We remember Sunday school at its shining pinnacle of the early 1960s, when hordes of newly minted suburban children drove the Canadian church economy to heights unimagined. It is like watching Downton Abbey in a glorious era, when the estate was grand, society was ordered and ladies sipped tea from proper china.
The dowager is looking shabbier these days, selling estate property bit by bit in order to keep up appearances, genuinely perplexed with peers who have sold out and become common. “Yes,” she nods. “They are successful, and therein is their fault. They would not be such if they were not so ignorant and rude and willing to pander to the masses.”
Had the countess known her ancestors, those rascals whose portraits still hang in the great halls, the vulgar and varied who amassed the family fortune, she would flush with shame. Because Sunday school was born on the wrong side of the tracks.
The movement began in the 1700s, the brainchild of industrialist Robert Raikes. It was a Christian mission to the children of the slums of urban Britain. Classes met on Sundays, the only day children were free from the drudgery of factory work. Laypersons from many denominations left their churches on Sunday afternoons to gather urchins from tenements and gin houses.
Children learned to read, to wash, to pray, to work, to save their pennies, to stop drinking gin. They grew up expecting to marry their partners and educate their children. Young people stayed out of jail and accumulated wealth, swelling the ranks of a new middle class. The next generation purchased property, erected church buildings and continued the fine tradition of Sunday school until sometime in the 1930s or ’40s, when Sunday school became the main education program for existing churches, eventually replacing the teaching of scriptures and prayer in public schools, and even parental lessons at home.
Could it be that the supersized Sunday schools of the 1960s were a missional supernova, a movement that lost its purpose and dissipated in a flash of glory that left a lingering glow for a generation? Of all the children in our church basement in 1962, how many are active followers of Christ today, or even attend church twice a year at Christmas and Easter? And their children? Their grandchildren? The Sunday schools of that era packed the house, but the multitude of children did not remain, and their children never returned. One might argue that no generation has been as ignorant of basic Bible stories told for millennia than the grandchildren of our biggest Sunday school generation ever.
Sunday school divorced from mission is merely another weekend activity for children already overburdened with entertainment and instruction. It is one more program to be staffed by the church.
But Sunday school was invented to go beyond church. Messy Church — an informal family program designed to include games, crafts, stories and shared meals — is the closest 21st-century equivalent, creating new communities of faith through children.
Sunday school is an extension of the compassion of Christ, a conviction that the Gospel is good news and can transform lives for generations. Sunday school assumes that lay people are capable of gathering strangers, telling the story and creating new communities of faith. Theologian Leonard Sweet says, “Home-schooling is a requirement for every family of faith — children should be home-schooled in Christianity and the Bible.” Sunday school is not a substitute for that. It is an invitation to be God’s mission in the world.
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