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…