September 8, 2016

Back To (Sunday) School

I’m writing this on the day after Labor Day, also known in our household as our daughter’s first day of third grade. In our community, most school-aged children have been back in school for a while now (my daughter’s school does things a bit differently), but summer’s unofficial ending is now past.

In the church, as well, we’re gearing up for another year of Sunday School and formation. Our Sunday School Kickoff Sunday is, as it’s been, this weekend, right after Labor Day. I’m very proud that St. George’s, as a community, has grown a heart for formation ministries. When I arrived as rector nine years ago, there was a dedicated team of teachers and a great, but small crew of children and youth. They followed the one-room-schoolhouse approach, and critical numbers weren’t strong enough. Teachers on the search committee told me they didn’t have enough volunteers to help so, in their words, “we all wear several hats.” In my first few years, as part of investing in this community – not just the congregation I saw regularly but the wider networks of people, many of whom have deep ties to this church – I met lots of children, and learned that this area is, in fact, teeming with young families and young children, and I also came into contact with a lot of gifted and spiritually deep adults, many of whom are currently some of our best teachers. Our Sunday School has grown from one class to four, from probably a handful of children to nearly 40. I’m proud that the addition of a regular Sunday morning adult forum has seemed to stick, too.

While I have obvious love for the traditional Sunday School model – or some version of that model, given whatever day might work better or best for your community – I’m not only writing to give props to that system. I’m writing because I think we would do well to return to the original idea of the Sunday School. This might be one of those tools from our past which, today, will help us learn new skills and venture forth into our communities, as they’re formed today.

The original idea of the Sunday School was to create something of a community outreach center, a place of genuine instruction and education – most useful, especially when Sunday’s were the only day a working-class family had to engage in leisure activities. Sunday Schools were not places to keep the kids engaged while parents worshipped. They were not simply about teaching the Bible or the Christian faith. They were not even buildings connected to the parish church, either physically or institutionally. Sunday Schools were places in which the church, the Body of Christ, reached out to its community, coming to them on their terms and on their day off so that the common good might be realized.

Over the years, however, Sunday School has turned into a place in which children – most still think of ‘small children’ – learn stories about Jesus and the Bible. It’s mostly connected to the church itself and in tandem somehow with the worship gathering(s). Free public education and the introduction of child labor laws, mostly, led to this eventual transformation of Sunday Schools.

But what if Sunday School became, once again, so much more than religious instruction before or after worship? What if Sunday School became more than an add-on to Sunday morning worship schedules?

I’m starting to wonder if dusting off the original concept of the Sunday School might be one of the ways in which the we might find new and creative expressions of our faith in Christ. Could this be, once again, a model by which we engage and invest in our communities? It might not be connected to Sundays, whatsoever, but instead we’d have to read our communities and determine those times, days, seasons when people take some measure of rest from their work, when they find themselves needy for instruction, depth, community. What if the future of the church looked like a series of sporadic, ‘pop up’ gatherings of disciples – some doing justice work, some doing bible study, some worshiping, some gathering for singing?

Some years ago, writer Thom Rainer gave food for thought for this new, yet old venture. In his book, High Expectations (1999), among other things Rainer looked at the patterns of belief and practice among those who gave themselves to Christ five years prior to his research. Of those who regularly participated in worship and Sunday School / formation activities over those five years, 82% were still active in their communities of faith. Of those who only attended worship in that same time frame, however, only 16% remained active. If we’re only offering Sunday morning worship and occasional weekly fellowship gatherings, we shouldn’t be surprised to see only 2 out of 10 people remaining in our pews in a relatively short period of time. But, perhaps, we don’t need so much to re-think Sunday mornings. Perhaps we need to get beyond Sunday mornings, into face-to-face encounters with the citizens in this new industrial age, less gritty and more accustomed to creaturely comforts than those in the 18[1] century, but still just as needy for formation, friendship, fellowship and connection, not just with other people but with God made known to us in Jesus Christ.

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