Should There Be Collective Sunday Schools?

Thank you Mary Jane Wilkie for sharing your opinion in “The Sunday school of the future, proposed” posted on June 1st at Episcopal Life Online via Episcopal News Service. You have opened the door to a wonderful conversation about what the future of Christian formation for ALL ages can be at its best in The Episcopal Church as well as all mainline traditions.

For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone one whom the Lord our God calls to him. Acts 2:39

Metropolitan churches are not that different than rural and suburban churches as far as their desire and need to provide quality opportunities for children to grow in the life of faith. Some of the smallest churches have the greatest children’s ministry programs. Bigger is not always better. All churches in today’s world are faced with fewer financial resources, fewer adults who have the time to volunteer as Sunday school teachers (let alone any other ministry on Sunday morning), and the challenge of sharing facilities with the community and other church activities. These “struggles” provide the church with wonderful opportunities to engage all in mission and ministry – the newcomer, the parish matriarch, the child, the youth, the adult, the elder and those who have yet to walk across our thresholds.

Opportunities do involve new collaboration and the sharing of resources from a variety of areas. An example is the National Association for Episcopal Christian Education Directors, an organization of 400+ individuals (clergy & lay, paid & volunteer) who regularly share ideas and resources. PEALL (Proclaiming Education For All) reported to General Convention (via Executive Council) of the collaborations that do exist and how they can be strengthened. Read the report here. And the Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Formation (CCAB) recently met to discuss this very issue. Member Bishop Porter Taylor of North Carolina shared in a post, this “pushes us to discern what knowledge and practices are essential as well as to find more innovative practices. What do we need to know and how can it be learned more creatively? What do we need to hold onto and of what must we let go? That is, we must focus on the essentials of our faith and insure that we invite and inform people to embrace them.”

Separating generations by geographic location for education, as proposed by Ms. Wilkie, would only add to the disconnectedness of all involved in our already fragmented world. The whole concept of “Sunday School” is a modern concept and was established to teach working children how to read. The model of pouring information into the empty vessels of children is a thing of that past – anyone who is involved with children knows they have gifts and experiences of God that are freely given to anyone who can take the time to listen. Children are full members of the Body of Christ by virtue of their baptism and deserve full inclusion with the whole community – especially at worship. (See The Children’s Charter for the Church) is through worshipping together that we are formed as a people of God, breaking bread together and sharing God’s love. Sending them (even with their parents) to another facility makes them second class citizens. Perhaps we should close those sanctuaries that are not full on Sunday morning and worship in the local library with our equally low attended church down the street.

Yes. We need more adults who are competent to “teach” in our churches. Finding the right curriculum is always a challenge – what works for one congregation might not be the best for another. In leading teacher training workshops all over the country for a variety of denominations, I stress more than anything else that “we” (aka “you”) are the curriculum. It is how we share our personal faith story in relationship with the biblical story than has an impact on an individual’s faith formation.  A set curriculum cannot do it alone. Many adults who have “grown up” in our churches continue to have a 4th grade understanding of the Bible and other religious precepts – their education stopped when they were Confirmed at the age of twelve.  And many adults who are new to the church are neophytes in the faith. If anything, we need to focus our energies on adult education, perhaps reinvigorating the catechumenal process in all our churches and dioceses.

There is no reason for any church to make sacrifices, especially where our children are concerned. Multiple ages learning together and generations passing along faith to one another is grounded in scripture. Yes, we separate into smaller groups for developmental reasons, but the church that includes liturgy with children is richer for everyone. I believe the challenge of Christian formation today is to equip adults to be able to share their faith and accept the responsibility for all the children within our buildings as well as those in our neighborhoods.

Our leadership on all levels needs to lift up the importance of family ministry and encouraging faith practices in the home. Our churches need to focus on formation for all ages together – education, worship, outreach, pastoral care and fellowship. One place we can start is to explore The Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation adopted at the 2009 General Convention.

Christian education needs to be life giving not consumer oriented. Building bigger and better programs for our children and youth only enables parents to abdicate the spiritual development of their children to others. As it is, many adults drop off the kids to hang out at Starbucks or sit in the car and read the NY Times. Why give them the opportunity to drop them off at a location separate from the worshipping community with teachers who may see this as an occupation for pay instead of a vocational calling?

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be concerned about how many children or teachers we have enrolled in our Sunday school program. Together we will come to be fed and nurtured in worship and education so that we can go out in the world as Jesus’ disciples with the joy we have experienced in community.

I welcome the conversation. Join in!

For a related article, read “Not Your Grandmother’s Sunday School.”

2 thoughts on “Should There Be Collective Sunday Schools?

  1. Ms. Pearson,

    I agree with many of your comments, for example, the value of spiritual development imparted by parents, multi-generational learning, (true) inclusion of children in worship. But most churches are not seeing to any of this, or they give lip service, but do not have the resources to bring about what we all agree would be ideal. I personally would like nothing better than to replicate the church experience I had as a child, but in today’s world, it’s practically an impossibility.

    In the comments I’ve read on blogs about my article, no one has mentioned the major point I wanted to make (and perhaps I didn’t make it strongly enough). I refer to the fact that in most churches, the children’s program is structured to accommodate adult convenience instead of children’s needs. As a result, children are not getting what we all agree would be of benefit.

    Friends of mine, having sought long and hard for a good Sunday school program for their 5-year-old, shared with me their thought that most of New York City’s programs are “anemic” (their word, not mine). Many teachers are well intentioned, but few are trained to provide an environment that is spiritually enriching. Many do not have good classroom management skills (crucial in today’s world, where parents have trouble setting bounds).

    In response to comments about the undesirability of paying teachers, there is no reason to believe that teachers would take on the job merely for the money. Financial compensation in the church world is rarely of a level to attract those interested in money. By skillful interviewing, the Sunday school director could easily make a determination as to the sincerity and qualfications of a candidate. And potential teachers SHOULD be interviewed. Desire to handle a task does not constitute qualification to do so.

    I could say more, but will stop for now. Thank you for bringing to my ideas to the attention of so many.

    Mary Jane Wilkie
    Church of the Holy Apostles (New York City)


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