No more Sunday School!

Statue of Robert Raikes on the Embankment betw...

Statue of Robert Raikes on the Embankment between the River Thames and the Savoy Hotel, London Português: Estátua de Robert Raikes no Aterro entre o Rio Tamisa e o Hotel Savoy, em Londres (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why is it we insist on running school for children and young people and on Sundays as well? When the rest of us see Sundays as a day to relax and be recreated through worship, we send our children back to school. As if they hadn’t spent enough time there all week…

Before you start shouting back at me – I’m not saying we shouldn’t be teaching our children nor that we shouldn’t be doing it on Sunday.

But I want to question why it is that a model and an idea that worked for Robert Raikes and Hannah Moore in the 18th and early 19th Century is still seen as the best one for us today? The school model was appealing then because school was inaccessible to the children (and adults) targeted by Raikes and education was a great way to reach out to them. He was of course hugely successful in terms of attracting large numbers to the work of the church. Our ‘Sunday school’ do not have the same attraction because school is universally available (and compulsory!) and I would suggest not attractive to most young people. If we want church to attract children and young people then we need to offer them something different from school or at very least – stop calling it school!

It is of course not just an issue of semantics – we can change the name but its still school. Hannah More used a variety of different teaching styles and methods to ensure her Sunday Schools were engaging and even entertaining to all who came. So too most of today’s Sunday School teachers will know well the importance of keeping the children involved and will use a variety of teaching methods, drawing on whatever resources they can find in the wealth of publications available to them. We can try, and often succeed, in making it unlike school and hopefully, a lot more fun in the process. But it’s still school!

It’s still school because the whole ethos and values that we have adopted in our work with children echoes those infamous words – ‘education, education, education’. And education for us is primarily about facts and information, about teaching knowledge – for us it’s teaching knowledge of the Bible and probably its application in some form of other. It is of course essential that our children and young people are familiar with the truth revealed in the Bible and they need to know it and learn to read it and understand its relevance for them. But we cannot teach the Bible and the Christian faith as if it were a subject to be mastered like history or maths.

It’s still school too because we use the language of school to organise our children, we divide them into classes with teachers, we split them by age and run classes in line with school terms and frequently we expect them to ‘move up’ each September into a new class with a new teacher.

Why do we do this? My guess is because it’s easy, because we’ve always done it this way and somehow we don’t think to question it. And it works or at least we think it does – but it works only if we think of the children we already have, it may well work as a teaching tool, it may well work as a babysitting service for adults in ‘big church’ and it may well work in keeping the children we’ve got at least until they are old enough to decide for themselves. But then they stop coming, or at least the stats tell us they do and that takes into account none of the thousands of children who never came in the first place – Sunday School is no longer a mission strategy and that’s what we need more than anything else – and that’s what Robert Raikes was developing and so if we really want to be true to his vision, let’s agree, ‘No more Sunday School’ and find something more effective…

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4 Responses to No more Sunday School!

  1. Lemon Grenades says:

    At the risk of being picky, I see a deep flaw in this argument, and it rests with this statement. “When the rest of us see Sundays as a day to relax and be recreated through worship, we send our children back to school.” Honestly, how true is this? How many Church goers see Church as a place to ‘relax and recreate’? I won’t leave my name or my Church here for risk of causing offence, but usually Church is dull as ditch-water, singing songs that don’t engage me with the awesomeness of God and delivering teaching that is often trite and rarely changes my life.
    Sunday School is not the problem, it is the way we ‘do Church’. If we took the idea of a Church Family seriously we could really create a place on Sundays were all ages could come together to share and grow together; let’s face it where else in society do people of all ages meet together for a common purpose? (The last time I truly experienced that was on The Kop at Anfield, a more whole-hearted act of worship than I’ve met in most Churches I’ve ever been to.)
    But what do we do instead? We create age-banded cell-groups and specialist interest worship groups. We split the body rather than unite it. We have adults who think they can learn nothing from the faith of 3 year olds, and 13 year olds who have no mature mentors to guide their faith consistently.
    As a result most ‘youth’ programmes unintentionally become exit points for the Church because instead of linking young people into the whole body of the Church they ghettoise them into cells and youth groups that slowly and imperceptible drew young people away from the close, multi-generational relationships that are the sign of a healthy society; strangely enough just like the soceity in which they live. Instead of being a radical alternative to a divide society the church becomes a mirror of it.
    I believe that children and young people will only grow in the Church and stay in the Church when they sense that they are loved and valued there, when their energies and gifts are nurtured in ways that go beyond tokenism and make a deep difference in their lives, in the life of the Church and in the society in which they live.
    Here’s something, ask your children these questions.
    1) When was the last time someone in the Church apart from your family or youth leader asked you about what you believe?
    2) When was the last time you contributed something meaningful to the life of the Church?
    3) When was the last time you did something connected to your Church that made a practical difference to your life outside of Church?
    4) Name everyone at Church who knows the things that worry you most and the things that are most important to you?
    And finally, we must not lose the idea of Church as a school, as a place of education, but we must reinvent what we mean by education. Education is not filling an empty vessel, it is lighting a fire. Our children are not blank pages to be written on or empty jugs to be filled with knowledge, they are bundles of kindling, needing a spark to set them off and the oxygen of community to stop them burning out. Now that could be an alternative worth pursuing.

    Lemon Grenades
    If life gives you lemons, it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference if someone else owns all the sugar and charges you more than you can afford for clean water.
    If live gives you lemons, make lemon grenades.

  2. peteswhite says:

    thanks for your comment and I think we are in agreement. I don’t think my argument rests on the notion of church as rest and recreation; it is that we are mirroring school as a model for how we do church we children – and I think you are agreeing this is unhelpful. But we do need to lose the idea of church as school but not as a space for learning and education – education is always more than schooling.
    Your questions for children are great questions but I’d add we could ask them of all ages and thereby raise the question of why we do church. Is it simply about education or more about formation and equipping for life – life with God wherever we are?
    I also agree with the principle of inter-generational church and we’ve been working on that for several years and its not easy to achieve – (see my post ‘youth work isn’t working’) – this is the substance of the EA ‘whole church’ campaign. Whilst I agree with much of it – we can and must join up our work with all ages and find creative ways of being together, but its also true that most teenagers want and need time away from adults and children need age-appropriate activities and learning.
    So yes lets light some fires – not just for children but for all of us who might go to church in the hope of finding re-creation!

  3. Lemon Grenades says:

    Ah, I see where we are in agreement, although I phrased it clumsily.The flaw I picked up was not a flaw in your argument, but it was the flaw about which we both were writing, the flaw of a model of education that focuses on passive, isolated schooling, rather than the praxis of life transforming education.

    I have a vision of the Church as a dynamic community. one that creates ‘work’ (which is more than employment) and ‘education’ (whch is more than knowledge), Church as a place of apprenticeships for people who will go and change the world.

    But too often we are stuck with old models, of ‘worship=singing’, or ‘education=Sunday School’ and of ‘sustainability=fund raising’. Imagine a Church of ‘workers’, of creative individuals involved in science, the arts, finance, engineering and so on, and a place where young people were given the chance to develop life-skills, to run businesses and produce socially useful goods, mentored and supported by older members of the Church. What a radical place we could be.

    Lemon Grenades
    If life gives you lemons, it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference if someone else owns all the sugar and charges you more than you can afford for clean water.
    If live gives you lemons, make lemon grenades.

  4. Pingback: The Grinch who Stole Vacation Bible School’s Heart Grows Three Sizes « De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine

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