It doesn’t show up on the Morehouse Altar Guild calendar, of course, but “Sunday School Rally Day” — here in Western Pennsylvania most often the Sunday after the Labor Day weekend — is nearly always one of the highest festivals of the Church Year. Preceded by weeks of room reorganization, the purchase of curriculum, the training of teachers, and numerous e-mail announcements and Sunday leaflet promotions, Rally Day is then marked by special prayers in the Sunday worship service, commissionings and blessings — and then, when possible — with picnics in the churchyard and all kinds of fun activities intended to launch our children and youth off into a great new year.

It’s all good, and I’m especially delighted to have had the privilege of serving for three decades in congregations that have wanted to make the ministries of Christian Education and formation for children and youth a very high priority.

Nonetheless, I would confess as I look out over parish life and over the general condition of the wider Church, pretty much across the spectrum of denominations, I have begun to think that maybe we’re just going about all this backwards — and even perhaps, just perhaps, doing more harm than good.

The statistics seem to tell a discouraging story. A couple of years ago the Rev. Matt Marino wrote an article for The Living Church as groundwork for a call to re-energize our commitment to ministry with children and youth. His article appeared at the beginning of Fall 2013, just as Sunday School and Youth Group programs were beginning to gear up for that year’s Rally Day, offering the frank and somewhat discouraging observation that despite the sincere and caring efforts of clergy, Sunday School teachers, and dedicated youth leaders, “between 60 percent and 88 percent of churched youth will not attend church in their 20s.”

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In our Episcopalian context I once heard a colleague rector comment that “Sunday School just isn’t one of our gifts,” but that we really didn’t need to worry too much about that.

“We may lose our kids,” he said, “but in the long run they will be replaced by adult ‘converts’ from other traditions.”

That sounded a little cynical to me at the time — and tragically so, actually. If the kids that are lost are your kids, the fact that their “place” will later be filled by others is small comfort. I recognized then that there has been for a while at least some statistical truth to the observation. But if Marino is right in his assessment of larger trends generationally, it seems likely that this steady stream of “replacements” will sooner or later begin to run dry as well ….

I

A number of years ago I remember reading Offering the Gospel to Children (1992), a very bright and well-written little book by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. In the book Pritchard talked about how she had led what turned out to be something of a renewal of Christian Education in her parish in New Haven, beginning with the development of a series of Sunday School pageants and plays tracing out Bible stories and major themes of the Church Year. The key was this: these were not your typical Sunday School pageants, with kids dressing up in costumes and learning their lines and then presenting them to the congregation in “performances” during worship services or at parish potlucks. In Pritchard’s programs, it was the parents who wrote the scripts, designed the sets, made the costumes, and then acted in the plays. In Pritchard’s pageants, the grown-ups told the stories for the kids, and not the other way around.

Now believe me: I have nothing against the traditional Sunday School pageant, and I’m sure we’ll have a great one again this coming December here at St. Andrew’s in Pittsburgh. But I think the dynamic that Pritchard discovered in her parish in New Haven points to a simple truth that our perhaps overly-segregated, departmentalized, professionalized “Christian Education” focus has tended to forget — which is that kids will believe that something is important for them when they see that their parents and the other significant adults around them think it’s important in their lives too.

The point isn’t, I think, that Christian parents don’t want to be the teachers and spiritual leaders in their families. I think in all kinds of subtle ways we’ve told them that it’s not their job.

 II

A few decades ago, the Sunday School director of the parish I served put together a little kit of Advent activities to send home with kids and parents. It included a wreath and candles, a colorful calendar with windows that would open to a Bible verse for each day of the season, and a brief order of family worship designed for use perhaps before a family meal or at bedtime. The idea was that the family would gather, light a candle, read the Bible verse, sing a stanza of “Come, thou long-expected Jesus,” and then conclude with a prayer or a blessing to be offered by a parent.

The project seem to be generally well-received, but I was a little taken aback when one of the moms caught me after service on Sunday and asked me if I could provide something for her to use for that closing prayer. I thought about it for a second, started to venture something, but then caught myself and said, “You know, this isn’t really supposed to be all that formal — just a prayer giving thanks for the day, the season, the family, and so on.”

She (a life-long Episcopalian, with a Master’s degree), replied, “Yes, I know, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to do that on my own.”

III

In this context I’ve been thinking lately about my grandfather, my mother’s dad — a younger son in a large family in a Norwegian immigrant community — who grew up on a farm in Eastern North Dakota in the years just before and after the turn of the twentieth century. He and his family were members of a little Lutheran Church in a small town 15 or 20 miles from their farm, and I think it was likely they made significant efforts (when they could) to get to town for Sunday services. But I never heard my grandfather, a man of deep faith and sturdy piety, talk about Sunday School. What he talked about was how, when he was growing up, at the family table every evening before they would begin to eat, his father would have one of the children read a chapter from the Bible, in Norwegian (they didn’t speak much English at home), and then would add a few comments of interpretation and application. My grandfather talked about how his mother taught him to read by reading Bible stories with him, and about how in the evening — no radio or television then, of course — they would gather around the piano to sing together: mostly hymns — hymns he would still sing for us with great gusto by heart in his rich baritone fifty and sixty years later.

The point is  that whatever Sunday School or Christian Education “program” experiences my grandfather would have had at Church, that would have been icing on the cake — the larger congregation and community reinforcing and affirming the basic foundation of formation for Christian life that was happening every day at home. Which is, I’m pretty sure, more or less how the Christian community has done this work century after century.

The problem with Sunday School, I guess I’m trying to say, is that Sunday School just can’t do what we seem to be asking it to do. It’s not that we’re spending too much time and energy with our kids, but that we’re not spending nearly enough time with their parents. The problem is not that we spend too much time designing or selecting appropriate curriculum and then training our teachers to use that curriculum successfully on Sunday mornings, but that we’re not spending nearly enough time inspiring and equipping and training parents for their critical role as teachers and spiritual leaders in their own families, and then providing them with tools to undertake that ministry in a meaningful way.

The featured image “Sunday School”  (2010) was posted by Flickr user bigbirdz. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

The Rev. Bruce Robison has served as rector of St. Andrew’s Church, Highland Park, in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh since 1994. He is something of an old-fashioned evangelical, but with Benedictine tendencies — and with a vocational affinity for life as Village Priest, Country Parson. Bruce occasionally serves in adjunct positions at Trinity School for Ministry and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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