For many American Christians, "Sunday school" is a household phrase that requires no explanation. The term often evokes nostalgic images of flannel-graph Bible stories, Scripture memory verses and endless choral rounds of Father Abraham, Jesus Loves Me and other such church-going children's musical standards. A quick survey of various local church ministries reveals that the Sunday school hour is still widely observed, though in some cases the (perhaps) antiquated phrase has been replaced with terms such as "Bible Classes" or "Growth Groups." Regardless of what packaging label one might stick on it, Sunday school doesn't seem to be disappearing from American Christianity any time soon.
This fact, however, often obscures the sobering reality that participation in Sunday school is currently a low priority among many regular churchgoers, not to mention among professing Christians in America. Today, the typical local church is likely to observe a notable decrease in Sunday school attendance when compared with the attendance in their congregational worship services. Many professing Christians and longtime church-goers have never been involved in a Sunday school despite many advertisements, pleas and (usually well intentioned) guilt-trips issued from the pulpit and fellow church attendees.
With these realities in mind, one may wonder whether Sunday school has run its course in church history and if the time has come for it to die a natural death. This may be a fair question, but it is also one easily answered: When Christians consider the biblical rationale for Sunday school, along with the spiritual and practical benefits it potentially offers, it is clear that it remains a vital ministry in the local church. It is not time to let this ministry die; rather, it is high time that Christians reaffirm its importance and function.
JV Family photo by BRADLEY
Xana Goodman, right, makes a cow plate shaker craft with assistance from Jen Kauffman on July 17 during the Salem United Methodist Church Vacation Bible School in New Lancaster Valley. This year’s theme was “SonWest Round-up”.
The precise meaning of the term "Sunday school" has changed over time. The phrase originally referred to an eighteenth century effort in England to provide education to children in working-class homes. At its inception, Sunday schools offered a more comprehensive academic curriculum (though, of course, biblical education has always played a large role). As time passed and its geographical influence expanded, Sunday school slowly evolved into the program it is most commonly known as today - a weekly time of focused biblical instruction or discussion offered by the local church in addition to the congregational worship service. Modern Sunday school classes are usually age-graded, with separate classes for children, adolescents, and adults, and are often comprised of relatively small groups which encourage class participation.
While the specific organizational structure of Sunday school may vary among churches, the basic format of this ministry as described above is vital for Christians. Indeed, followers of Jesus Christ were practicing the principles of Sunday school since the time of the apostles, many centuries before the formal term was developed amidst the Industrial Revolution. The Bible certainly never issues the command, "Thou shalt attend Sunday school," but there is a strong and enduring biblical rationale for it, and faithful Christians seem to have always recognized this.
The Apostle Paul once reminded the church in Galatia, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2) Around the same time, James exhorted Christians, "confess your sins to one another and pray for one another " (James 5:16) These commands, and others like them, suggest much more than crowds of people shuffling into a large public gathering to sing and listen to a preacher.
Christians are expected to deeply share the substantive events of their lives - the trials and the blessings - with one another. While Sunday school is certainly not the only means by which this can be accomplished, it does perhaps provide the most natural and consistent forum for it. We can only truly "bear one another's burdens" if we know what those burdens are. This requires that we come to genuinely know each other through regular, personal, spiritually-focused interaction.
In all but perhaps the smallest churches, it is administratively impossible for everyone to confess sins and pray for one another unless the church is afforded the small-group atmosphere that a Sunday school provides. Admittedly, these interactions need not occur only on Sundays, but most churches will readily observe that the Lord's Day is still the best time of the week for maximum participation. Mid-week gatherings tend to be even more poorly attended than Sunday school.
Over and against the perennial complaints offered by many church-goers in resistance to Sunday school ("It's old-fashioned, It's just for kids, I don't want to give up more of 'my Sunday'"), the spiritual and practical benefits of a sound, biblically-focused Sunday school are undeniable. Sunday school offers an environment for Christians to "go deeper" in the faith. Participants can ask questions, share insights, and personally sharpen one another's Christian knowledge and enthusiasm (see Proverbs 27:17). Class feedback can help determine curriculum by identifying particular areas of interest in biblical study. Age-graded classes can be customized to provide context-specific instruction and encourage connections between Christian peers. For non-believers who are curious about the Christian faith, Sunday school can be the ideal place to thoughtfully examine the Bible and ask sincere questions.
The message of the gospel is one of hope for the world. God loves us all and has graciously reached out to us through His Son. If ours is a God worthy of worship, He is worthy of study and discussion, every day of the week. Jesus' followers are exhorted to "grow in the grace and knowledge" of their Lord and Savior (2 Peter 3:18), and a return to Sunday school might just be a vital step in that journey.
Phil Persing is Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church in Mifflintown, PA.