Sunday, May 15, 2011

I'm off to Sunday school

Valley Mennonite Church near Rosthern
It’s Sunday morning. So let’s think about Sunday school for a minute or two.

Here’s the short form: In many churches, there’s an hour before the worship service in which people are gathered into age-appropriate groups and a leader guides them through a theme focused on a Biblical passage or concept, a current issue from a moral/ethical standpoint or historical stories that reinforce the theology of the particular denomination in question. A simplified definition (and somewhat cynical, to boot) is that for children, it’s indoctrination time and for adults, it’s something to do while volunteers are busy with the children.

Sunday school arose as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and the concomitant rise of a way of thinking we call “modernism” for lack of a better word. Begun by a socially-conscious Anglican minister in England in the mid-18th Century, it was an attempt to provide some literacy education for children working in factories and mines on their only day off. Churches picked up the idea and it grew, particularly in North America.

Child labour legislation eventually cut the children free from the factory floor and to prevent their running wild, compulsory public education was invented. Instead of dropping Sunday school because the need had passed, churches saw in it an opportunity to teach the faith to their children and to proselytize neighbourhood children at the same time. Prizes, parades and picnics were introduced and American children trooped to Sunday school, even if their parents didn’t.

All of this was too much change for conservative branches of Mennonite churches, and both Sunday school and public day school were seen as modernistic, worldly encroachments on the faith while other, more liberal branches saw in these developments a golden opportunity for a better faith in a better world.

But time always overruns even good ideas, and like the Sunday bulletin, the Christmas concert, the mass, a style of baptism, innovations like Sunday school eventually fossilize and become routine.

There’s been a steady decline in church and Sunday school attendance since the 1960’s. The word post-modernism could be applied but it might not explain much. If you don’t attend Sunday school anymore—or never have—you can possibly provide us with some good reasons for the decline. For my part, it seems obvious that failure has been built in from the start. Where the rubber hits the road—in that little classroom off the gym, in some cases—a lay-teacher is passing on to children whatever she or he has gathered up in concepts, preconceptions, prejudices, priorities, etc. picked up who knows where, possibly through radio and TV religio-babble. The next year’s teacher may present an entirely different message, and so on, and so on.

It’s always been an institution built on a foundation of sand. All you had to have to become a mentor and teacher to children (and to adults, for that matter) was a pulse and a church membership. Far too little screening or training has ever been done to allow it to be taken seriously as school.

Educationally, the Sunday school has faltered. In its community-building function, it’s shown itself to be a poor pastiche of the public school system. As a proselytizing mechanism, its age has all but passed. What’s left?

The post-modern age we live in allows us independent thinking, and so I’m sceptical about agreement on what should replace it, what it’s focus should be and who should have the right and the responsibility to make it happen. Robert Raikes saw a social need and a church obligation to address that need, and so he started a Sunday school in 1780. Could something similar happen again? Could there be someone who would so succinctly name the relevant needs of 2011 and initiate a workable response that would address them?

Or would we independent-thinking, post-modernists bury that someone under reasons why it could never work, etc., etc., etc. Or would we squelch the attempt under a mountain of indifference?

I’m leading an adult Sunday school discussion this morning. The topic is Sunday school: past, present, future. No need to be there.

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