Does Sunday School Work?

A few years back, I was talking to a parent whose children had been enrolled in her church’s Sunday School and evening children’s program. By all accounts, and from what I could tell as an uninvolved observer, this church has an absolutely exemplary children’s ministry. And yet this mother was looking for another church. “I recently asked my kids some basic questions about the Bible and some of the foundational stories of Christianity,” she told me. “They couldn’t answer the most basic questions. What are they learning in Sunday School? Is all this programming even doing what it’s supposed to do?”

I thought about that mother this week when I saw this article from Associated Baptist Press about a new documentary. It should go without saying that the theology that undergirds the study, and the video (excerpt) at the link are quite foreign to me. But here’s the gist:

In Divided, young filmmaker Philip Leclerc sets out to discover why so many people of his generation are leaving the church. …Leclerc acknowledges grouping kids and age and developmental stages makes sense on the surface. In the Bible, however, parents are given the responsibility for religious instruction of their children. 

The modern idea of age-graded Sunday school, youth ministry and children’s church came from somewhere else. When it started in the 1800s, Sunday school was intended for poor children without Christian parents. In most American churches today, Leclerc insists, Christian fathers [sic] relinquish their leadership to programs based on secular educational theories instead of the teaching of Scripture.

The video uses the word “carnal” about eleventy-five times, and I didn’t even watch the whole thing. I don’t resonate with many of the article’s comments either. But I suspect the basic thrust is right. Now I want to go back to that mother and say, “What about your responsibility as a parent? What could the church do to support you as your child’s primary Christian educator?”

Let’s take my church as an example. We are small, with a good number of kids for our size, but the “Sunday School” aged kids range from kindergarten through third grade, with a smattering of middle and high school students.

We have Sunday School twice a month, during the worship hour—it is not practical to have Sunday School at other times—and we have a team of teachers who take turns leading. We went to this model because, well, our old model of having one teacher lead every week until s/he gets burned to a crisp didn’t feel very biblical.

But even if we had a top-notch Sunday School every week, our most dedicated families are here maybe twice or three times a month, due to sports, out of town trips, and other weekend activities.

This is insane.

Churches are smaller, budgets are smaller. Tiny Church is not unusual. I look at this situation and think, This doesn’t make any sense. Why are we trying to have a traditional Sunday School? Why aren’t we offering truly intergenerational worship, and training parents to do religious education at home? 

I could easily dismiss this study as so much patriarchal BS. (Why is it only the father who bears primary responsibility for faith formation in the family? That’s rhetorical; don’t answer.) But I can’t dismiss it outright.

It reminds me of the REVEAL study that came out of Willow Creek church some years back. The study found that greater involvement in church activities did not foster deeper commitment to the way of Jesus. (My paraphrase.) Some mainline folks crowed about the study, feeling vindicated that seeker-sensitive megachurches were finally admitting that they were serving up the thin gruel we’d always suspected. But the REVEAL study is not cause for smug rejoicing, but serious self-reflection. We are often no different in our mainline churches.

So what is the answer? I wish I knew. But I’d like to get some people together to talk about this. Let’s start here. What do you say? Has your church figured this out?


23 thoughts on “Does Sunday School Work?

  1. Grace says:

    This is timely, since my new Tiny Church (slightly less tiny than yours, but not much, with a few marginally involved teenagers and a solid core of preschoolers with interested and motivated parents, and not much in between) is re-launching “Wednesday School” tomorrow evening. 5:30-7 PM, songs, feltboard storytelling (my family’s specialty), potluck, and super-short, super-simple Eucharist (with real bread). Is it worship? Is it education? Is it fellowship? Hopefully, it’ll be all three, and add up to something that looks awfully like church. The impetus for having it on Wednesday, from their perspective, is that families in this area go to the local ski hill on Sundays because that’s when they have discounts; from my perspective, is so that I as the pastor can be hands-on with the formation of the congregation. But your point about empowering the adults to educate their children is a really good one. I know that as long as this gang of kids is mostly 2- to 4-year-olds, my storytelling will probably be as much for the adults as for them. They’ll grow with the method, though, which is one of the wonderful things about the method – it’s infinitely flexible and doesn’t talk down.

    • MaryAnn says:

      I have thought about this kind of approach as well.

      If only I didn’t work 2/3 time. That, too, is a growing dynamic in Christendom today–part-time clergy. There’s not a lot of room in that schedule for extras. And yet my primary job, biblically speaking, is to equip the saints for ministry.

      I sometimes wonder, if I just bit the bullet and spent the next 1-2 years working full-time to help build up our leadership and infrastructure so that it doesn’t hinge on me quite as much, would it pay dividends? and could I even ramp back to PT afterwards?

  2. You have drilled straight to the issue facing our church where my kids are the only children that come to Sunday School and we have three volunteers and one paid nursery worker who rotate to teach them.

    I’m trying to think of what an alternative model would look like but have failed so far. I’m exploring some of the Think Orange stuff, but like the article you linked to it is loaded with theology that I don’t find helpful.

  3. Elizabeth Hagan says:

    We have the same problems at our church. Sunday School for kids is during worship because it is the only time parents will come to church. However, this makes it hard to have volunteer teachers do the work because they don’t want to miss church. So, we hired a children’s ministry intern– a college student– to be the lead teacher every week. Problem, though is that we have such a wide age range of kids each Sunday and never the same kids in any sort of regular pattern. How can you teach like this? I just hope that the kids who come are learning something and know that church is a safe place with people who love them. This Sunday School issue is one my greatest current pastoral frustrations.

  4. Mary Beth says:

    This reminds me of the Messy Church model adopted by British churches for the very same reasons. I love it!

  5. St. John's says:

    Technically, we have Sunday School (SS) at the same time as worship as well. We are a smaller congregation, but like yours, have quite a lot of kids. We consider it the a segregated time because we want them to have opportunities to worship as a family. Having said that, Sunday School is not required. The kids can stay in worship the whole time if they want to, which means we work harder to try and make the atmosphere family-friendly and worship intergenerational.

    We have the same challenges as you in that families don’t come to church frequently given there schedules. I think giving families options is important given their personal preference and comfort.

    This has been my journey in the changes at my church with Sunday School.

  6. Margee Iddings says:

    I’ve yeared all my professional life (40 years!) to find a congregation that would be willing to try this model:
    l. Gather as the people of faith and share with one another
    what is happening to bring joy/sorrow/pain/excitment in our lives.
    2. Use a variety of methodology to present the theme of the
    lectionary passage(s) for the day… intergenerationally.
    3. Invite people to choose from a list of possible ways of addressing
    the theme(s) of the day out in the community. Work in inter-
    generational teams, taking as much time as the team needs
    within certain parameters. One team works on worship liturgy
    that allows for the “tying together” of the theme and offering it
    to the Holy.
    4. The congregation gathers for a debriefing and organizing of
    for worship.
    5. All enter into the time of worship.
    6. At some point in the service of worship there is an opportunity
    to declare what, individually, faith persons covenant to “do”
    as a result of the morning’s experience. They are witnessed
    and commissioned.

    All this is based on the premise that knowing facts and figures and stories and content of biblical material is not the end-all, be-all of Christian Education. What we may need more that knowing the bible is knowing how to follow the radical rabbi from Nazareth.

    NB – I haven’t found a congregation, yet, who will experiment with this model. I wonder why.

  7. Kris Lewis says:

    Same issue here. But here at least the hardest part is that the parents don’t want/aren’t equipped/don’t have time/feel that OUR irresponsibility not theirs to do Christian formation. I’ve been trying to do a lot of “take home” suggestions–Advent activities, table blessings (dumbfounded that not a single kid in church school said a blessing at home) and so forth. My seminarian’s project this year is a parent newsletter giving them lots of links and ideas for at-home connections to what the kids are doing in church school.

    I would LOVE to do a mid week thing, but getting people here — I’m just not sure they could/would make it. (We only have 8 regulars in church school).

    • MaryAnn says:

      I too do take-home suggestions. Whenever I do a sermon series I include a “GPS” guide (Grow-Pray-Study) in the bulletin that has additional questions, things to try, etc. This typically includes a suggestion for families.

      We also do our own curriculum, based on the scripture I’m preaching that day. So I’ll tell them the story, then they go upstairs to do some age-appropriate work on the story.

      Theresa, I too didn’t like the kids missing communion and baptisms, which is another reason SS is only twice a month. They are in worship on the first Sunday of the month. Baptisms, we don’t have tons of them, but we plan a shorter lesson that day so they can come back downstairs.

  8. It’s interesting how much this ties in with the impression that parents believe that it’s the responsibility of schools to teach their children everything as well.

    My question would be: how can we, as a society, help people realize that parenting and the raising of children is a valuable endeavor — a Purpose, if you will — in and of itself?

  9. Sue Ferguson says:

    Oh Mary Ann – how I could go on. This may require lunch. Let me just say that I think this is exactly the kind of topic that is perfect discussion for the NCP Open Space format they are testing out. In fact, I was so intrigued by this new format, I have appealed to Geoff to have session vote me as a commissioner for the 1/24 meeting. Esp. for small churches – getting creative about spiritual formation is one of my main interests. LIke having congregations share resources/combine for programs, etc. If Sunday School does not work, then look for non-Sunday ways to get the message across. It would be ridiculous of for me to lead any kind of NCP thing as I’ve never even been to a meeting..but if I had a partner…

  10. Grace says:

    I’m 85% time, but Wednesday School is a big enough priority for me – and the congregation (they’ve done it before and started talking about it as soon as I got here) that we’re going for it.

    I love the idea of Grow-Pray-Study. And the links to Messy Church are useful – I know some folks who’ve experimented with that here. WS will include an activity piece, but I’m much more comfortable with songs and storytelling than with the preschool-teacher-craft type stuff. Hopefully after a few sessions someone else will reveal a gift for that part of the experience!

  11. revbethtoo says:

    I’ve been a Chr. Educator and pastor for over 25 years…. my “thing” is organizing and leading Sunday schools, from the traditional one- teacher per age-group, to the creative workshop rotation model. And the thing I always get hung up on is…. how do we equip parents with a vision, and the courage, to be the primary Christian educators for thier children? I’d love to see the church be more about this work, and have families buy into the vision — but somewhere along the line we lost the shared family-church-community endeavor and have relied ot taking our kids to church to let the church do the teaching.

    Like Dana, I’ve developed take home pieces to give to families to continue faith conversations in the home. I’ve helped congregations make “vacation packs” for families to use during the summer, or take with them on summer trips. But I get the sense taht parents don’t feel comfortable enough with their own faith to be able to share it with their kids.

    Is there are way to support parents for this? I’d love to help make this real.

  12. There was at one time a movement called “Family Clusters” which was totally inter-generational but also did not leave an individual family isolated. Pastor Mom, spouse dad and PK offspring attended for one full week in NH the training for this, I have forgotten what year.

  13. Jan says:

    I am baffled how to shift from academics (learn the stories so we are smarter/Biblically literate) to Christian formation. And this is not a postmodern issue. I used to teach an adult Bible for Beginners class and there were PKs in there who had spent the childhoods in Sunday School but never had discussed what difference those stories meant in their lives.

  14. Off Topic: Ooo! Pretty new blog template! I like!
    : )

  15. susan says:

    I have enjoyed coming back here for the discussion. Here’s where I am: Selam goes to a pretty good Sunday School class for most of the Sunday worship every week. I don’t like her missing worship (but she hates worship because she doesn’t read yet and worship is very reading focused), but she likes Sunday School. I also don’t like that the teachers rotate every couple weeks, so there’s not a lot of consistency, but it is what it is. We do a lot of stuff at home together, just in terms of books and praying and conversations. I feel like there is a big missing piece. I want her to be part of something that, I don’t know, connects our family to other families (and is not a scavenger hunt or wii game night–great activities but the only “family events” that our church offers). I want there to be a bigger picture. I want her to have a sense of *families* of faith–not just us, not just her little class of kindergarteners.

    To that end, I’m conspiring with a few others to perhaps put together a multi-congregational monthly messy church. I have hopes.

    While I was in seminary, there was a conglomerate of 5 churches that were in walking distance of each other that experimented with multi-church Sunday School. As I recall, it worked very well, but since returning to NEw Haven, I’ve discovered that it has ended and each church has gone back to their only very, very tiny Sunday School.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Thanks–I love what you’re conspiring to do. Will you blog about it please? 🙂

      And that’s an important piece that I need to think about as I ponder this–that even in the equipping of parents, we need to make sure we’re not creating a bunch of little autonomous islands.

  16. Our church isn’t at all tiny, but the children’s ministry person (who is 1/4 time maybe?) does this really great Family Formation days, maybe four times a year. They are aimed at 2-5 year olds (her kids fall in that range too) – so they meet in the late afternoon from 4 -6, after naps and before kids are heading to bed, and include a potluck dinner. There is a Godly Play story, which is what that age group does in Sunday School, and songs and take-home stuff related to the theme. For a big church, this is in addition to “traditional” church school, but it could be a lot like what Susan is talking about here as well.

  17. Hey y’all, I belong to my mission committee and sunday school (SS)teaching team at my church and we have been confronted with both a problem and God’s opportunity to help us resolve it: low SS attendance, and the freeing up of SS rooms (from weekly daycare) to be used in a better fashion. So I hopped onto the web to start googling what I THOUGHT was relevant stuff (rennovation and what to do with SS rooms) and landed up here -is God working through my machine to get me where I need to go? ;p
    We need meaningful SS!! Lord knows I was bored to tears with my SS classes as a kid and never got engaged until youth group. If I can connect kids with God and get their parents involved instead of being used as sunday morning babysitting service then we’re on the right path. Thank you for walking this same path with me, shedding light ahead of the way and succintly encapsulating the problem AND ideas. I’ll be back to see what else is developing here, and I’m off to chase down all those other links posted above.

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