All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Sunday School
Apologies to author Robert Fulghum (All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, 1988) for borrowing and paraphrasing his book title.
What ever happened to Sunday School? Yes, I know many churches still have Sunday School, but my observation is that it is mostly a pale shadow of what Sunday School used to be—in American evangelical churches.
When I was growing up in American evangelicalism…. Okay, I know I just turned a whole lot of readers off. But please stay with me here. At the very least you may learn some history and at the most you might be inspired to “beef up” your church’s Christian education program.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
When I was growing up in an urban evangelical (Pentecostal but not extremely) church I always looked forward to Sunday School. My parents never had to drag me there on Sunday mornings. As I interacted with peers later, I discovered that my Sunday School experiences were not unique. They were fairly typical.
In the 1950s and 1960s Sunday School began at 9:00 or 9:30 Sunday morning. (I think at one church my father pastored it began at 9:45—probably a compromise between those who preferred 9:30 and those who preferred 9:00.) It always began with “Opening Exercises.” No, not “exercises” as in jumping jacks or push ups but “exercises” as in singing, announcements, and giving attendance awards. By the time I was in high school I had attendance medals and pins that reached down from my chest to my waist.
Opening exercises (singular because one event that lasted about 20 minutes) was energetic. The Sunday School superintendent (a volunteer position but approved by the pastor and board) stood at the front, asked everyone to be seated or stand to sing. We were usually gathered as families later to divide into our age-specific classes for Bible study. Here’s what we sang: “Brighten the Corner Where You Are” or something similar.
Then came the announcements, introductions of new teachers, handing out gift Bibles to students “graduating” to a new, older class, etc. Then came the giving of attendance medals and pins. Finally, a word from the pastor about welcoming visitors and prayer. Then a bell would ring and we would all process to our classrooms.
The first Sunday School teacher I remember (I was probably six or seven) was “Sister Rogers.” (Sister Rogers’s son used to be one of my most faithful and active blog readers and participants and passed away about a year ago.) Sister Rogers was kind, fun, strict (in a good way), and full of Bible stories. Back then we had “Sunday School quarterlies” that we read and worked on (writing out answers to questions in the booklet we received each quarter of the year) usually Saturday evening. Sister Rogers and later teachers (mostly the women, rarely the men) used “flannel graphs” to illustrate her/their Bible stories and lessons.
But before the Bible lesson began we sang “Sunday School choruses.” Here are some that I remember: “One door and only one, and yet its sides are two: inside and outside. On which side are you? One door and only one, and yet its sides are two; I’m on the inside, on which side are you?” And “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart. I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart to stay!” And “Are we down hearted? No, no, no! Are we down hearted? No, no, no! Troubles may come and troubles may go; we’ll trust in Jesus come weal or woe. Are we down hearted? (Whistling….) No, no, no!” Later, probably in junior high Sunday school: “Stand up and tell it if you love my Jesus! Stand up and tell it if you love my Lord! I want to know, yes, I want to know, do you love my Lord?” (Lots of standing and sitting during that one. Most of the choruses had “motions” to go with them.)
But the real “meat” of Sunday school was learning the Bible—forward and backward. The “Sunday School quarterly system” was set up to lead students through the Bible in a year or two—skipping some parts, of course. We were challenged to read the Bible through cover-to-cover in one year which I did for the first time at age 10. Then, after you accomplished it and could demonstrate that (parents observed and queried the children and reported to the pastor and/or Sunday School superintendent) you received an award during Sunday morning worship or “opening exercises.”
I have so many memories of Sunday School and almost all of them are sweet. My fifth grade teacher was “Brother Newton” and our little boys-only class met in the old coal room next to the furnace room in the basement of the church. It was too dirty for the girls, which is why it was boys-only. (Our church was poor, so nobody wore “fancy clothes” to church and many of the boys rarely wore clean clothes to church!)
By the time I was in sixth grade and we moved to a different city and different church I knew my Bible very well. Of course, growing up in a pastor’s home didn’t hurt any. One of my memories of sixth grade Sunday School was a male teacher (I won’t say his name here) who obviously didn’t know his Bible very well! All I remember is this. One Sunday morning, about halfway through the lesson, he stood up from behind his desk and slammed his “teacher’s quarterly” down on it and said to me “Roger! You teach the lesson!” and stalked out of the room. Needless to say I was subjected to a severe but somewhat understanding lecture by my father that Sunday afternoon! (He knew the man didn’t know the Bible well and shouldn’t be teaching sixth grade Sunday School.)
I think that was one of the turning points in my life. Suddenly I knew…my vocation and calling was to be a theologian! Well, not yet, perhaps. But it was a turning point. I did finish the lesson that Sunday morning—much to the delight of some fellow students and chagrin of others.
My junior high school Sunday School teacher was “Brother Budd”—a deacon and elder in our new church. He taught it in the church balcony standing with his back to the sanctuary right at the railing. I remember fearing that he would fall backwards over it and land on a pew below! But that never happened. Brother Budd was another excellent male Sunday School teacher who knew his Bible very well. I remember a deep discussion about what the Apostle Paul meant by “heap coals of fire on their heads” (Romans 12:20).
At the heart of Sunday School was training in being a Christian. That was where I learned what being a real Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ, meant. The emphasis was always on loving God and loving neighbors, being kind and respectful, compassionate and thoughtful, caring and helpful. Of course there was also emphasis on Bible reading and devotional living.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas talks much about the importance of being trained in Christianity within a community of true disciples of Jesus Christ. Of course, the phrase “training in Christianity” comes from the title of one of Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard’s most famous books. Recently I’ve been re-reading many of the church fathers and while “training in Christianity” is not a phrase they often used it is clear to me that they expected it of those who would become and be Christians.
In other words, being authentically Christian does not come naturally, by itself, or solely from within even a converted person. To borrow and paraphrase another cliché, it takes a church to train a person to be a Christian. Yes, certainly, much of it can be done at home, but training in Christianity in a home not part of a church is likely to go off the rails.
Sunday School used to be a major instrument for training children to become and be Christians, not just in the sense of “accepting Christ as personal Savior” but even more in the sense of teaching and showing them how to let the Bible absorb the world (to borrow a phrase from theologian George Lindbeck that really echoes theologian Hans Frei’s belief about the meaning of true, authentic Christianity).
I don’t remember very many specific Sunday School lessons, but I sure do remember the songs that surrounded them: “Jesus love the little children” (“red and yellow, black and white”), “The B.I.B.L.E., yes that’s the book for me,” “I’m in the Lord’s army,” “The devil is a sly old fox,” “Only a little David, only a little brook…and the giant came tumbling down,” “The foolish man built his house upon the sand,…the wise man built his house upon the rock,” and many, many more that still pop into my head after all these years. Does anyone sing Sunday School songs anymore?
Was my 1950s and 1960s Sunday School “training in Christianity” perfect? Hardly. But it made a big impression on me and helped shape my future life of Christian discipleship. Later I had to “unlearn” some of what I was taught in Sunday School, but for the most part it provided a strong foundation for my life as a Christian and as a theologian.
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