The goal of Christian formation is not to create churchgoers; the goal of Christian formation is to raise up disciples of Jesus Christ. Corporate worship is a key component to a lived Christian faith... a support and inspiration for that lived faith.
Responding to a Claim
A recent blog post has been making the rounds: Sunday School is Killing the Church (link no longer active). Inspired by a previous post, Sunday Schooling Our Kids out of Church, the article has raised some attention.
Now, we might pause and reflect on the… insensitivity… of taking a ministry like Sunday school – to which thousands of dedicated Christians devote themselves – and proposing that it is "killing" the church. But we realize that the author is being provocative, and also opening an important discussion.
Here is the question: Is Sunday school still valuable in building up the next generation of Christians? Or is it a tragic hindrance to the overall goals of the Christian community?
The answer must take into account a full view of faith formation. But in short: Yes Sunday school is valuable. And yes, a traditional model of parish-based Christian education can still be effective in nurturing children and offering them knowledge, skills, and values to grow into adult followers of Jesus Christ.
A Variety of Models
To be fair, the author’s central claim is not that Sunday school is bad. But rather that Sunday school takes children out of corporate worship. Children do not have the chance to learn to love church, and when they “graduate” from Sunday school, they do not come back.
These claims are based on assumptions that are not necessarily true for every congregation. The authors are pointing to the sort of church in which:
- The Sunday school program runs concurrently with the worship service, and children are encouraged to attend the former, at the expense of the latter.
- Sunday school is a children’s offering, whereas worship is an adult offering. When children “age out” of Sunday school they move up to worship.
Most churches that we know of and work with do not offer an either-or model. While programs and times vary, congregations try to create ways for children to participate in worship and go to Sunday school. This may take the form of worship and education occurring at separate times; or children attending part of the worship service, leaving during the readings and sermon, and then returning (often for Holy Communion).
The hope is to balance the needs of every group: allowing Sunday school teachers to participate in corporate worship, making time for children to learn foundational lessons, and letting parents concentrate on worship. The balance plays out differently in every faith community, with multiple services often adding options into the mix. The point is: many churches are faithfully trying to balance worship and formation, and that is to be commended.
What Happens In Sunday School?
Many Christian education directors are highly trained and competent professionals. Some have decades of experience, and hold degrees in Christian Education. Volunteer teachers who minister in the classroom are often dedicated, caring, and committed Christians. In such a context, even simply reading to children provides great benefit, as the children encounter an adult Christian role model, beyond their parents or clergy person.
Fortunately, Sunday school teachers do much more than just read. They introduce children to the great Biblical dramas, connecting God’s Story with their own. They teach children prayers, showing them the reality of an inner realm where God speaks to them and through them. They sing with children. They nurture creativity through crafts, projects, skits, and more.
Now, an important caveat: Sunday Sunday may not be for every church. When there is not a critical mass of children, and/or adults are not interested in being teachers, then church leaders need to change the focus. Intergenerational programs, educational moments during worship, an emphasis on service... these are ways that churches can form children.
But if a church can sustain Sunday school, it is worth doing. Sunday school, when done well – or even done adequately – is a place of nurture. A place where, if nothing else, children are taught and shown that God loves them more than they can ever imagine, and that Jesus is with them, always.
But At The Expense of Church?
For the sake of the argument, let’s consider a congregation that encourages children to attend Sunday school or a children’s program, while their parents attend the worship service. Is this a terrible idea? It depends on the type of worship service. If the worship service is strongly geared to adults, then a separate children’s offering may make quite a bit of sense.
For example, some Christian traditions still favor sermons of 30-40 minutes. These talks usually include multiple Scripture passages, and congregants follow along in their own Bibles. Part sermon, part Bible study, these talks can be highly effective for adults – but not so much for kids. It is asking a lot of children (and their parents) to sit quietly for that long without age-appropriate materials. Hence a separate children’s program which offers formation in an age-appropriate fashion.
Is something lost here? For certain. Children may miss a full view of church liturgy and music. This is a discussion that congregations should continue to engage in.
But let us also realize that all models of “doing church” involve tradeoffs. In the above case, inviting children to a 35 minute sermon is the poorer option. And while we (the authors of this article) happen to appreciate the “both” model, we also admit it can be hectic at times, involving tight schedules, lots of movement, and space considerations.
Why Don't They Come Back?
Recent research suggests that fewer adults in their 20s and 30s are engaging in church as full time parishioners. On an anecdotal level, we all know of young adults who were raised in the church, but haven't been back since high school graduation.
Is this because Sunday school kept them from learning to love church?
First, a reminder: The goal of Christian formation is not to create churchgoers; the goal of Christian formation is to raise up disciples of Jesus Christ. Corporate worship is a key component to a lived Christian faith, but it is a support and inspiration for that lived faith, not an end in itself.
Next, there are many reasons why teens and young adults don’t attend church. One of the main reasons is increased competition for their time. The wide availability of activities on Sunday morning is a massive change from what was available in the 1970s, 80s, or even 90s. In fact, almost all structured institutions have seen decreases in participation over the past few decades, because of this trend.
We jokingly refer to “brunch” as a catchall concept for why 20s and 30s don’t attend church. “Brunch” points to cultural factors such as urbanization, increased mobility and communication, and even the simple fact of credit cards.
We cannot simply blame or shame Sunday school for these factors. In many ways, church is better than ever. It’s just not the only game in town.
No Magic “One Thing”
Canceling or rescheduling Sunday school so that every child sits through church will not magically solve our problems. Of course, envisioning and creating worship services that truly appeal to all generations may be a step in the right direction.
But the real answer is that there is no one practice of faith formation; no one thing that a church can do to ensure that every child grows up to be an integrated, thoughtful, committed, churchgoing Christian.
On the contrary, there are many things that congregations do to raise children as followers of Jesus.
The truth is that formation occur in many places in a variety of ways. In worship, in Sunday school, in choir, in service work, at home, in the car, on mission trips, in Bible study, in prayer, in the hospital room, on the sports field... And yes: even in the craft-project wood cross that hangs in a child's room, one day to be carefully packed and carried off to college by the child who made it those years ago in a church classroom. To paraphrase a quotation by Jacques Maritain, Things have more to give than they are.
As for children growing up to own their faith. Such formation occurs through relationships with adults who live and model the Christian faith. Children grow in faith when they are told – and shown – that God loves them, that Jesus gave himself for them, and that the Holy Spirit fills them.
To all the Sunday school teachers out there: we salute you. Thank you for giving our children the gift of faith.
The Rev. Matthew Kozlowski is an associate at the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary, a doctoral student at The Catholic University of America. In his career he has served as a teacher, camp counselor, school chaplain, camp chaplain, Sunday school teacher, parish priest, and Alpha course coordinator. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.
Charlotte Hand Greeson is a Christian formation specialist and associate at the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary. In her career she has been a staff member, volunteer, parent, and participant in formation models across the country, and internationally. Charlotte lives in California with her husband and two teenage children.
While not cited directly, much of the the underpinnings of this article come from the now classic volumes: John Westerhoff's Will Our Children Have Faith and Maria Harris' Fashion Me A People: Curriculum in the Church.
*This article was updated in September 2017