Is Sunday School Old School? Rethinking the Cherished Tradition of Sunday School

Sunday School. The term conjures up images of Bible-toting, well-dressed children trooping into classes. It brings back visions of a flannelgraph Apostle Paul (who, interestingly enough, looked exactly like Jonah, Peter, and Saul). It brings back memories of patient and loving teachers, as well as some very fidgety lessons. I look back on Sunday School as a formative factor in my spiritual growth. However, some churches today are dispensing with Sunday School. Is Sunday School an institution we must defend? Or is it something that needs to die?

In order to answer that question, we must think–Scripturally, carefully, prayerfully, and strategically. We need to rethink the cherished tradition of Sunday School.

History of Sunday School – An Evangelistic Success
Way back when Sunday School got started, it was literally just that – an actual school that took place on Sunday. Robert Raikes, a philanthropic and evangelistic newspaper editor started the first Sunday School in 1780. The purpose of his Sunday School was to round up vagabond kids and shuttle them off to a place where they could learn how to read. Most of these children were orphans or street kids, and the other six days of the week, they were shut up in the factories of Industrial-Era England. Raikes hoped that Sunday School would help spare them from a future life of crime and indolence. So, he rented some rooms, hired some teachers, and Sunday School was born. The first Sunday Schools were not received very well. Since many of them were forced to go, the street-urchin kids hated having school on their only day off of work. Wild street games were much preferred to stuffy teachers and indecipherable Bibles. The dignified parishioners shared the children’s contempt of Sunday School. But their dislike was different; they detested the thought of grimy, sooty, rascals flooding their churches and denigrating the sacred sanctuary. The weary givers who funded the schools feared that their contributions were descending into an ineffective cause.

But all that changed. In just a decade from its birth, Sunday School exploded into a phenomenon of evangelistic fervor, reaching millions with the gospel. The Sunday School concept spread from the British Isles to the continent of Europe, infecting Christians with a passion, and affecting the unreached with the gospel. Some church historians look back on the Sunday School movement, and claim that “the starting of Sunday schools saved the church from extinction.” To say that Sunday School was “successful” is to understate its impact.

Sunday School Today – A Different Animal
Sunday School in 2010 is vastly different from Sunday School in 1780. Everything about it has changed–except for the fact that it takes place on Sunday. The motive has changed. The financial support has changed. The administration has changed. The structure has changed. The style has changed. The goal has changed. The attendance has changed. The audience has changed. Over the course of 230 years, Sunday School has morphed into an altogether different event. 230 years will change things.

Change is not evil. But when change happens–intentionally or unintentionally–one must determine whether that change is positive or negative. One should not necessarily gaze backwards to try to restore something to its original form. Over-the-shoulder wistfulness degenerates into anachronistic ineffectiveness. Instead, one must look at an issue from three perspectives.
1) Past: Understand the history.
2) Present: Understand the present form.
3) Future: Envision the long-term goal.
This kind of strategic thinking needs to be rooted in a solid mission and vision. A church without a mission is like an oar with holes. You will row forever, but never get anywhere. A biblically-derived mission and vision is the crucial starting point for ministry strategizing.

The Challenges of Sunday School – Stray Pet or Healthy Work Horse?

So, what is it Sunday School today? To use the “different animal” analogy, let’s think of it either as a healthy work horse or a stray pet. A stray animal can be clingy, annoying, and it will leech you of your precious resources. A healthy work horse, on the other hand, requires that you give your resources, but it also gives back. At the risk of oversimplification and stereotyping, here are some of the less-than-desirable features of Sunday School today–features which may render it a stray pet instead of a healthy work horse.

  • Sunday School lacks a great commission focus. Rather than functioning with the goal of making disciples, Sunday School is often in a maintenance mode.
  • Sunday School depends on published curriculum from the ‘experts.’ Sunday School curriculum is the bread-and-butter of some major publishing houses. Rather than understanding and adapting to the unique needs of their congregation, Sunday School depends on printed material or booklets from outside sources.
  • Sunday School separates the family by age-indexing. Is the age-indexing of the church healthy? It almost goes without questioning today that a church needs to have a separate room, class, teacher, and curriculum for every age category. However, at closer inspection, the effect that age-indexing has on the family does not seem right. Is this really necessary, beneficial, and in keeping with the biblical paradigm for the family? Must we separate the Christian family every Sunday–at a time where they should be worshiping together?
  • Sunday School curriculum often prescribes moralism, to the neglect of strategic evangelism. Usually, this happens in children’s classes, where teaching major biblical concepts and spirituality is challenging. However, it can happen for all age categories. Patrick, in his book The Church Planter, said it best:  “For many American churches the focus has been almost exclusively on converting people to a code of Christian conduct with the hope that they will ‘behave’ their way to salvation. This couldn’t be further from the intent of the gospel of grace.”
  • Sunday School programs often lack a long-term plan. Many Sunday Schools go into ‘existence mode,’ maintaining a tradition without posturing for productivity. The result is a semester-by-semester approach or a topic-by-topic approach to Sunday School planning, rather than a big-picture vision for discipleship.

There are more than just this list of woes of Sunday School. The point of this article is not to bash Sunday School. The point of this article is to think about Sunday School. The point is to help you determine whether your efforts toward Sunday School are more like feeding a stray pet or healthy work horse.

A Barrage of Considerations

So, here comes the artillery–a barrage of questions, statements, and aphorisms to help you think about Sunday School.

  • Just because something Sunday School has been successful in the past, doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful in the future. Keep the three-perspective principal when rethinking Sunday School (not the backwards-only look). If something has been successful, it is necessary for that thing to continually modify, adapt, and regroup to maintain its impact. This takes strategic thinking, prayerful consideration, and bold moves.
  • Don’t dispense with something simply for the sake of being cool or contemporary. Only dispense with something if it is truly a distraction or violation to the purposes of God and the goal of the church. If Sunday School needs to bite the dust, then kill it. If Sunday School is effectively ministering to the needs of the people, and fulfilling a Great Commission role (both evangelism and discipleship) than keep it.
  • Don’t idolize traditions. Tradition can turn into idolatry. It may happen that someone in the church–be it a pastor, deacon, or member–breathes the slightest hint of change: “Should we keep the Sunday School program?” There are those in the church who may view such a question as an outright attack on the faith! Doing away with Sunday School is nearly tantamount to eradicating the church or denying the existence of God. The illustration is intentionally overstated, but do you see the point? If Sunday School is so near and dear to the faith, then why don’t we see it clearly in the Bible? When we begin cherishing traditions above the inspired Word of God, we make a tragic mistake. When we think that our man-made institutions are more important than strategic adaption and biblical innovation, we are treading into dangerous territory.
  • Rethink your nonnegotiables. Every ministry has them, whether they are written down or not. They’re called nonnegotiables. What are the most important features of your ministry–features that you will not compromise? To derive such nonnegotiables, go to the Scripture. Then write them down. Ministries without “nonnegotiables,” “distinctives,” “essentials,” or whatever they’re called, are likely to idolize tradition and cling to the past. They make tradition their nonnegotiable.
  • Form a mission and vision statement. In a future post, we will discuss the why and how of a mission and vision statement. For now, simply understand that a mission and vision statement are both the a compass and and the engine for your ministry. In order to know where you’re going, you must have a vision (compass). In order to mobilize and motivate for action, you must have a mission (engine).
  • There is such a thing as positive change. As we discussed above, not all change is evil. Change–even painful, difficult, and opposition-motivating change–can be a good thing. Sometimes, things just need to die. And it may be a good thing. If you face opposition to a decision to change, it doesn’t mean that the decision is wrong. In fact, it may just mean the opposite. A. W. Tozer said, “To be right with God has often meant to be in trouble with men.” Eliminating Sunday School will not create a ministry vacuum. Instead, it may free the church to do more…to do better.
  • Practice asking why. “Why?” is a powerful question. It is a life-changing question. Asking “why” can change the course of a ministry, a life, or a nation. When you turn the floodlight of this question onto Sunday School, it may be very revealing. Mustering up answers to the “why” question isn’t done by merely brainstorming. It’s done by going to the Scripture. If you can derive Scriptural motivations for the existence of Sunday School, great. If not, keep asking why. Then change. Ask why again. Change some more. Keep asking why. Keep changing. But keep Scripture at the center of your questioning and your changing.

Conclusion:  Rethinking the Cherished Tradition of Sunday School

It’s time to put our minds to better use. As leaders, pastors, volunteers, or church members, we know too well the daily grind. Our gaze is always on the here-and-now. Our energies are being expended to try to put one foot in front of the other. Can we take some of that energy to look up, to look ahead? When our thinking is entrenched in the day-to-day maintenance of ministry, we rarely take the time to forge ahead and evaluate our present ministry. And what’s happening? We’re compromising maximum effectiveness. “Rethinking” is hard work. But the really hard work comes not in the rethinking, but in the retooling,–in taking those thoughts and strategies and implementing them for God’s glory.

Thanks to Dr. Wade Kuhlewind for his class lecture, “Is Sunday School Old School” from which some of this material was derived. Thanks to Andrew Warde for his insightful observations.

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11 thoughts on “Is Sunday School Old School? Rethinking the Cherished Tradition of Sunday School

  1. Sunday School is so exciting, it offers another opportunity like bible study to discuss, read out loud, share opinions and truths, teach the word of God at a more one on one level. Our ministry would not get rid of this awesome tool that was given years ago. It is refreshing, we find people who would never say anything or get a chance to express themselves come alive in Sunday School and become wiser, more into the word of God. I think many church are trying stay so modern for the young folk but we must let the young people adjust to Christianity, change is good, but we can over do it, some things are yesterday, today and forever more.

  2. Great article, very true… all the points stated here need our attention. At our church it has been a struggle to get to the changes that need to take place for the “Sunday School,” to be relevant and a vibrant force that is able to connect to kids and young families in our communities. For too long the only concern was to appease the adults of the church who see Sunday School as sacred and their only concern was… please make no changes.
    We are finally at a point where we have made some firm changes in place to what we offer – we no longer call it Sunday School, but Discipleship Hour – we have an open concept in the component for kids and a class for adults as well, covering the same scripture lessons, only deeper. So far so good, it seems to finally be coming together, after 7 years of prayer, patience and working together as a team to make the right changes to better connect with those in our area with the Gospel. God is good!

  3. I believe wholeheartedly that are non-Scriptural traditions (traditions that are not directly ordered in the Scriptures) should always be under scrutiny; and also that just because something served some function in the past that it is not wrong for it to serve another function now, necessarily. I think the two functions that Sunday school have served (excluding the very first reason), that of evangelism and education have to be realized in your church in some way or the other, by New Testament Scriptural demand/command. If you want to abandon Sunday school that serves one of the purposes for a stronger conveyance of serving the evangelism and/or education purposes, then have something in place more viable, more likely to be supported by your church and your community. It could be small groups in homes, bible courses in your church, evangelism rallies, or whatever. This was an excellent article, but I am afraid many denominations, such as the one I am currently serving in, the Methodist church, are very reluctant to look hard at their traditions and think about good, constructive change to do what Jesus urged us to do in the context of the 21st century.

  4. At our church, if you step back and look impartially, the purpose of Sunday School is to get the children out of the main service. Depending on your point of view, that’s either because the main service is ‘too boring’ for the children (in which case, we should do something about that, IMHO), or because the children are too disruptive (but is that a good enough reason? And mainly that’s because the main service is ‘too boring’)

    The Sunday School teachers try their best, but they don’t seem to have any purpose other than ‘we must have a Sunday School’, so there seems to be little enthusiasm.

    Many parents don’t like their children going to Sunday School, and would rather they stayed in the main service with them, but the children want to go out, because to them it’s a bit less boring than the main service.

    I’ve tried desperately to get the church to re-evaluate Sunday School – it might need re-invigorating, or it may need the rest of church re-invigorating so that the children can stay in with the rest of us. Unfortunately, the ‘old guard’ are convinced that ANY Sunday School is better than none. I’m not so convinced… (I’ve even asked them where Sunday Schools are mentioned in the Bible, so we know they are a Biblical idea)

    I was glad to read this article, as it shows I’m not alone!

  5. First, I have spent many years as a Sunday School Consultant to small churches (many bi-vocational)– My testimony from the field (not office philosophy), is that Sunday School is not a dead horse, and it is still highly effective when understood as the ministry focused evangelistic-outreach arm of the church. It is the church “organized”, and more closely resembles the early church that met in small groups and became intimately involved in each one’s needs.

    1. While I can sympathize with your comment against “office philosophy,” I believe your view to be naively exclusive. Have you ever attended a Family Integrated church and witnessed ,from the field, the blessings received as they strive for obedience to Gods command? Their faith is exploding and their numbers are being added to at a tremendous rate over our latest decade, and each church seems to share a tremendous witness to the early church of all meeting together and intimately involved with each others needs. Yet best of all, this is all done from exegetically searching Gods Holy Word and praying for obedience to it in all practice, instead of forcing our fallen desires into a philosophy of Gods word.
      Concerning any current success you might witness in today’s Sunday school, I can also attest to some great successes in Prison ministry. However, I don’t believe that it’s God’s preferred plan that all churches send their Biblically illiterate to be incarcerated in order to receive God’s Word.
      Biblical references: Deut. 6, Psalm 78, Eph. 6 and the tremendous pervasive scriptural witness to Multi-Generational faithfulness.

  6. How about taking Sunday Scholl out of the church and back into the streets? Kids are in “school” all week. Another day of school is NOT inviting. How about hitting the neighborhood, giving away cookies and an invitation to church? How about giving sandwiches to the homeless? Washing a single mom’s car? THEN meet and debrief about the experiences! Let’s put the Word into practice! Now, that’s living the gospel, not just teaching it!

  7. The article raised good questions and gave importan insights. Certainly all methods of ministry need to be evaluated constantly with regard to their effectiveness and how they fit into God’s purpose for the church.

    I am puzzeled over one statment, however: “For many American churches the focus has been almost exclusively on converting people to a code of Christian conduct with the hope that they will ‘behave’ their way to salvation…”

    The author must be from a different planet that the one on which I grew up. I grew up with Sunday School. Honestly, I hated it when I was a child. But the Sunday Schools that I grew up with never tauth me to “behave” my way into salvation. Did that observation come from research, or the author’s opinion? Even though I hated Sunday Scool as a child, when I did confess Jesus as Lord, I found that I had a solid foundation of Biblical eduction to instruct me in the new way of life I had followed.

    I’s easy to demolish a structure, not so easy to replace it with a new one. The article would have been more on point had there been even one or two suggestions with regard to a new direction. Simply renaming Sunday School as “Discipleship Hour1″ is not much of an advance. The Sunday Schools that I experienced were that already. Perhaps a name change is helpful so that this ministry will not be regarded merely as a relic from the past, but simply changing the name doesn’t mean much unless there is a fresh vision from God. The article was lacking in that department.

  8. It is so true that we need to look at the vision,mission,focus and ultimate goal/ purpose of any worthwhile endeavor in order to determine its longevity. Sunday School has been around for a long time and will continue to be around for a long time, because so much time, energy, love, research and training has gone into this area of ministry.We have also had good results in general and it is a strong and able structure for disciple making and teaching of the Word and ultimately equipping our children (and also our workers in SS) to be equipped and ready for ministry (Ephesians 4: 11-13). Nevertheless, while embracing all the positives of Sunday School, I know that there is much more to the ministry of and with children these days. Teaching in the Sunday School Set up can have gaps – one area being applicable worship. Unless teaching is coupled with a very real sense of the presence of God leading to a personal encounter with God, our kids often grow up very knowledgeable, but not strong in their personal faith walk. I long to see greater freedom to be allowed in the structures of Children’s Ministry Departments where there is able pastoral leadership for children and families.I feel that there still is great lack within the body of Christ – a lack of understanding the heart, the role, the function and often even the abilities (and therefore possibilities) of a Shepherd of Children. The church leaders who govern need to be able to trust and entrust the vision of the Church’s nurture of the young to the God called, and affirmed leadership of the Children’s Pastor. Too often, this role is one of just “care taking, organizing and supporting”. Although very valid components of the ministry, it is not a totality. In my opinion and experience children and youth need to be pastored with all the components of pastoral leadership present. It takes a very special, annointed ability to expand Sunday School to include a Children’s Church that can include components of Sunday School. Within the applicable church vision, there should be scope for such a Children’s Ministry that can be free to explore the most effective way to reach, teach and keep our younger generation.The Holy Spirit still has the answer for His church (and that includes the young). It is time that we embrace the Pastoring of Children with all its necessary gifting and equipping and releasing that goes with the call.

  9. I teach Sunday school for K-5th & I’ve found that for them finding activities that reenforce the lesson helpful because then they remember more when asked questions about the lesson. For instance, last Sunday we learned about the 10 commandments. The game “God says” was extremely helpful.

  10. I wanted to share our experience and how it is working for us. We recently dropped Sunday School because of low attendance. We found most people were coming for the worship service which began at 11, and not the Sunday School portion at 10, the teachers were getting discouraged when the class attendance for some was dropping down to three, and two of the three had parents who are workers in the church so they have to be there.

    I grew up with Sunday School and was a little saddened to see the structure go, but we didn’t do away with the instruction part completely as we are to study and it is biblical that we have these studies not only on our own but with the church who strengthen us. Raise a child up and when he is old he will not depart (paraphrased but you get the idea). We changed the format of our Wednesday night service and it is basically now our ‘Sunday school’. We come in, praise and worship, give testimony, pray and then we break into the different classes. It works well for us and our numbers have gone back up. Some people we don’t see except on Wednesday night because it is so informal and they are more comfortable.

    I am a teacher, and being in a small church I am also the sound tech, so having Sunday mornings ‘off’ so to speak allows me to focus more on the sound. I was always worried that my class would run over and I would get to the sanctuary late and everyone would be waiting on me to turn up the music director’s mic or change over the projection slide. No more worries. Now I can fully dedicate Thursday – Saturday on choir and sound in preparation for Sunday, and then Monday – Wednesday in prep for Wednesday night class. It has helped me enjoy church far more.

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