What Do We Do About Sunday School?

Susan E. Erikson
Friday, April 29th 2011
May/Jun 2011

While vacationing in Hawaii for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, my husband and I worshipped with a local church. The pastor biblically unpacked Acts 7, the story of Stephen. When the pastor described the stoning of Stephen, there was a collective gasp in the room. It was an electrifying moment when we realized that many in this congregation had never heard the story before! Seeing the Bible come alive this way was not only exciting but sobering. This sampling of modern America unfortunately echoes across time: "Another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done" (Judg. 2:10b, NIV). Where was the church? Hadn't any of these adults ever been to Sunday school?

The sad truth is that probably some of these worshippers had attended Sunday school as children and came away with a view of church and Christianity best expressed in Christian Smith's newest book Souls in Transition, the second book in a continuing sociological study of American young people coming of age and their religious affiliations. The study presents a picture of "emerging adults," (1) ages eighteen to twenty-three, a group generally neutral about religion with a tendency to "pick and choose" what they want to believe. They think the church and its Sunday school programs are primarily a moral training ground for children, from which adults eventually graduate and mature to making autonomous and acceptable moral choices. While emerging adults don't believe it is possible to really know truth, autonomous personal moral feelings, outside of any religious tradition or history, are useful for solving problems and helpful in being "good."

Where was the preaching of the Word and the sacraments? How had the gospel message been lost? The Story (all that Scripture has to tell us about God's interaction with his people in history and about Christ and his gospel) had somehow become a moralistic training program delivered by church and Sunday school. Each child now felt he had been taught "to do what is right in his own eyes" (Judg. 17:6, ESV). To understand how we got here, we need to go back into our own church history.

Long before Sunday school, the church developed confessions and creeds that detailed the saving doctrines of Scripture and catechisms (simple summaries of Christian doctrine in a question-and-answer format) to consistently and biblically teach their members and their children. Protestant churches since the Reformation, being particularly concerned with keeping The Story alive and true to Scripture, composed a number of creeds, confessions, and catechisms’what G. I. Williamson refers to as "spiritual road maps," (2) representing the work and study of the Bible by generations of believers to help us correctly navigate through Scripture. (3)

Prior to the late eighteenth century, most Protestant children were expected to learn catechism, some metric psalms, prayers, and Bible verses, both at home and at church. From the early to mid-nineteenth century, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) assembly members passed yearly resolutions to pastors and sessions "to assemble as often as they may deem necessary during the year with their baptized children with their parents, to recommend said children to God in prayer, explain to them the nature of their baptism, the relation which they sustain to the church; the obligations which their baptism has imposed on them." (4) Like the original instructions in the introduction to The Heidelberg Catechism, fathers were reminded of God's command to teach their children the Word of God (Deut. 4, 6, 11), and ministers were offered practical suggestions toward incorporating the study of catechism and Scripture, with public examination as part of weekly sermons and classes.

Robert Raikes (1735-1811) of Gloucester, England, is credited with the origins of the Sunday (or Sabbath) school. Editor of the Gloucester Journal, Raikes began his Sabbath school program in 1781 to provide simple education to the children of England's working poor. Raikes paid teachers to forcefully gather ragged and unruly children into rented halls for five Sunday hours of reading, writing, and moral and religious training. With the support of the queen and the earls of Ducie and Salisbury, by 1811 the program had educated over 400,000 pupils.

American Sunday school's beginnings reflect Pietism and lay revivalism. Pietism centers Christianity around a personal conversion experience, the supremacy of the Bible over emphasis on denominational or doctrinal differences, and a call to active social involvement. The British revivalist George Whitefield’who was influenced by the teaching of his contemporary John Wesley on piety and the "New Birth"’made seven trips to America between 1738 and 1770, preaching his way across urban New England to enormous crowds in mass evangelistic rallies. But by the late eighteenth century, almost all traces of Whitefield's work were gone, and Christians earnestly prayed, not for faithful churches, but for more revivals. Such a spiritual awakening occurred in 1800, when revivalism caught the spirit of a nation, and new converts enthusiastically formed nondenominational societies and organizations. American Sunday school was born, along with a variety of evangelistic and charitable works, including tract and Bible distribution, and aid for the inner city poor, orphans, and widows. By 1812 a number of Sunday school unions were operating throughout the major Eastern cities of the United States and as far west as Ohio and Indiana. (5)

Various Sunday school unions in Philadelphia formed an international body that became the American Sunday School Union (ASSU), officially ratified at its first anniversary meeting, May 25, 1824, to offer standardized Sunday school lesson plans that could be used by a number of denominations. While Methodists and Baptists represented the dominant denominations of nineteenth-century revival and Sunday school activity, Presbyterians were in key positions from the very beginning. The new Sunday school organization published tracts and books, as exciting reports of great successes poured in, claiming "no sooner were schools commenced in destitute places than a change was visible in the morals of the children and the inhabitants of the neighborhood. Profane swearing, intemperance, and Sabbath breaking, which formerly prevailed to an alarming extent, in a great measure ceased." (6) The PC(USA), expressing the opinion of many American Protestants, laid the rise of a more moral America at the feet of Sunday school: "A powerful corrective to the most inaccessible portions of the community. They begin moral education at the right time’in the best manner’and under the most promising circumstances." (7) Sunday school now promised a more moral America.

Doctrine was considered divisive to American social and moral unity, and the intentional blending of both the civic and spiritual spheres under the authority of the ASSU required a paving over of any denominational distinctives. The strategy of the ASSU "was unabashedly stated to ignore, whenever possible, doctrinal and political difference; to be antiseptically undenominational in purpose and practice." (8) The pastor was encouraged to oversee the initial organization of the various Sunday school programs, but not teach catechism "because the partialities of some families may prefer one system of doctrine while other families…would choose a different one." (9) In this way the pietistic spirit that elevated Sunday school and activated a social benevolence that clearly benefited society unfortunately undermined the spiritual authority of both parents and the preaching ministry of the Word. Over and above the pastor, the Sunday school teacher was presented as the liaison between Americans and their true religion. He was seen as a pulpit replacement, regularly meeting with families, speaking against neighborhood irregularities that might lead the student to vice, and serving as the family's "spiritual counselor, friend and helper." (10) Marianna C. Brown, writing in 1901, added, "The Sunday school missionary goes where sometimes he is the only pastor in the section, visiting the people in sickness, burying their dead, and counseling them in hours of perplexity." (11) By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the duty of parents was no longer to teach their children Scripture and doctrine; rather, it was to raise the estimation of the Sunday school teaher in their children's eyes, assist their children with lessons the Sunday school teacher had assigned, enforce attendance, and train children "to habits of exact punctuality." (12) Sabbath schools were now recognized as "one of the most efficient agencies for conducting the aggressive work to which the Church is called." (13) The actual church pastor was relegated to the role of assistant to the Sunday school and its teachers, as "the Sunday-school must still stand acknowledged an unrivalled agency for training a generation in the knowledge of saving truth." (14)

Scripture disagrees. "To each of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gifts," notes Paul, "for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:7, 12). But a few are set apart for the ministry of the Word. "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). And what about the role of the father and God's command for parents to teach their children? How can we raise children who know the Word and live for Christ, while promoting the church's primary function of Word and Sacrament through worship? Is Sunday school still an option?

Smith's sociological study, directed toward a variety of religious categories, interestingly (and perhaps unintentionally) identifies biblical principles that focus on those elements that spiritually favor the raising of another generation in the context of the church. The study identifies three key factors that are most likely to bring what the church would call "covenant children" into committed Christian adulthood: 1) parents with a strong and active religious faith that includes regular church attendance and the living out of their own faith in front of their children (Deut. 6: 6-9; Eph. 6:4); 2) other adults in the congregation to whom young people can turn for further help and support (Ps. 78:1-7; Rom. 12:9-13; Eph. 4:11-16, 5:19-20; Phil. 2:1-4); and 3) youth who have a personal religious faith of their own that includes personal religious experiences (what we would consider an active relationship with God), and who are also actively involved in regular religious practices’prayer, reading the Bible, and church attendance (Deut. 5:32; Eph. 6:10-18; Rom. 8; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Heb. 10:19-25).

What do we do about Sunday school? I believe Sunday school can support these elements. First, it can be a teaching tool, an opportunity to support the ministry of the Word, by opening up Scripture and explaining confessional roadmaps in ways that are age-appropriate and understandable. Many families are coming into the church without any biblical culture in their backgrounds. It should not surprise us that Acts 7 presented new information. We should use Sunday school to not only teach basic biblical stories but explain how they all point to Christ. Second, it can function as a training tool. Parents need consistent biblical support and training so they can effectively bring the gospel to bear in their own homes. Third, it can be an equipping tool for all members of the body, instructing each of us how to apply the gospel to all aspects of our lives.

This article identifies three models some biblical churches are using to address these areas. In all these churches there is a renewed focus on family worship, with a high regard for Scripture, the pastoral office, and the sacraments. There is a respect for church history and for the confessions, and church-related activities are directed toward building Christian community. In each church, Sunday school has been redefined (and renamed) as a teaching and equipping ministry, and classes are intentionally gospel oriented, not moralistic.

Classical Family Worship

The first example I call the Classical Model. Classical churches, with some minor program differentiation, have been in existence since the Reformation. They encourage family worship and are strong on training both parents and children. At the representative church, catechism classes begin at the preschool level with the memorization of the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. Older children, up through twelfth grade, learn the Heidelberg Catechism. High school students also study The Canons of Dordt, The Belgic Confession, covenant theology, and Christian apologetics. Catechism class is often referred to as "school" and less often as "Sunday school." Much of the teaching also includes direct application: Why are we learning this? How does this apply to our lives? Parents are expected to teach Scripture and catechize their children at home. In order to join the church, potential members are required to attend a twelve-week course on the Three Forms of Unity. A Wednesday evening theology class is also offered to help adults understand the faith and better prepare them to train their own children. Families are encouraged to develop regular habits of family Bible reading, which includes an ongoing review of catechism questions and prayer. Elders make annual visits to each member home to encourage families in their study of the Word and doctrine.

Intergenerational Approach

The second approach I call the Intergenerational Model. At an intergenerational church, families are encouraged to worship together. Children's church is offered during the sermon as an option (requiring parental approval) for children ages three through kindergarten. The goals of the program are to give very young children a desire for worship and an understanding of its elements, to help children see the Bible as a whole book, and to expose them to the gospel, to covenantal doctrine, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments in an environment that takes into account shorter attention spans and the emotions and spontaneity often expressed by this age group. The liturgy follows many of the elements associated with regular worship and includes a short Bible lesson with visual aids. The lessons are part of a three-year rotation of Old and New Testament lessons, holiday lessons, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Com- mandments, elements of worship, and basic doctrine. On the first Sunday of each month, the elements of the Lord's Supper are also explained. A program director commented that many children tend to "graduate" themselves out of the program and join their families in regular worship when they reach kindergarten age. Sunday school, called "Transforming Lives in Christ" (TLC), is offered for all ages with age-appropriate instruction in studies of the Old and New Testament, with catechism taught in the earlier grades. Adult classes, in a four-year rotation, include studies of church history, Bible book studies, and church doctrine. Weekly sermon response classes also provide an opportunity to further engage with the pastor and to think through the sermon's message on a deeper level. Every four years, a class on family devotions is taught, and parents are encouraged to implement classroom suggestions in their homes.

Families of youth are invited to attend and participate in youth classes and activities. Leadership teams made up of parents, members of the congregation, and designated youth support personnel, under the direction of a youth and family pastor, work with teens in the larger program context, as well as mentor smaller groups, where youth can be engaged more directly. Mentor groups are designed to create accountability, provide encouragement, and build strong bonds that support honesty, humility, and discipline. The overriding goal is to equip teens to apply their knowledge of Scripture, catechism, and doctrine toward spiritual growth and maturity. Students can be called upon at any time to "stand and deliver," to be ready to recite from catechism, Scripture, or doctrine and then publically engage with a leader on how their recitation applies to their lives (e.g., how does this help them overcome sin?). Elder teams are assigned to families to offer biblical counsel and prayer support.

The Integrated Model

The third model is called the Integrated Model. In this type of church the entire family worships and attends Sunday school together. Printed outlines, with words missing, are provided for both worship and Sunday school, and parents and children fill them out as a family. Sunday school is called "Family Sunday School Hour," and all members attend, sharing the care of wiggly children. Topics have included how to study the Bible, church history, sermon response, theology, and doctrine. Young people, ages twelve to twenty-five, are encouraged to serve on ministry teams and are expected to work with adults in all lay areas of worship ministry. To encourage family devotions, the pastor and elders meet one Saturday each month with all the men of the church, and sons are invited to attend at the discretion of their fathers. Topics include a study of The Westminster Confession dealing with family issues, Christian growth, and family worship. Prayer meetings are held every Friday evening. Whole families attend and children are encouraged to pray out loud. Elders are assigned to families and are expected to maintain regular contact.

No program can "make" Christians. None of these models are spiritual formulas that promise perfect outcomes’that has always been the will of God the Father through the saving redemptive blood of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. But we should make every effort to obey God's commands: preaching the Word in and out of season (2 Tim. 4:2), teaching and raising our children in the Lord, and faithfully knowing the Lord and what he has done. We need to know the Word and work together to correctly navigate its meaning, so that we may be God's "living stones, being built together into a spiritual house" (1 Pet. 2:5), growing and building the church as each part does its work (Eph. 4:15-16). We who are members of Christ's body, his church, must live out The Story, expressing an active and ongoing engagement in our lives and our words, with his Word, working together in community to demolish those strongholds that would steal another generation away. How else can we and our children truly take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ? (2 Cor. 10:5).

1 [ Back ] Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4. The authors refer to youth ages 18-23 as "emerging adults," a scholarly term used to describe the present culturally derived period in modern youth between childhood and true adulthood. Their study focuses on the early period of emerging adulthood.
2 [ Back ] G. I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1993), 3.
3 [ Back ] A sampling of creeds/confessions include: The Book of Concord for Lutheran believers, which includes among other documents Luther's Small and Large Catechisms (1529) and the Augsburg Confession (1530); The Three Forms of Unity made up of The Belgic Confession (originally written in 1561 as a statement of faith for persecuted Christians in the Lowlands), The Heidelberg Catechism (written in 1563 for Dutch Reformed congregations), and The Canons of Dordt (written in 1618 as a response to doctrinal concerns). The Westminster Confession of Faith (first published in 1646) became the doctrinal standard of English and Scottish Presbyterians and Congregationalists in England and America, with the Westminster Larger Catechism (approved in 1648) and the Shorter Catechism (also approved in 1648) as a simpler version for children. The Second London Confession of 1689 was written for Reformed Baptist congregations.
4 [ Back ] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Minutes of the General Assembly, 1818 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1817-20), 56.
5 [ Back ] William J. Petersen, A Brief History of the American Sunday-School Union (Villanova: American Sunday School Union, n.d.), 2.
6 [ Back ] Petersen, 4.
7 [ Back ] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Minutes of the General Assembly, 1824 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1821-38), 128-29.
8 [ Back ] Robert W. Lynn and Elliott Wright, The Big Little School (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 19-20.
9 [ Back ] Owen, Plans and Motives for the Extension of Sabbath Schools, Addressed to Clergymen (Princeton: Princeton Sunday School Union, 1829), 17. Note: Identity of Owen is not given.
10 [ Back ] "By the unstated author of 'The Teacher Taught,'" The Teacher Teaching: A Practical View of the Relations and Duties of the Sunday School Teacher (Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1861), 74.
11 [ Back ] Marianna C. Brown, Sunday-School Movements in America (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1901), 47.
12 [ Back ] "The Teacher Taught," 54.
13 [ Back ] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Minutes of the General Assembly, 1864 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1851-1920), 332.
14 [ Back ] "The Teacher Taught," 85.
Friday, April 29th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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