I recently ran across this article by Tim Wright called “Sunday Schooling Our Kids out of Church.”
I don’t agree with everything he says, but he has done a great service in pointing out the Sunday School problem.
Over the past few decades, in a largely futile attempt to re-engage the growing segment of non-church attenders, churches have shifted toward a model of separating parents and children on Sunday mornings. Usually, this model advertises a one-hour commitment, sending the adults to a worship service with contemporary music and a self-help, teaching-style sermon, and corralling the kids in Sunday School, where they sing hyperactive “kid-friendly” music to a recorded track, do hands-on activities, and listen to a quick lesson on their own learning level. After an hour of separation, everyone goes home and gets on with their lives.
Of course, there are many other factors at work, which Wright acknowledges, but we’re not doing ourselves any favors.
Call to Include Children in Corporate Worship
I first heard this proposed in one of my own circles a number of years ago. We as a staff were deciding how to best reach young families, or what leadership called a lazy and unmotivated segment of our congregation. As we talked, it became apparent that the majority opinion in the room was that we should aim to hook families into coming for only one hour on Sunday morning. During the discussion, a colleague inadvertently tipped his hand:
“Do we really think that the best thing for kids is to have them singing hymns from the 18th century? I don’t think so.”
I cringed. Everyone else on staff bought it. Ministry there was never the same for me.
I know he really didn’t the grasp the full reach of what he was saying. I know he had good intentions. But it’s a broken model. It hasn’t built up a generation of renewed interest in church attendance. In fact, it’s had the opposite effect, and it’s one of the ways that the church has been alienating young adults for the past 20 or 30 years.
Well, that and the whole politicized gospel of the “religious right,” but that’s another story for another day.
Now, kids are leaving the church faster than ever before.
But why? We tried to engage them on their own level. We didn’t stick them in pews between Mom and Dad and make them sit still. We didn’t force them to participate in the stuff they just couldn’t possible relate to, like liturgy, hymns, long Scripture readings, and that sort of thing. We put together cool music videos, lots of media, we let them shout and dance their little hearts out, we overstimulated them in Jesus’ name! We let them just be kids!
As Wright answers (and correctly, I think), it’s because once they graduated from the programs targeted toward them, there was no connection to the greater life of the church, especially the strange thing the church does together on Sunday mornings that it calls “worship.” Though much effort and expense had been expended to making them into little Christians, nobody had taught them how to be grown-up, churched Christians. And, while it’s certainly possible to be “saved” and not belong to a local congregation, we can’t thrive in isolation. We need one another, and a diverse blend at that. It’s for our own good.
Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way:
“Being a Christian should just scare the hell out of us. It’s like on Sunday we need to rush together for protection. “Oh, I’m not crazy.” That we believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world is craziness. It’s going to make your life really weird. And you just need to get together on Sunday to be pulled back into the reality of God’s kingdom.”
Even if we believe this ourselves, if we’re not training this kind of earnestness into our children, they won’t get it. And there won’t be much point in going to church.
Finding that More Profound Alleluia
In the end, I think Wright’s points are great, but I want to offer one more.
Kids are growing up and leaving the church because we’ve stopped expecting enough out of them.
Let’s return to what that fellow staff member said. If participating in more traditional corporate worship, in this case, singing the hymns of the church, isn’t appropriate for children, then what is the alternative? I think his answer would be singing those “kid friendly” songs along with a recorded track or music video.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with kids singing “kid friendly” songs. I certainly did when I was a kid, although they weren’t as cool and weren’t paired with hypnotic media productions (Deep and Wide, anybody? Father Abraham?). But we’ve forgotten that an important component of education is exposing kids to things they can’t yet understand in order to build important connections later on. So, while a traditional Sunday service might be boring and essentially meaningless at times to small children, if we gracefully and patiently teach them the discipline of the routine, the time will come when that will no longer be the case.
In a high school English class, students may read The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye or The Scarlet Letter, not because they will instantly connect to it and enjoy it (though hopefully this is sometimes the case), but because it’s good for them. Because they need to learn to interact with new ideas, concepts, and worldviews. Even if they seem foreign. Even if they are boring. They may not immediately get it, but down the line, they will be better for it. They will be more equipped to meet the world as adults.
The church needs a similar, doxological education. We need to expect kids to participate, to sit (reasonably) still for a little while (and love them graciously when they can’t), to stumble through the words and sing the notes as best as they are able. Even 17th-century hymns. Even communal prayers that have tough language, like “slavery,” “resurrection,” and “covenant.” Even when they are years away from fully understanding what they’re doing.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that they will understand more than we think.
We need to expect them to do things that are difficult, because in the end, they’re worthwhile.
Now, a few of those kids who have never darkened a Sanctuary door will make the transition to graze in the adult’s Sunday silo. A few more will return to this format when they have their own kids, because they think good parents take their kids to church. Many, and if the numbers are accurate, most will not. They will have no connection to the church, no “touch points,” no lasting memories, and no working understanding of why we do what we do.
It’s absolutely imperative that we reintegrate children back into our gathered worship. This may take time, it may be messy, but we’ve got to do it.
And we adults need to be there to help them in their growth. To teach them. To make room for them in the pews. To let them follow our fingers as we trace the melody in the hymnal. To be patient with them when they squirm and sigh. Above all, to show them by example the importance of being the church on Sunday so that we can be the church we need to be every other day.
And, as it turns out, there is a glimmer of hope for us traditional people. Those young people who have left the church because they didn’t get it. Well, some of them do have a vital and persistent faith, and they’re desperately searching for deeper connection to that faith in a world and in churches that are increasingly disconnected. That’s why we’re seeing so many of them returning to liturgical churches. Nearly fifty years ago, the established church had the opportunity to reengage a questioning generation, and they failed. We have a similar opportunity now. We need to make room in our tradition for sojourners and their questions, as well.
We’ve got to be honest with ourselves. What we’re doing isn’t working.
Christian education is valuable, but the discipline of the worship event is the beating heart of our Christian journey, our nourishment, our Sunday asylum.
It’s time we all worshiped together. Once again. At long last.