunday-school classes. And the future does not look bright: Only 15% of ministers regarded Sunday school as a leading concern. The younger the pastor, the study showed, the less emphasis he placed on Sunday school.

Why do you think that is? Is there a way of bringing Sunday School back, or has Sunday School outlived its usefulness? If the latter, what could fill the gap in Christian education?

HT: Bruce Kintz

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • EconJeff

    Just a question: Do megachurches have Sunday school? I’m wondering because they were the big thing in churches and maybe if they don’t offer it, we’d see a decline.

    Additionally, I’m not surprised by this. If you look at the graying of many churches, you’d be surprised if there were enough children to fill the single-room schoolhouse from Little House on the Prairie. Plus, many youth sports leagues now have games every day of the week, including Sunday morning.

    Another factor: With the terrible, terrible, terrible (did I mention terrible?)introduction of “children’s sermons” into the main service, why should children have to stick around after service for more teaching?

  • EconJeff

    Just a question: Do megachurches have Sunday school? I’m wondering because they were the big thing in churches and maybe if they don’t offer it, we’d see a decline.

    Additionally, I’m not surprised by this. If you look at the graying of many churches, you’d be surprised if there were enough children to fill the single-room schoolhouse from Little House on the Prairie. Plus, many youth sports leagues now have games every day of the week, including Sunday morning.

    Another factor: With the terrible, terrible, terrible (did I mention terrible?)introduction of “children’s sermons” into the main service, why should children have to stick around after service for more teaching?

  • Doug

    One of the main challenges of doing Sunday School properly is having teachers who know the theology. Churches have been failing in their education for so long that the adults don’t understand what they believe. So, as they say, you can’t teach what you don’t know.

    Couple that with mediocre curriculum, teachers who come to class unprepared, and the de-emphasis to “honor the Sabbath” among the laity and you have a recipe for failure.

  • Doug

    One of the main challenges of doing Sunday School properly is having teachers who know the theology. Churches have been failing in their education for so long that the adults don’t understand what they believe. So, as they say, you can’t teach what you don’t know.

    Couple that with mediocre curriculum, teachers who come to class unprepared, and the de-emphasis to “honor the Sabbath” among the laity and you have a recipe for failure.

  • EconJeff: Yes, megachurches do have Sunday School; I’m not part of a megachurch, but breaking things down to manageable size is typically done during the Sunday School hour for any church bigger than about 200 souls.

    Doug, great point! My favorite “Sunday School” was not Sunday School at all; the church I attended in Boulder had an hour of prayer for the service prior to the service. If you want people to know and apply things, I can’t think of any better way.

  • EconJeff: Yes, megachurches do have Sunday School; I’m not part of a megachurch, but breaking things down to manageable size is typically done during the Sunday School hour for any church bigger than about 200 souls.

    Doug, great point! My favorite “Sunday School” was not Sunday School at all; the church I attended in Boulder had an hour of prayer for the service prior to the service. If you want people to know and apply things, I can’t think of any better way.

  • James T. Batchelor

    One of the things that may contribute to these statistics is that many church services now resemble what Sunday school once was. EconJeff mentioned the megachurches. The megachurches that I see on television tend to be more about education than about receiving the gifts of Jesus.

    A second thought that occurs to me is the tendency not to have Sunday school during the summer.

    Then there is the intense time pressure that we place on our children with other activities such as sports, dance classes, and so forth. Perhaps we should change the confirmation promises to something like: “Do you promise to remain faithful to God’s Word and sacraments even in the face of the coaches threats,” because the the coach’s threat not to play anyone who misses practice is apparently more frightening than death.

  • James T. Batchelor

    One of the things that may contribute to these statistics is that many church services now resemble what Sunday school once was. EconJeff mentioned the megachurches. The megachurches that I see on television tend to be more about education than about receiving the gifts of Jesus.

    A second thought that occurs to me is the tendency not to have Sunday school during the summer.

    Then there is the intense time pressure that we place on our children with other activities such as sports, dance classes, and so forth. Perhaps we should change the confirmation promises to something like: “Do you promise to remain faithful to God’s Word and sacraments even in the face of the coaches threats,” because the the coach’s threat not to play anyone who misses practice is apparently more frightening than death.

  • Jedidiah Maschke

    For many parents, worship on Sunday morning has been replaced by worship on Sunday night or Saturday night. In order to educate these children, we need something other than Sunday School.

    I believe that one of the reasons for the “demise” of Sunday school is the proliferation of small group Bible studies, which essentially take the place of Sunday school as a place of instruction and education, often in a smaller, relational setting. I don’t see that as a bad thing. When small groups are implemented well, they can be as edifying or even more so than Sunday School.

    When we lived in Orange County, my wife taught a lot of students from Saddleback. (She taught in a Lutheran middle school). She often commented on how well they knew their Bible. One of the keys in their instruction was that many of these students were part of small groups from 3rd grade on, which I believe improved on the Sunday School many people grew up with.

    In my church, we’ve moved away from the Sunday school model and are developing a multi-step program for children from infant to confirmation that gives parents an opportunity to worship without having to take care of their small children, while gradually integrating them into worship so that they learn the liturgy when they are ready. Eventually, as they reach confirmation age (middle school), they will also stay for the the whole worship service.

  • Jedidiah Maschke

    For many parents, worship on Sunday morning has been replaced by worship on Sunday night or Saturday night. In order to educate these children, we need something other than Sunday School.

    I believe that one of the reasons for the “demise” of Sunday school is the proliferation of small group Bible studies, which essentially take the place of Sunday school as a place of instruction and education, often in a smaller, relational setting. I don’t see that as a bad thing. When small groups are implemented well, they can be as edifying or even more so than Sunday School.

    When we lived in Orange County, my wife taught a lot of students from Saddleback. (She taught in a Lutheran middle school). She often commented on how well they knew their Bible. One of the keys in their instruction was that many of these students were part of small groups from 3rd grade on, which I believe improved on the Sunday School many people grew up with.

    In my church, we’ve moved away from the Sunday school model and are developing a multi-step program for children from infant to confirmation that gives parents an opportunity to worship without having to take care of their small children, while gradually integrating them into worship so that they learn the liturgy when they are ready. Eventually, as they reach confirmation age (middle school), they will also stay for the the whole worship service.

  • Scots

    Jimmy Carter is a Sunday school teacher. ‘Nuff said.

  • Scots

    Jimmy Carter is a Sunday school teacher. ‘Nuff said.

  • Scots

    >>If the latter, what could fill the gap in Christian education?<<

    I say Christian homeschooling…on Sunday morning.

  • Scots

    >>If the latter, what could fill the gap in Christian education?<<

    I say Christian homeschooling…on Sunday morning.

  • What could replace it?
    Communion instruction and first communion at age 7, followed by confirmation at roughly the same age as now, while encouraging the kids to join the adult Bible studies, where they can develop relationships with mature Christians.
    I struggle with this though. We don’t have much sunday school here, not for lack of teachers, but for lack of kids. And we have kids, but the parents don’t take them to Sunday School!

  • What could replace it?
    Communion instruction and first communion at age 7, followed by confirmation at roughly the same age as now, while encouraging the kids to join the adult Bible studies, where they can develop relationships with mature Christians.
    I struggle with this though. We don’t have much sunday school here, not for lack of teachers, but for lack of kids. And we have kids, but the parents don’t take them to Sunday School!

  • jrr

    Part of it depends on what Barna is using as their definition of Sunday School. There may still be programs for kids, but a particular model the church is using leads them to say no to “do you offer Sunday School?” There is a growing group of churches that believe families should worship together and don’t use the Sunday School concept. We personally opted out of sending our kids to Sunday School because in our opinion they weren’t doing children any good (fun, but no learning). Sunday School is a relatively recent concept, I believe around the time of the industrial revolution, and was begun to help bring the gospel to kids not already attending church with their parents.

  • jrr

    Part of it depends on what Barna is using as their definition of Sunday School. There may still be programs for kids, but a particular model the church is using leads them to say no to “do you offer Sunday School?” There is a growing group of churches that believe families should worship together and don’t use the Sunday School concept. We personally opted out of sending our kids to Sunday School because in our opinion they weren’t doing children any good (fun, but no learning). Sunday School is a relatively recent concept, I believe around the time of the industrial revolution, and was begun to help bring the gospel to kids not already attending church with their parents.

  • Snafu

    In my congregation, we have two Sunday schools during the sermon (approx 30-45 minutes). One for a bit older kids and the other for younger ones. The teachers are laymen (or -women), sometimes maybe one of the theology students.

    I think it works pretty well and definitely enables the parents or at least either of them to listen to the sermon on the meanwhile. It has happened elsewhere in Finland that the decline of attendance of families to service has dropped same time when the Sunday schools have disappeared.

  • Snafu

    In my congregation, we have two Sunday schools during the sermon (approx 30-45 minutes). One for a bit older kids and the other for younger ones. The teachers are laymen (or -women), sometimes maybe one of the theology students.

    I think it works pretty well and definitely enables the parents or at least either of them to listen to the sermon on the meanwhile. It has happened elsewhere in Finland that the decline of attendance of families to service has dropped same time when the Sunday schools have disappeared.

  • Why has Sunday school declined? What I have seen is way too many parents treating Sunday school (and going one step further; Christian education) as just one more activity to schedule for their kids. I’ve seen parents put soccer practice, band gigs, and scouting to name a few on par with sending their ragamuffins to my class for the studying of Scripture.

    I’ve actually had parents tell me that high school students are not capable of learning in depth topic like why our confessions were written and why those same confessions address problems that still plague the church today. This of course as me scratching my head because if the teenager gets less than a B in advance calculus the threat of unplugging the Xbox is invoked so that the child will not ruin his opportunity for a scholarship to dad’s alma mater.

    Why any parent would put studying God’s Word on par with an extracurricular is beyond me but it happens with about 50% of the folks I run into.

  • Why has Sunday school declined? What I have seen is way too many parents treating Sunday school (and going one step further; Christian education) as just one more activity to schedule for their kids. I’ve seen parents put soccer practice, band gigs, and scouting to name a few on par with sending their ragamuffins to my class for the studying of Scripture.

    I’ve actually had parents tell me that high school students are not capable of learning in depth topic like why our confessions were written and why those same confessions address problems that still plague the church today. This of course as me scratching my head because if the teenager gets less than a B in advance calculus the threat of unplugging the Xbox is invoked so that the child will not ruin his opportunity for a scholarship to dad’s alma mater.

    Why any parent would put studying God’s Word on par with an extracurricular is beyond me but it happens with about 50% of the folks I run into.

  • The decline in Sunday School parallels the decline in regard for the task of Christian education. Leading watchers of trends in American Christianity are now noticing that the decline in an emphasis on teaching Biblical literacy has had a devastating impact on the health of the mega-churches, which have done a good job drawing crowds, but a very poor job keep and retaining people as members, and most importantly, moving from “seeker/spectator” of the “show” that is put on to draw them in, to maturing Christians growing in the Word.

  • The decline in Sunday School parallels the decline in regard for the task of Christian education. Leading watchers of trends in American Christianity are now noticing that the decline in an emphasis on teaching Biblical literacy has had a devastating impact on the health of the mega-churches, which have done a good job drawing crowds, but a very poor job keep and retaining people as members, and most importantly, moving from “seeker/spectator” of the “show” that is put on to draw them in, to maturing Christians growing in the Word.

  • ssmith

    I have to agree with Rev. McCain. But – from someone who is looking for a church with 1)Christ-centered teaching and 2) strong small groups, I’m finding another reason. Sunday school, at least in every church we’ve looked at here in the deep South, is grouped by AGE. I’m a middle-aged woman, and I’d much rather have a meaty intellectual discussion. But almost all the “Middle Aged Woman Sunday Schools” (in my experience) are, well, a bit poofy. I would dearly love to see a church that organizes Sunday Schools by *topic*. Want to study the City of God? Classroom 1. Is a Beth Moore Bible study more your style? Classroom 2!

    So that’s why I don’t attend Sunday School any more, for what it’s worth. My reason may not have anything at all to do with the general declining trend, but it’s at least worth noting anecdotally.

  • ssmith

    I have to agree with Rev. McCain. But – from someone who is looking for a church with 1)Christ-centered teaching and 2) strong small groups, I’m finding another reason. Sunday school, at least in every church we’ve looked at here in the deep South, is grouped by AGE. I’m a middle-aged woman, and I’d much rather have a meaty intellectual discussion. But almost all the “Middle Aged Woman Sunday Schools” (in my experience) are, well, a bit poofy. I would dearly love to see a church that organizes Sunday Schools by *topic*. Want to study the City of God? Classroom 1. Is a Beth Moore Bible study more your style? Classroom 2!

    So that’s why I don’t attend Sunday School any more, for what it’s worth. My reason may not have anything at all to do with the general declining trend, but it’s at least worth noting anecdotally.

  • Ewe

    Here in rural Western MN, the people remember 125 kids at Sunday School about 50 years ago. I can’t imagine where they put all those students in the basement. Now the enrollment for age 3-middle school is only one child. There were a few more students when we moved here 6 years ago. The parents would drop the kids off for SS and pick them up and go home after SS and skip church. This surprised me because we are rural and they have to drive and don’t have enough time to go to the cafe or something during SS.
    I think this problem of no SS is going to make more problems for pastors in the future. The students are not going to know ANY Bible stories when it comes time for confirmation. The pastors are going to have the same amount of time for confirmation but have to teach them everything.
    I think a major reason for lack of SS offered is it’s almost impossible to find teachers. In our busy society, no one VOLUNTEERS to teach. Plus the children act terrible and they aren’t disciplined at home. No one wants to volunteer to teach a bunch of bratty kids, even if it’s only one hour a week.

  • Ewe

    Here in rural Western MN, the people remember 125 kids at Sunday School about 50 years ago. I can’t imagine where they put all those students in the basement. Now the enrollment for age 3-middle school is only one child. There were a few more students when we moved here 6 years ago. The parents would drop the kids off for SS and pick them up and go home after SS and skip church. This surprised me because we are rural and they have to drive and don’t have enough time to go to the cafe or something during SS.
    I think this problem of no SS is going to make more problems for pastors in the future. The students are not going to know ANY Bible stories when it comes time for confirmation. The pastors are going to have the same amount of time for confirmation but have to teach them everything.
    I think a major reason for lack of SS offered is it’s almost impossible to find teachers. In our busy society, no one VOLUNTEERS to teach. Plus the children act terrible and they aren’t disciplined at home. No one wants to volunteer to teach a bunch of bratty kids, even if it’s only one hour a week.

  • There seems to be a multiplicity of reasons for Sunday School decline, including the following: lack of volunteers willing to commit, students behavior, the theological training (or not) of the volunteers, the theological level of Sunday School, children’s sermons to give basic teaching, the lack of concern of parents regarding the Christian education of their children, and the number of children families and in churches.
    I’ve heard the story of a pastor who used hate going to Sunday School as a child because he went to a Lutheran day school and knew more about the Bible story than the Sunday School teacher. I can see where that would be frustrating. I also heard about the high schooler who disliked “fluffy” Sunday School–you know the drill:”You’re confirmed, now let’s teach you useful stuff. Let’s lecture you about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.”
    Our church is going through the same Sunday School issues as mentioned above. Maybe we need to consider as ssmith (#13) said, thematic Sunday School–Bible basics in that room, a study on an Epistle in this room.
    There was a time that Lutherans didn’t even have Sunday School. They sent their children to Lutheran schools where they learned every day (from the pastor who was also the school teacher) what is now attempted to be covered in 50 45-minute sessions. Maybe we should look beyond Sunday School into a more comprehensive plan of Christian education for the children beyond minimum contact time on a Sunday morning.

  • There seems to be a multiplicity of reasons for Sunday School decline, including the following: lack of volunteers willing to commit, students behavior, the theological training (or not) of the volunteers, the theological level of Sunday School, children’s sermons to give basic teaching, the lack of concern of parents regarding the Christian education of their children, and the number of children families and in churches.
    I’ve heard the story of a pastor who used hate going to Sunday School as a child because he went to a Lutheran day school and knew more about the Bible story than the Sunday School teacher. I can see where that would be frustrating. I also heard about the high schooler who disliked “fluffy” Sunday School–you know the drill:”You’re confirmed, now let’s teach you useful stuff. Let’s lecture you about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.”
    Our church is going through the same Sunday School issues as mentioned above. Maybe we need to consider as ssmith (#13) said, thematic Sunday School–Bible basics in that room, a study on an Epistle in this room.
    There was a time that Lutherans didn’t even have Sunday School. They sent their children to Lutheran schools where they learned every day (from the pastor who was also the school teacher) what is now attempted to be covered in 50 45-minute sessions. Maybe we should look beyond Sunday School into a more comprehensive plan of Christian education for the children beyond minimum contact time on a Sunday morning.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I think if CPH would only make a Sunday School program for the WII video game console a select group of wierdos would buy it and everyone else would still play a fun game late on Saturday night and not come to boring Sunday School in the morning no matter how exciting we think we can make it.

    I think what we’ve known as Sunday School is dead. What we should work very hard at replacing it is teaching the basics of the faith. I use the Bible and Luther’s Small Catechism. Check out Rev. Bender’s Catechesis materials.

    Actually, I have also liked the growing in Christ, Sunday School materials by CPH. I have liked how they have centered on the Bible Stories and given the teachers plenty of resources for Bible and Catechism and Hymn memorization.

    Our very small Sunday School is growing by a few kids each year. Our young parents of mostly younger children come and take turns teaching and they bring their kids. We emphasize how this mirrors what we all hope as parents we can be providing for our kids: the daily task of teaching and living the Christian faith which we encourage families to especially be about around mealtimes and before bedtime.

    Its not real cutting edge and exciting, but tried and true – and for now, our parents and kids seem to be taking to it. The children’s Sunday School takes the summer off and (like my adult Bible Class) is in the hour before the the Lord’s Service (I wish we could go the hour after but that would conflict with “fellowship time”;).

    I actually worry about our Sunday School growing too quickly and our folks not being able to keep the intimate family-centered cooperation which has very naturally been built up over the past 5-or-so years.

    It’s quite a balance, encouraging young Lutheran couples to pace the births of their children with the greatest consideration for Church and Sunday School. A little too eager lately, I think. Calm down people, we would never want to populate the world too rapidly with little Lutherans. 😉

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I think if CPH would only make a Sunday School program for the WII video game console a select group of wierdos would buy it and everyone else would still play a fun game late on Saturday night and not come to boring Sunday School in the morning no matter how exciting we think we can make it.

    I think what we’ve known as Sunday School is dead. What we should work very hard at replacing it is teaching the basics of the faith. I use the Bible and Luther’s Small Catechism. Check out Rev. Bender’s Catechesis materials.

    Actually, I have also liked the growing in Christ, Sunday School materials by CPH. I have liked how they have centered on the Bible Stories and given the teachers plenty of resources for Bible and Catechism and Hymn memorization.

    Our very small Sunday School is growing by a few kids each year. Our young parents of mostly younger children come and take turns teaching and they bring their kids. We emphasize how this mirrors what we all hope as parents we can be providing for our kids: the daily task of teaching and living the Christian faith which we encourage families to especially be about around mealtimes and before bedtime.

    Its not real cutting edge and exciting, but tried and true – and for now, our parents and kids seem to be taking to it. The children’s Sunday School takes the summer off and (like my adult Bible Class) is in the hour before the the Lord’s Service (I wish we could go the hour after but that would conflict with “fellowship time”;).

    I actually worry about our Sunday School growing too quickly and our folks not being able to keep the intimate family-centered cooperation which has very naturally been built up over the past 5-or-so years.

    It’s quite a balance, encouraging young Lutheran couples to pace the births of their children with the greatest consideration for Church and Sunday School. A little too eager lately, I think. Calm down people, we would never want to populate the world too rapidly with little Lutherans. 😉

  • kerner

    BEfore we ask “what happened to Sunday School?” maybe we should examine how and when they got their start.

    See here:

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/whendidsundayschoolstart.html

    Apparently, Sunday school was unknown prior to or during the Reformation, so maybe the real “take us back to the good old catholic way of doing things” types won’t think it’s so important.

    The other thing I notice was that SUnday school was once like Christian day schools. That is, it served a dual purpose. Much like Christian education today, Churches got people to bring their kids to Sunday school partly because they would learn to read and write, and then taught them about Christianity as well.

    This is the a variation of the very old Church practice of serving the material needs of the poor in Christ’s name and hoping that the recipients will appreciate the good works and glorify Our Father in heaven. If we are going to ask “what happened to Sunday School?” or “What will replace it?” We should probably be asking, “What need of the poor, or society in general, can we serve in Christ’s name, and use that opportunity to teach them about Christ?”

  • kerner

    BEfore we ask “what happened to Sunday School?” maybe we should examine how and when they got their start.

    See here:

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/whendidsundayschoolstart.html

    Apparently, Sunday school was unknown prior to or during the Reformation, so maybe the real “take us back to the good old catholic way of doing things” types won’t think it’s so important.

    The other thing I notice was that SUnday school was once like Christian day schools. That is, it served a dual purpose. Much like Christian education today, Churches got people to bring their kids to Sunday school partly because they would learn to read and write, and then taught them about Christianity as well.

    This is the a variation of the very old Church practice of serving the material needs of the poor in Christ’s name and hoping that the recipients will appreciate the good works and glorify Our Father in heaven. If we are going to ask “what happened to Sunday School?” or “What will replace it?” We should probably be asking, “What need of the poor, or society in general, can we serve in Christ’s name, and use that opportunity to teach them about Christ?”

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Kerner: Tennis lessons. U.S. poor kids need tennis lessons (with Jesus) 🙂

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Kerner: Tennis lessons. U.S. poor kids need tennis lessons (with Jesus) 🙂

  • Booklover

    The reasons that I see for the drop in attendance in Sunday School have mostly been mentioned:

    1. Sports.
    2. Saturday night services.
    3. Many churchgoers no longer see Christian education as important–only that once-in-a-lifetime “born again” experience.
    4. When I was young, we all worked so hard on the farm that Sunday School was a wonderful break. Now it is looked upon as only another weary obligation.
    5. More birth control, less children.
    6. Women, who used to teach the bulk of children’s Sunday School, are now working outside the home and using Sunday a.m. to clean house or shop or simply break down.
    7. The mega-churches here offer Sunday School *during* the worship service, so the children do not worship with their families. I don’t know if this counts as Sunday School.

    Dearest ssmith #13: Excellent point. I shall join you in Classroom 1. And together we can burn our soft and warmish “Women’s Devotionals” book afterwards over a glass of cold beer. Or dark chocolate or sweet potato fries, whichever tickles you.

  • Booklover

    The reasons that I see for the drop in attendance in Sunday School have mostly been mentioned:

    1. Sports.
    2. Saturday night services.
    3. Many churchgoers no longer see Christian education as important–only that once-in-a-lifetime “born again” experience.
    4. When I was young, we all worked so hard on the farm that Sunday School was a wonderful break. Now it is looked upon as only another weary obligation.
    5. More birth control, less children.
    6. Women, who used to teach the bulk of children’s Sunday School, are now working outside the home and using Sunday a.m. to clean house or shop or simply break down.
    7. The mega-churches here offer Sunday School *during* the worship service, so the children do not worship with their families. I don’t know if this counts as Sunday School.

    Dearest ssmith #13: Excellent point. I shall join you in Classroom 1. And together we can burn our soft and warmish “Women’s Devotionals” book afterwards over a glass of cold beer. Or dark chocolate or sweet potato fries, whichever tickles you.

  • ssmith

    #19, Booklover

    (I, as a librarian, dearly love your screen name!) I’ll see you there, with a glass o’ Merlot and the dark chocolate in hand!

  • ssmith

    #19, Booklover

    (I, as a librarian, dearly love your screen name!) I’ll see you there, with a glass o’ Merlot and the dark chocolate in hand!

  • I was going to make the same point Kerner makes about the historical origin of Sunday School. It began as a way of serving the poor and the downtrodden, the young chimney-sweeps and laborers who otherwise would have been consigned to illiteracy (both spiritual and literal).

    In my experience Sunday School today tends to take the “school” out of the equation almost entirely. I realize there are still many good classes out there, but from childhood on I myself have associated Sunday School with a descent into banality and superfluity held together by tedium. Perhaps what has been lost is a sense of VOCATION, of Sunday School as a way of serving our neighbor.

  • I was going to make the same point Kerner makes about the historical origin of Sunday School. It began as a way of serving the poor and the downtrodden, the young chimney-sweeps and laborers who otherwise would have been consigned to illiteracy (both spiritual and literal).

    In my experience Sunday School today tends to take the “school” out of the equation almost entirely. I realize there are still many good classes out there, but from childhood on I myself have associated Sunday School with a descent into banality and superfluity held together by tedium. Perhaps what has been lost is a sense of VOCATION, of Sunday School as a way of serving our neighbor.

  • Pam Nielsen

    These are great insights. The historical references are spot on and in our own church body (LCMS) we were late on the scene with Sunday School, having organized our fine Lutheran, and in those days, “German” speaking day schools for the parish children. Sunday schools within LCMS began with an interest in reaching the unchurched children in the neighborhoods around our parishes and more often than not these classes were delivered in English. Minutes of the Board of Education of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (est. 1837) in Fort Wayne from the turn of the century bear this out. On the larger scale, the SS movement began in England by a well intentioned layman who wanted to gathered the Oliver-type ruffians and give them some learning and religion. The movement crossed the pond and operated via SS assciations, lay led, lay driven and un-attached from the various church bodies dotting the country. Early denominational leaders were concerned about the lack of good theology, the poorly trained teachers and the growing power and influence of this lay movement. All reasons why LCMS wisely kept its distance. Eventually, the church leaders got in the game and embraced it in order to influence it and thus denominational publishers began creating curriulum with their specific doctrines laid out through the teaching of Bible stories. But in many ways the early emphasis on making good kids out of bad ones remained and much of what passed and even today passes for Sunday School is simply moralism and legalism.

    Fast forward to today when we seem to be taking a step back and non-denominational publishers with their generic theology are ever gaining a foothold within well established church bodies while presenting their generally reformed, banal and entertainment style materials. Not much is being taught but there are lots of fun and games. At the end of the day, kids can find much more fun, and better games elsewhere but where else can they hear the true, pure life saving Word of God that shows them their sin and the Savior?

    What is the answer? I think we have to be willing to examine new ways of reaching children and perhaps even new times of the week. Kids are online, how can we reach them there? How can we better train teachers? We also need to get to today’s parents who grew up in a time when their own parents modeled a laissez-faire approach to church in general and SS specifically. How do we capture parents who are the greatest influencers of their children? How do we get families back in church, engaged with the Holy Things, the Gifts of God, and the people of God?

    I don’t have any sure answers but these things keep me awake at night and on my knees in prayer.

    – Deaconess Pamela Nielsen
    Senior Editor for Sunday School at CPH

  • Pam Nielsen

    These are great insights. The historical references are spot on and in our own church body (LCMS) we were late on the scene with Sunday School, having organized our fine Lutheran, and in those days, “German” speaking day schools for the parish children. Sunday schools within LCMS began with an interest in reaching the unchurched children in the neighborhoods around our parishes and more often than not these classes were delivered in English. Minutes of the Board of Education of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (est. 1837) in Fort Wayne from the turn of the century bear this out. On the larger scale, the SS movement began in England by a well intentioned layman who wanted to gathered the Oliver-type ruffians and give them some learning and religion. The movement crossed the pond and operated via SS assciations, lay led, lay driven and un-attached from the various church bodies dotting the country. Early denominational leaders were concerned about the lack of good theology, the poorly trained teachers and the growing power and influence of this lay movement. All reasons why LCMS wisely kept its distance. Eventually, the church leaders got in the game and embraced it in order to influence it and thus denominational publishers began creating curriulum with their specific doctrines laid out through the teaching of Bible stories. But in many ways the early emphasis on making good kids out of bad ones remained and much of what passed and even today passes for Sunday School is simply moralism and legalism.

    Fast forward to today when we seem to be taking a step back and non-denominational publishers with their generic theology are ever gaining a foothold within well established church bodies while presenting their generally reformed, banal and entertainment style materials. Not much is being taught but there are lots of fun and games. At the end of the day, kids can find much more fun, and better games elsewhere but where else can they hear the true, pure life saving Word of God that shows them their sin and the Savior?

    What is the answer? I think we have to be willing to examine new ways of reaching children and perhaps even new times of the week. Kids are online, how can we reach them there? How can we better train teachers? We also need to get to today’s parents who grew up in a time when their own parents modeled a laissez-faire approach to church in general and SS specifically. How do we capture parents who are the greatest influencers of their children? How do we get families back in church, engaged with the Holy Things, the Gifts of God, and the people of God?

    I don’t have any sure answers but these things keep me awake at night and on my knees in prayer.

    – Deaconess Pamela Nielsen
    Senior Editor for Sunday School at CPH

  • DonS

    As a homeschooling family, we don’t care much for Sunday School, though we teach it from time to time. Putting kids with their peers just encourages the wrong kind of pecking order, and if the program uses canned Sunday School curriculum it is typically insipid. Our family has always worshipped together in church. Our pastor teaches expositorily, in Scriptural context, and our children learned from a young age to sit nicely and listen to the sermon. They take notes, and have all very much enjoyed the experience. When they have reached high school age, we have offered each of them the opportunity to try high school youth group, and, thankfully, they have all declined, preferring to sit under the teaching of our senior pastor. The community should worship together as a community, with all of its ages, from gray headed seniors to the very youngest among us, as soon as they are capable of sitting quietly and respectfully, in my view.

  • DonS

    As a homeschooling family, we don’t care much for Sunday School, though we teach it from time to time. Putting kids with their peers just encourages the wrong kind of pecking order, and if the program uses canned Sunday School curriculum it is typically insipid. Our family has always worshipped together in church. Our pastor teaches expositorily, in Scriptural context, and our children learned from a young age to sit nicely and listen to the sermon. They take notes, and have all very much enjoyed the experience. When they have reached high school age, we have offered each of them the opportunity to try high school youth group, and, thankfully, they have all declined, preferring to sit under the teaching of our senior pastor. The community should worship together as a community, with all of its ages, from gray headed seniors to the very youngest among us, as soon as they are capable of sitting quietly and respectfully, in my view.

  • kerner

    I really appreciate this thread, because it highlights a problem that churches struggle with today.

    Some of our institutions are Biblically mandated, but others are the result (we hope) of the application of Biblical principles to a particular set of conditions. Sunday School is a good case in point. There was a need for young children to learn about Christianity. There was a need for young children to receive basic academic education that could legitimately be provided by the Church as Christian charity. The Church saw the needs and rose to meet them.

    Now, at least in 21st century America, the need to combat illiteracy among the poor on Sunday morning is not what it was during the industrial revolution, because public education and private religious schools meet that need during the week. So, one major reason that “Sunday School” is in decline is that the conditions that caused the Church to impliment it in the first place have changed.

    But, the need for Christian education still exists. It will always exist. When Luther saw ignorance of the basic principles of Christianity among a nominally Christian culture, his response was to write the Small Catachism and encourage fathers to teach it to their families. Christian home schooling; something like what Don S @23 is doing now. Maybe this is an idea whose time has returned.

    But I stand by my statement that the practice of the Church filling a more or less temporal need in charity for Christ’s sake, and using the contact with the unchurched as an opportunity to spread the Gospel, is a very old and legitimate one. I think it remains legitimate, even though it can become corrupted by pop culture. Pastor Lindemood is right to point out that this practice can degenerate into tennis lessons for Jesus. I guess that the trick is for the Church to discern the difference between legitimate acts of charity and gimmicks.

    But I think it would be interesting to learn everyone’s ideas of what sorts of temporal needs the Church could legitimately meet today that would give us an opportunity to share the Gospel with the unchurched and/or help educate and strengthen the faith of believers.

  • kerner

    I really appreciate this thread, because it highlights a problem that churches struggle with today.

    Some of our institutions are Biblically mandated, but others are the result (we hope) of the application of Biblical principles to a particular set of conditions. Sunday School is a good case in point. There was a need for young children to learn about Christianity. There was a need for young children to receive basic academic education that could legitimately be provided by the Church as Christian charity. The Church saw the needs and rose to meet them.

    Now, at least in 21st century America, the need to combat illiteracy among the poor on Sunday morning is not what it was during the industrial revolution, because public education and private religious schools meet that need during the week. So, one major reason that “Sunday School” is in decline is that the conditions that caused the Church to impliment it in the first place have changed.

    But, the need for Christian education still exists. It will always exist. When Luther saw ignorance of the basic principles of Christianity among a nominally Christian culture, his response was to write the Small Catachism and encourage fathers to teach it to their families. Christian home schooling; something like what Don S @23 is doing now. Maybe this is an idea whose time has returned.

    But I stand by my statement that the practice of the Church filling a more or less temporal need in charity for Christ’s sake, and using the contact with the unchurched as an opportunity to spread the Gospel, is a very old and legitimate one. I think it remains legitimate, even though it can become corrupted by pop culture. Pastor Lindemood is right to point out that this practice can degenerate into tennis lessons for Jesus. I guess that the trick is for the Church to discern the difference between legitimate acts of charity and gimmicks.

    But I think it would be interesting to learn everyone’s ideas of what sorts of temporal needs the Church could legitimately meet today that would give us an opportunity to share the Gospel with the unchurched and/or help educate and strengthen the faith of believers.

  • I like kerner’s questions here.

    If the practice is not Biblically mandated, I am not going to be too quick to panic if I see it falling by the wayside. I will, however, ask where the Christian education of our youth is going and whether Sunday is a good time to address it. But I think many of these past movements were powerful because people in their times looked around and asked how best to achieve something that the Bible taught was important. Christian youth will probably be interested in participation if we are good at identifying and addressing this.

  • I like kerner’s questions here.

    If the practice is not Biblically mandated, I am not going to be too quick to panic if I see it falling by the wayside. I will, however, ask where the Christian education of our youth is going and whether Sunday is a good time to address it. But I think many of these past movements were powerful because people in their times looked around and asked how best to achieve something that the Bible taught was important. Christian youth will probably be interested in participation if we are good at identifying and addressing this.

  • I don’t know that the disappearance of Sunday school is an altogether bad thing; reasons may exist for kids to sit in a classroom and draw pictures of Biblical events, etc. instead of listening to the sermon in the sanctuary, but I must say that I remember significantly more from the sermons I heard as a kid than I do of anything that transpired in Sunday school classes.

  • I don’t know that the disappearance of Sunday school is an altogether bad thing; reasons may exist for kids to sit in a classroom and draw pictures of Biblical events, etc. instead of listening to the sermon in the sanctuary, but I must say that I remember significantly more from the sermons I heard as a kid than I do of anything that transpired in Sunday school classes.

  • Crypto-Lutheran

    DonS @ #23.
    Thank-you, DonS. I wonder where the Sunday School tradition started.
    Historically, Lutherans have received religious instruction at home, in the Lutheran Day Schools, in weekly Catechism sermons, and in confirmation classes. I also like Bror’s statements above: earlier communion.
    CL

  • Crypto-Lutheran

    DonS @ #23.
    Thank-you, DonS. I wonder where the Sunday School tradition started.
    Historically, Lutherans have received religious instruction at home, in the Lutheran Day Schools, in weekly Catechism sermons, and in confirmation classes. I also like Bror’s statements above: earlier communion.
    CL

  • Anne

    @DonS–our experience is similar to yours. Two of my homeschooled children are in college, and one in public high school. When I was homeschooling them, we typically began our day with prayer, Bible reading, maybe a hymn, and perhaps a review of the catechism, probably about 30 minutes all told. It wasn’t very formal, and I think we had as many questions as answers, which we sometimes asked our pastor. (If I’d had The Treasury of Daily Prayer at that time, I would certainly have used it!) Even if very little *academic* work got done on a given day due to illness or laziness or whatever, I still thought of that time as THE most important teaching of the day. Sunday school was a good reinforcement for what we discussed at home every day, but it was not the main way the faith was passed on to my kids.

    As for worship and age-grouped activities, my oldest went through a stage of wanting to attend friends’ non-Lutheran churches because they had exciting youth activities. I had to explain very carefully that we did not attend our church because of the fun social things (although when they occur, how delightful that is!); rather, we attend our church because we believe the same things as those in the congregation do. I am so pleased that this young adult daughter now highly values her Lutheran faith and understands why we didn’t select a congregation based on who else attends, but on what (and Who) is confessed.

  • Anne

    @DonS–our experience is similar to yours. Two of my homeschooled children are in college, and one in public high school. When I was homeschooling them, we typically began our day with prayer, Bible reading, maybe a hymn, and perhaps a review of the catechism, probably about 30 minutes all told. It wasn’t very formal, and I think we had as many questions as answers, which we sometimes asked our pastor. (If I’d had The Treasury of Daily Prayer at that time, I would certainly have used it!) Even if very little *academic* work got done on a given day due to illness or laziness or whatever, I still thought of that time as THE most important teaching of the day. Sunday school was a good reinforcement for what we discussed at home every day, but it was not the main way the faith was passed on to my kids.

    As for worship and age-grouped activities, my oldest went through a stage of wanting to attend friends’ non-Lutheran churches because they had exciting youth activities. I had to explain very carefully that we did not attend our church because of the fun social things (although when they occur, how delightful that is!); rather, we attend our church because we believe the same things as those in the congregation do. I am so pleased that this young adult daughter now highly values her Lutheran faith and understands why we didn’t select a congregation based on who else attends, but on what (and Who) is confessed.

  • One word: contraception. We simply aren’t having the number of children we used to.
    Robert at bioethike.com

  • One word: contraception. We simply aren’t having the number of children we used to.
    Robert at bioethike.com

  • Steve in Toronto

    I miss Sunday Morning Adult Sunday school but I don’t see it coming back any time soon (I have lobbied for it at my last 3 churches and was meeting with a wall of apathy). I the primary reasons for this are two fold first is the trend towards pulling kids out of the main service treating them to a special child centered combined Sunday school / worship service. The second is the growing prominence of small groups. A lot of people feel that the Sunday morning adult Sunday school is redundant. I know I am in the minority here but I miss the 10:00 mixed age Sunday schools of my youth. My experience maybe limited (two different churches two different small groups) and in both cases I was blessed by superior bible teaching (first by my father and later by a Wycliffe Seminary PHD candidate). But frankly I much prefer the 10:00 in the morning model of Adult Sunday School. Meeting the same 12 people (who are almost invariably just like you) once a week at someone’s house is just not the same as the mix of age, class and spiritual maturity you find in the basement of your typical neibourhood church on Sunday morning or Wednesday night.

    God Bless
    Steve in Toronto

  • Steve in Toronto

    I miss Sunday Morning Adult Sunday school but I don’t see it coming back any time soon (I have lobbied for it at my last 3 churches and was meeting with a wall of apathy). I the primary reasons for this are two fold first is the trend towards pulling kids out of the main service treating them to a special child centered combined Sunday school / worship service. The second is the growing prominence of small groups. A lot of people feel that the Sunday morning adult Sunday school is redundant. I know I am in the minority here but I miss the 10:00 mixed age Sunday schools of my youth. My experience maybe limited (two different churches two different small groups) and in both cases I was blessed by superior bible teaching (first by my father and later by a Wycliffe Seminary PHD candidate). But frankly I much prefer the 10:00 in the morning model of Adult Sunday School. Meeting the same 12 people (who are almost invariably just like you) once a week at someone’s house is just not the same as the mix of age, class and spiritual maturity you find in the basement of your typical neibourhood church on Sunday morning or Wednesday night.

    God Bless
    Steve in Toronto