On Letting Go of Sunday School

The Sunday School movement began in the 1780s to provide education to children working in factories—children who were not receiving any other formal education. Teachers shared lessons on Christian religion, but also things like reading, sports, and drama. Today, more and more people are asking whether Sunday School is nearing the end of its life cycle, particularly in certain congregations and contexts.

Tiny Church’s practice in recent years has been to have Sunday School class during the worship hour, following the children’s time. For a small congregation, we have a good number of school-age children—this fall there will be nine, plus about seven middle and high schoolers and a handful of nursery-age.

That’s if they’re all there.

But they’re never all there… which is one of the problems with relying on Sunday School as a child’s primary Christian formation. “Regular church attendance” is different than it was even 5 years ago. Now, a couple times a month is considered regular. Around here, folks generally aren’t slacking off and sleeping in. They’re attending Girls on the Run, taking a weekend trip out of town, volunteering at the Kennedy Center, or helping a friend move. That means the adults who would teach weekly Sunday School are also out a lot, in addition to the kids.

Several of us at Tiny met this past Sunday to talk about Christian education in our congregation, and decided to see all of this as a creative challenge rather than a problem. We have the opportunity to think about Christian formation more holistically, rather than shuttling kids off to a separate room and trusting that they’ll get everything they need there.

Starting this summer, Tiny Church will no longer have Sunday School.

Instead, we will continue work in our Upper Room, which is the kid-friendly worship space in our balcony. School-age children go up after the children’s time and spend the rest of the service there. An adult leads them up and, before they go in, encourages them to “get ready to continue worshiping” by calming and centering, removing their shoes, and so forth.

There are always kinks to work out, but I’m happy to say that the Upper Room is working as well as I could have dreamed. Kids are able to wander, browse a children’s Bible or picture book in one of the comfy chairs, draw or do a simple craft at the table, use the Buddha Board, or mess around with the wooden Noah’s Ark or nativity set. And yet… they’re listening. They’ll walk over to the railing, peek over and watch what’s going on. I was preaching about Pope Francis’s recent remarks and a six year old walked up to Robert and whispered, “What’s an atheist?” I love it.

That said, we also see the value in building intentional relationships between adults and children (which is one of the primary benefits of Sunday School), so we’re thinking about planning a multi-week project maybe once a semester. At these times, children would have a “pull-out” during worship, perhaps to make a video about a Bible story, plan a puppet show, or prepare an anthem as an ad hoc children’s choir. But—and here’s the key—those activities would always connect to the life of the whole worshiping community. The video would be shown in worship, etc.

We also know we need to help equip parents. Like it or not, we are our children’s primary faith educators. I’ve heard of a church that sends home a packet each month with stories, activities, questions to discuss together, rituals, etc. I love this “homeschooling” approach. Sometimes (when I have time and inspiration) I will put together a GPS guide (Grow Pray Study) in the bulletin that helps people think further about the scripture and sermon, and I try to include something for families. That might be something we do more regularly.

We are also still considering how youth fit into this mix. We can see them as co-leaders of the special  pullout activities. And we’re considering some mentoring, as well as partnering with another congregation for a mission trip.

Have you moved beyond Sunday School where you are? Would love to hear what you’re up to.

18 thoughts on “On Letting Go of Sunday School

  1. Rev Dr Mom

    Was talking to a friend in VT last week (at my pre-seminary parish, actually) where they have also ditched “Sunday School” Instead they have monthly intergnerational gatherings focusing on a theme, often including an outreach component, and always including a meal…time varies-sometimes Saturday or Sunday evenings, sometimes a weekday evening, occasionally a Sunday morning.

    I like your ideas too. My former seminarian put together a monthly newsletter for parents his second year here–it was really well done but I don’t know how much it was actually used. My current congregation is still very much of the mindset that what [formation, education, whatever] is the clergy’s job and they will consume as they see fit. Ugh.

  2. The Rev. Mark Wilkinson

    We still have Godly Play on Sunday morning for our elementary age students. We offer a drop in forum for middle and high school and sometimes have one other days 6 youth. We did move our middle and HS programming to Sunday evening from 5:30 – 7:30 including dinner, instruction, fellowship and end with compline. We are getting three times as many youth showing up as we did for Sunday school and I get them for 2 hours instead of 45 minutes. Very happy with this change.

  3. Erin

    I appreciate this post, as this is an ongoing, sometimes tense, conversation in our household. As the de facto director or children’s ministries, I am responsible for figuring out what to with kids during the worship service, both from a practical standpoint and a Christian formation standpoint. Ken has high ideals about keeping kids in worship, but in ten years of parenting has never actually been the one to sit with squirrely kids during the interminably long prayers of confession that he sometimes writes. As the parent of an unusually active and NOISY four-year-old, I appreciate watching him march out the door (or get dragged crying, as the case may be) after the children’s blessing. It is the first time during the worship service that I am engaged in more than a peripheral way.
    So I guess my question is, what do you do with the littlest kids–the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers? At what age do kids remain in the worship service? Like you, we have about a dozen kids who are a regular part of the worshiping community, and a handful of occasional visitors. It’s a rare Sunday when they are all there, but when they are, they are bursting out of the Sunday School class. Other times, our three kids are the only ones in attendance. This makes figuring out volunteer staffing difficult.
    We also had one of our regular teachers (and my co-leader of children’s ministries) leave the church recently over issues of ordination. This was a big blow to the Sunday School program, because now I have one unfilled spot on the schedule every month. Thus, this Sunday begins our unintentional experiment with kids in worship. I guess if the people in the congregation don’t like it, they can volunteer to teach Sunday School next month. I only hope the pastor considers his entire audience when he writes his sermon this week…

    1. MaryAnn

      Good luck Erin!

      And tell that preacher that adults don’t like long prayers of confession either.

      We are fortunate that we were able to hire two nursery workers who take turns being here. It was a stretch for us financially but it’s so much better. Kids go up after the children’s time or earlier if they prefer/need. We have kids under kindergarten age in there.

  4. Bob Braxton

    just as “aging is not for sissies” (slogan of a 92 year old), Sunday school is not (just for) children – only. Also called “adult spiritual growth” Capitol church has adult classes with teeth (and meat, so to speak) – like literature, difficult Bible passages (from female perspectives), Niebuhr “Christ and Culture” and others – yes, including aging – all for the adults (and including retirees – present company included).

  5. Jan Edmiston

    Talk with L-A B at my former church. While I was there, we tried so many things to keep Sunday School going. I think it’s still going, but we occasionally just stopped it to do Godly Play, etc. Very labor intensive just to get volunteers, but we tended to have more volunteers than kids.

    This is an issue for Emerging Churches too. It would be interesting to talk with people at Common Table in Vienna. They meet at Jammin’ Java.

  6. Grace

    One of my favorite parts of my job is Family Worship (previously called Wednesday School). Twice a month, from September-May, a half-dozen families gather for a felt board story, an activity that responds to the story, a potluck dinner, and a super-short (like, 6 minutes) Communion service. The vast majority of the kids involved are (a) boys and (b) between ages 3 and 6 at the moment, so there is a lot of noise and chaos. But most of the time, they listen to the story, and most of the time, they pay attention at communion. We sing simple songs from memory. We’ve evolved rituals for ensuring that each child gets to blow out a candle after worship. And the kids (and their frazzled parents!) are experiencing church as a place where they are fed, welcomed, and loved. It’s unbelievably exhausting to be in charge of, even for only 90 minutes (and especially when my kid decides to be the Sower of Chaos that particular evening) but boy is it worth it.

  7. cindy

    We have a pre-worship Sunday School during the school year, because there are kids who are only with us on the weekends (g’children of members, kids with visitation who reside with the “other” parent in another town).
    We get 2 volunteers from the congregation to take each Sunday and try not to repeat leaders. The focus, clearly, is not on learning content, but in getting acquainted with each other as church family members. There is curriculum. Some leaders use it. Others read a story, take the kids for a walk, etc.
    Our “Sunday School” (for elementary kids) – with regular leaders and curriculum and lesson plans – now takes place after school on Wednesday. We get most of our kids plus a few of their friends. I think it works great. And we have three STEADY volunteers, plus the pastor involved. Sunday School is dead. Long live Sunday School.

  8. teri

    can you post a sample of what a GPS guide is like? I’m intrigued, and hopeful that we can get more people involved in both their own faith development and that of our young people….

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Teri, I went to my worship folder and grabbed one from early last year, completely at random. I’ve varied the format from time to time but this gives you an idea. It’s half of a letter-sized page so can be inserted in the bulletin:

      Today’s Scripture: Mark 1:4-11
      And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

      Read and reflect:
      • Did Jesus “need” to be baptized? If not, why did he do it?
      • John the Baptist came to preach repentance and forgiveness. Repentance means to let go, to turn in another direction. The New Year provides a fitting time to let go of a bad habit or negative attitude. Are you feeling called to let go of something? See if you can find someone to hold you accountable. Remember that letting go (like keeping a resolution) is an ongoing process, not just a one-time event.

      Try this:
      Note that John does not feel worthy to baptize Jesus, yet he does so anyway. You may know the expression, “God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.” Have you taken on a job for which you felt unprepared, in the church or elsewhere? Did you discover skills or abilities you didn’t previously know you had? Pray for our nominating committee this month, as they call new deacons and elders to ministry.

      Especially for families: Talk to your children and youth about their baptism. (Talk about yours too!) Who was there? Where and when did it take place? What did it mean to you then, and what does it mean to you now? Ask what it means to them as well.

      For next week: Read John 1:43-51. (This is a great one for children to read in their bibles!) Where do you find yourself in this story?

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