While I was in Cleveland, my host Rev. Derek Witcher, drove me from the hotel to the church. Cleveland is like most urban cities – a church on every corner, sometimes two or three.
His services start at 10 a.m., so that means that we were in the neighborhood, rolling during what should have been most churches’ Sunday School hour. It was depressing – several churches had no cars in front of the building; others had two or three; others had less than 15 and only a couple had what you could describe as a decent crowd.
Is Sunday School dead?
Does someone need to compose the obituary?
Has Sunday School outlived it’s usefulness?
As a pastor, I too have to deal with this issue. I am thankful for the house full or near-capacity but I’m frustrated because the numbers of Sunday School students is woeful. I’m begged, prodded, cajoled, preached, and still the response is anemic – and I’m not the only pastor with this testimony.
I looked up the history of Sunday School.
This is from Christian History web site by Timothy Larson:
“It is important to realize that Sunday schools were originally literally schools: they were places were poor children could learn to read. The Sunday school movement began in Britain in the 1780s. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in many children spending all week long working in factories. Christian philanthropists wanted to free these children from a life of illiteracy. Well into the 19th century, working hours were long. The first modest legislative restrictions came in 1802. This resulted in limiting the number of hours a child could work per day to 12! This limit was not lowered again until 1844. Moreover, Saturday was part of the regular work week. Sunday, therefore, was the only available time for these children to gain some education.
The English Anglican evangelical Robert Raikes (1725-1811) was the key promoter of the movement. It soon spread to America as well. Denominations and non-denominational organizations caught the vision and energetically began to create Sunday schools. Within decades, the movement had become extremely popular. By the mid-19th century, Sunday school attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood. Even parents who did not regularly attend church themselves generally insisted that their children go to Sunday school. Working-class families were grateful for this opportunity to receive an education. They also looked forward to annual highlights such as prize days, parades, and picnics, which came to mark the calendars of their lives as much as more traditional seasonal holidays.
Religious education was, of course, always also a core component. The Bible was the textbook used for learning to read. Likewise, many children learned to write by copying out passages from the Scriptures. A basic catechism was also taught, as were spiritual practices such as prayer and hymn-singing. Inculcating Christian morality and virtues was another goal of the movement. Sunday school pupils often graduated to become Sunday school teachers, thereby gaining an experience of leadership not to be found elsewhere in their lives. Even some Marxist historians have credited 19th-century Sunday schools with empowering the working classes.
In both Britain and America, universal, compulsory state education was established by the 1870s. After that, reading and writing were learned on weekdays at school and the Sunday school curriculum was limited to religious education. Nevertheless, many parents continued to believe that regular Sunday school attendance was an essential component of childhood. The trend for permissive parenting in the 1960s, however, meant that a widespread culture of insisting that children go to Sunday school whether they want to or not (especially when the parents were not themselves going to church) was abandoned.”
Sunday Schools are being dropped at many major congregations in the country. The trend seems to be to make Sunday a day of worship and another day a day of biblical education. I remember in a previous pastorate that one of the churches in our district got rid of Sunday School and you would have thought the church had committed blasphemy. However, they developed a non-traditional learning program including off-site options and they are still going forward.
I think there are five basic problems with today’s Sunday School:
1. The Lessons are not relevant to today’s needs. Because of traditional publishing schedules, the uniform lesson series is already created for the next 5-10 years. No options for change.
2. The Lessons are not thematic. Generally Sunday School curriculum is to take you “through” the Bible for a period of time – not to examine any themes like Marriage, Family Life, etc.
3. The Lessons are not media savvy. You get a book. No power points, no media clips. That means the presenter must become a living presenter (which I try to be when I teach my class).
4. The Closing format is outdated. A lesson review? Let me get this right – there is NO OTHER EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION that has a review of the lesson that you just spent an hour dealing with, except for Christian Education. It’s a waste of time and cuts classroom time.
5. Finally, burnout is an issue. Most pastors understand this. We’re losing good people because of attrition and because of burnout. They are not trained for this, for the most part, they are volunteers, but the demands of family, activities, etc. wear out their productivity.
What say ye? Is Sunday School “done?” I’d like to hear your feedback in the “Comments” section.