Sunday School is Dead – FINALLY

Many of us are emerging from COVID-life discovering our churches are much different than they once were. Worship feels different. For many churches, young families are not coming back. Giving is different. Mission work has changed.

It is challenging, yet oddly exciting. Many of us as leaders had been praying for change, unable to discover how. The pandemic shook us and melted our ice. It is also exhausting, with little clarity on how to refreeze the melted ice of changed church systems.

One of the things I hear most often (and actually I heard this a lot before the pandemic) is that Christian Education isn’t what it used to be. It appears the Sunday School movement, which started at the beginning of the 1900s, is finally dead. The pandemic has put the final nail in its coffin.

Sunday School is dead. And I say GOOD. It is about time. It was never something Calvin would have approved of. Christian formation is WAY TOO IMPORTANT to be relegated to just Sunday morning. There is far too much material to cover than an hour slot on Sunday is going to provide.

Some people mistakenly think Sunday School has been around forever. It is actually a pretty new invention. It has only been around since Robert Raikes introduced it in the late 1790s to some churches in England, and even then its focus was not religious in nature. It involved rudimentary education for children – how to brush your teeth, do laundry, cook, how to write, read, or do arithmetic. By the 1920s it shifted into Catechesis, then into religious education, and finally to what we have today which is a haphazard Christian formation program that rarely “forms” anyone into a mature Christian.

I mentioned my first objection to Sunday School already, that it is way too important to be relegated to Sunday. Like Calvin, I am in favor of teaching the Bible throughout the week, preferably daily. This can happen in private Christian schools. It can happen in the home. It could happen at church, if our churches were built for comprehensive religious education.

I have other objections to the Sunday School movement. For another reason, Sunday School can be (and is often) a desecration of the Sabbath. Interestingly, these were what some of Raikes critics said back in the early years of the Sunday School movement. They believed Sunday School, or “Raikes’ Ragged Schools” as the critics called them, would weaken home-based religious education, that it could easily be a desecration of the Sabbath, and that Christians should not be employed on Sundays.

Another main objection is that Sunday School has historically divided the Body of Christ. I am an educator, and so I know all about the advantages and disadvantages of age-based learning, early childhood development, developmental stages, and all that. And I also know of learning theories like connectivism and as a church leader helped cultivate in my churches intergenerational events where new ways of learning could flourish. I am also a pastor with my finger on the pulse of the Body of Christ, who sees the level of commitment of congregants in this post-pandemic world, and the reality of tight schedules which stretch families thin these days (ranging from job responsibilities on Sunday, to soccer tournaments, to every other thing under the sun).

I know some of you are saying “Hey Matt, my Sunday School class is doing just fine!” That’s great. And I am not advocating its dissolution. But I would suspect that a fair amount of the reason you like the class is the relationships you have gained. It is probably more a small-group ministry, with a little learning peppered in along the way. I am arguing that those relationships should be more expansive and inclusive. Arbitrarily dividing classes into age-based learning, especially when there is only one person in that age range seems like a moderately ridiculous use of our time. I think our small group ministry needs to be big enough to absorb the death of Sunday School as we knew it.

Let me say a few more words about the Body of Christ divisions and the desecration of Sabbath. When I hold those two objections of mine together, what I am saying is that time is precious, and that the sacred time we do have with congregants these days must be approached with care. We need to focus on keeping the Sabbath HOLY, and that involves worship, community, and food. I believe it should be primarily worship, and not the artificial expectation that children need to learn the Bible that day and that somehow can happen in a 40 minute slot on Sunday morning DURING worship. Our children also need to learn the importance of WORSHIP! Or did we forget?

By and large people today are committed to their church, but they are not coming back to worship in ways they used to before the pandemic. They have discovered new priorities, and new ways to plug into their faith communities. And trying to go back to “business as usual” as church leaders is not even a thought. I take a lot of this as opportunity, not a problem.

We have been looking for ways to let go of things that have not worked in the church for 40 years. So instead of going back, let’s move forward.

Let’s use Sunday as a way to bring families together around food and around each other, and bring communities together. That can happen without them coming “back” to church as it once looked like. It can happen in new ways, if we as church leaders will just let go.

I talk to my Rabbi friends, and hear how they approach Jewish education, and I am filled with envy. In so many ways, education and Jewish identity is the responsibility of the FAMILY. It is not the synagogue or the Rabbi who provides a comprehensive program of learning, but the parents. The synagogue is there to equip. The Rabbi is there to teach, but often it is teaching teachers to teach or think in new ways. Yes, there are opportunities for Hebrew immersion classes, but it is the FAMILY unit who carries these learnings forward observing the traditions from week to week.

Jewish communities have discovered what we Christians are slow to discover – that there is too much to learn to be relegated to just one day of the week. If we are to be faithful to one’s tradition, a more comprehensive approach to education is needed. The Jewish day school movement, once limited to the Orthodox community has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 25 years. According to the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), an organization in North America dedicated to strengthening day school education, there are currently 700 Jewish day schools in North America with an enrollment close to 200,000 students. (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-educational-trends/) I also see an explosion of private Christian schools and I am encouraged (although right now I see very limited Christian teaching and much more opportunism or exclusivism).

My hope and prayer is that we can reclaim Sunday. And that means letting some old things die away, so that God’s new things can emerge in our midst. Let’s embrace that our children (and that WE too) need to re-learn what community looks and feels like. We also need to learn that Sunday can be a day when the church is at worship and that worship doesn’t need to look like it once did. We don’t ALL always need to be at the church on Sunday morning. There are other ways to worship God.

We also need to discover new options for using Sunday time. Sunday morning can become Sunday evening. For some churches, Sunday can become a time when the pastor does not LEAD in worship, but EQUIPS families for worship. Or Sunday morning can refocus on the whole community in worship and the Sunday School hour can fall away.

We also need to learn that the world will not fall apart if this happens. Calvin lived his whole life without Sunday School. It hadn’t been invented yet. And he did just fine.

We need to learn how to worship God in new ways, and be equipped to pray to God and worship God in our homes, daily. Not just on Sunday morning.

This is when the North American Church will truly experience revitalization, transformation, and dare I say resurrection.