UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Finish this sentence

"Sunday school today is ... an exercise in nostalgia"

By Connie denBok

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.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image