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.

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