Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sunday School: Re-purposing A Habit of the American Church

Every Sunday, across the nation, a group of adults dutifully shuffle in to rooms in church buildings at the appointed time on a Sunday morning, arriving for “Sunday School.” In my church experience, the group has been the same crowd of people from week to week at the given church – a crowd that has attended dutifully for years, professed Christian faith for years, and heard lessons from a succession of pastors and lay-leaders for years. Some weeks I ask myself the irreverent question: is there really any point to this? Are we doing it to keep a routine and perpetuate a program only? Do we accomplish anything more than affirming people who know the right answers for knowing the right answers? I have asked this when the teacher was me, and when it was someone else. This feeling has bothered me at different churches in different traditions and in different cities. It is not a critique of any individual’s ability as a teacher, but of the habituated patterns and the educational context. This irreverent question brought me to do some reading about the origins of Sunday school, and I think in that story lies a challenge for churches today.

The Sunday school movement began, the story goes, in England during the Industrial Age. Christian people of the time saw children who lived the kind of lives described by Charles Dickens through the young street children in his stories. The people of the church at the time showed one of the distinct characteristics of God's people: they were motivated by compassion and a longing for justice. As these Christians witnessed children roaming the streets struggling to survive poverty by whatever means possible or being forced at a young age into long work days in grimy, back-breaking factory labor, they longed to help them to a better life. Various people began Sunday Schools to meet this social need. At these schools, poor children gained basic literacy skills that would allow them to advance to more financially stable lives, as well as becoming biblically literate and hearing the gospel. By joining a concern for social justice with a burden to share the gospel, young lives were impacted deeply. These schools began with a few motivated and compassionate people in cities in England and spread quickly through the British Isles and to America, largely thanks to the publicity of Robert Raikes, a newspaper owner who started a Sunday School and published articles about the movement.

Movements have a tendency, unless cared for very carefully, to begin with great vitality and purpose and gradually lose momentum as they degenerate into lifeless routines and habits. When I slip into Sunday School now, I feel little to no connection with the vital origins of the Sunday School movement.

But I have had experiences that carried the spirit of the compassionate evangelists and teachers who began Sunday Schools. (One example of this can be found here.) Although our culture now offers free education for all, a talk with the administrators, teachers and parents at many schools in America uncovers a great need for academic support for students from elementary up to high school levels. This need is especially pronounced in low-income areas, where family structures are generally weak, and families cannot afford private tutoring for students. A number of non-profit organizations are seeking to meet this need with after-school programs which depend on volunteers and community partnerships. I have seen firsthand how the direct student interaction necessary to this type of program leads to opportunities to speak about the love of Christ to students searching for meaning. A church could run such a program, including an optional activity and snack time at the end with a Bible lesson included.

What would happen if churches repurposed the volunteers, funds and time invested in Sunday School as it has been for the past couple decades to create after-school programs that look like “Sunday School” as it began? How would this affect the culture of churches – the member’s thinking about the purpose of programs (and the purpose of the church), their awareness of the needs around them, their sense of compassion for the needy, their attentiveness to creative opportunities to work with passion to reach the lost? How would it affect the perception of the church in the community around it? How many lives of students and parents would be touched by efforts to meet a real need and share Christ in the process?

We would need a new name for a different day of the week. We would need church leaders determined to change the paradigm of how ministry programs despite the potential objections of church members comfortable with routine. But we could recapture the compassionate, evangelistic drive that began Sunday School.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Breaking the Seal: Creating openings in your life to engage the unchurched

A significant problem facing the American evangelical church culture is the fact that the lives of solid Christians in our churches are, in large part, sealed off from the lives of unchurched people around us. (This problem seems to be even more pronounced in churches with a fundamentalist background) Thankfully, most members of our churches are blessed to have an entire immediate family who are Christians. It’s a beautiful thing to share faith and values with your family. This usually means that the family has spent their lives attending church together, thus developing a strong network of friendships that grow and deepen over years – another wonderful thing. The challenge that comes with these blessings is that they create the first two layers that have the potential to seal off the Christian community from the members of the community around them. Add 1 or 2 more of the potential layers – a Christian workplace, a Christian school, an additional parachurch bible study or other activity – and the Christian community successfully creates a virtually hermetic seal, closing itself off from the world with multiple layers of protection.

While this is a satisfactory arrangement if the main goals are fact-centered Christian education or producing conformity to certain behaviors, it misses an important part of Christian identity. The God who rules the Christian community is a triune God who exemplifies the sending and going identity of the church: the Father sent his Son; the Son went into the world, setting aside his glory and humbly taking on the form of those to whom he was sent; the Spirit is sent to empower Christ’s follower to go, proclaim the gospel and make disciples. For Christians to sit comfortably inside the seal of multiple layers of Christian subculture and familiar relationships, they must ignore this part of their identity in Christ. This type of separation narrows the focus of our obedience to the command to “Love your neighbor” from a sensitivity to the many lost, needy and hurting people around us to an awareness primarily of those who have been in our lives for a long time, share our beliefs, and have given or will later give something to us – i.e., a kind of love that many lost people exercise toward their families and life-long friends.

We deeply need a network of people around us who offer stability in faith, depth of relationship and encouragement to continue living the Christian life daily. And we need to encourage one another to reflect the sending and going character of the Christian life by peeling away a layer or two to make an opening in the seal. By intentionally seeking common space and shared activities with people around us who desperately need to be reconciled to God, we make ourselves available to build relationships, express love, proclaim the gospel, and reflect the attitude Christ showed in the incarnation.

Peeling away a layer can be tough: it often comes with a sense of separation and a bit of guilt over a relationship or activity that had to be phased out of life. Contact with non-believers who don’t play by the rules of Christian behavior frequently produces a painful, raw rub. But these pains rarely match up to the magnitude of change Christ experienced in taking on human form - nor the pain he experienced in being rejected, flogged and crucified by the people he was offering his love.

Living a sealed-off life calls to mind the question of Soren Kierkegaard: “How can one be Christian when he lives in Christendom?” That is, if there is no challenge in living Christian morals because your morals are constantly reaffirmed by everyone you interact with, are you exercising faith, or simply conforming socially? While Kierkegaard arrives at conclusions I disagree with, he raises poignant questions about the motivations for our actions. If we believe the gospel, we believe it has a transformative effect on people, and can give power to shine as light in the midst of darkness, to stand upright when those around bow to the threats and seductions of the world’s influence. A faith that yields transformation and that stands steadfast in the face of opposition shines brightly to the glory of God. The perpetuation of a subculture produces an interesting sociological phenomenon. Which of these results are we looking to produce?