When I Canceled Sunday School

When I started as the Minister to Youth & Young Adults at Colonial Church in 1997, I inherited a lot of programs, as most pastors do. Among them were Sunday school for both middle schoolers and high schoolers. Since I couldn’t be two places at once, I alternated weeks between them, and I had other leaders help me out.

The very first realization I had was that the high school students hated Sunday School. I mean they HATED it. Only about half a dozen students came, and they were all sophomores who hadn’t yet gotten their driver’s licenses. (Freshmen were in confirmation class, and they were required to attend worship.)

So I canceled Sunday School for high school students. They were relieved. Some of their parents were pissed. And I announced in staff meeting, “We’d better figure out ways to make our worship services more relevant to teenagers, because they’re be in worship as of next week.”

I’m happy to report that the church staff did up their game. The senior pastor began using more anecdotes from when he was in high school in his sermons. And when he gave litanies like, “This week, when you’re at work, with friends, at the gym…” he now added “at school” to those lists.

The choir director invited high school students into the choir, and I started putting students down to read scripture and lead prayers in the services.

As much as I would have liked to, canceling middle school Sunday school wasn’t an option. The parents would have started a coup d-etat.

So I reformatted Sunday school for junior highers. It was very simple. We started each year in Genesis and we made our way through to Revelation by June. Each week, we’d read a part of the story (I made sure we always referred to it as “the Adam and Eve part of the story,” not “the Adam and Eve story”) — that would take about 15-20 minutes. Then, for the balance of the hour, the students would gather around a large piece of newsprint and draw that story.

We’d post that on the wall of the room, and post the subsequent episode the next week. And so on.

That way, if nothing else, at least the junior highers came to know that Abraham comes before Moses, that the Tower of Babel belongs in ancient pre-history, and that Paul came after Jesus.

By the end of the year, the entirety of the biblical narrative encircled us in the room, all drawn out in the hand of the students themselves.

What have you done to refashion Sunday School?

This post is a part of Patheos’s “Passing on the Faith” series. Go to the series to see posts by Phyllis Tickle, Mark Yaconelli, Ivy Beckwith, and more.

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  • MB McCandless

    I’d cancel Sunday School too if it happened during worship! Ugh.

  • Richard H

    You mean you just used the Bible? What a radical notion!

  • Elisabeth M

    Those are good ideas.

    Cancelling it for high schoolers while taking steps to integrate them in the congregation… real-life involvement is exactly what high schoolers need. They’re adults (in training) and need to be treated as such.

    I like the junior high plan too. Really personalized approach. And the accomplishment is tangible. I think that could work equally well for teaching world history; when I was a kid part of the disincentive to learn a big story like that was that it was all so disconnected, you didn’t know where you were in the arc of the story, it was ungrounded from context.