Why you should care
For the devout, the survival of Sunday school matters a hell of a lot.
It’s a chilly Sunday morning in Oakland, California, and in the glass-paned school adjacent to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Allison Sass is on a mission to teach 12 small children to love Jesus. Bless their hearts, and Sass’ heart too, because despite her smile, this is going to be quite a struggle. One messy-haired boy, all of 6 years old, refuses to budge from the lap of his mom, who’s there because he’s a little shy. Two girls, both barely 10, are frankly dozing off, sprawled out on the carpet.
Sass holds up a drawing of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and asks the kids to “help tell the story of the Christ child” through toys and other objects in the room. Some of the children pluck wooden figurines from a Nativity scene, and one girl with, yes, purple-tipped hair, chooses a baby doll in a white baptismal gown. It’s a move that rouses some of the kids, who gather around the doll and, as Sass watches on, start chanting in a playground manner: “ Take it off! Take it off!”
The girl obliges. Then she peeks beneath the doll’s underwear and announces her verdict: “I think he’s transgender.”
Obviously, this wasn’t in the lesson plan. But while getting young kids to pay attention in church has often required miracles, something about this moment seems to reflect a broader current about Sunday school. Many a prayer has been said over the fate of the vaunted American institution, whose struggles cut across denominational lines. Between 1997 and 2004, churches lost tens of thousands of Sunday school programs, according to data from the Barna Group, and more recent studies show that enrollment has fallen across denominations. From 2004 to 2010, for example, Sunday school attendance dropped nearly 40 percent among Evangelical Lutheran churches in America and almost 8 percent among Southern Baptist churches, prompting speculation that the problem may be more than just a decline in American religiosity.
Parents and kids, as we all know, are just too busy on weekends, with everything from professional-level sports training to eight-hour SAT prep classes (at age 12!). The institutional inertia that churches are famous for has made it difficult for them to adapt to the times. But experts say that many churches are also discovering they’re paying a far heavier price for past sex scandals than they had anticipated, and that Sunday school is the latest collateral damage. All of which raises a troubling question — at least among the clergy and the deeply devout — about whether Sunday school has outlived its usefulness.
Decades ago, religious education programs served as the only social function after a grueling week. But today, Sunday schools must make an affirmative case to their audience. And so churches have entered the innovation game, with everything from “Godly Play” to global programs. They forge on, like Moses wandering in the desert, stripteases and all.
While Sunday school conjures up images of postwar America — mom and dad in the pews while Johnny and Susie played Bible games in the classroom — it’s actually an English institution that dates back to the Industrial Revolution, in the late 1700s. The original Sunday schools didn’t aim so much at enlightenment as at discipline: Factory children spent Sundays — their only day off from work — terrorizing neighborhoods, and parents were at a loss as to how to tame them. Like a gift from God, Christian evangelist Robert Raikes took it upon himself to gather them from the streets, scrub their faces, comb their hair and send them to school, where the Bible was the textbook. The children also learned the basic catechism, as well as prayers and hymns, and the townspeople were pleased. In fact, according to one Mr. Church, a hemp- and flax-maker who had hired many of the children, they had “been transformed from the shape of wolves and tigers to that of men.”
I don’t think parents are looking for weekly Sunday school. I think families are looking for more quality time together.
— Day Smith Pritchartt, Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church
Not surprisingly, Sunday school soon caught on in the U.S., where over the course of a century and a half it evolved from an educational and missionary venture, which tried to spread the Gospel and attract converts, into a cornerstone of towns and neighborhoods. Nearly every parent, even those who didn’t regularly attend church, sent their children to Sunday school. Indeed, the schools emerged as the center of social life, hosting parades, picnics and prize days.
But the love affair would not survive the second half of the 20th century. The first crack may have been over race. Even as the civil rights movement gained momentum, churches remained racially divided in most parts of the country. (Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”) By the 1970s, Sunday school and church in general, like many traditional institutions, fell victim to a society that increasingly questioned authority. Citizens questioned the draft, students protested racial injustice and children challenged their Sunday school teachers. Today, many people remember this transition as though it were yesterday. “They were essentially telling me to believe in a fantasy world without proof,” recalls one Sunday school ejectee, Pennsylvania management consultant Thomas MacPherson, who says he was booted out after demanding evidence of heaven and hell.
But today, most church leaders probably wish that kids like little Tommy MacPherson were their main problem. We live in an era defined by a confluence of two big trends: Parents, especially middle-class ones, have become ever more concerned about the welfare of their children, whether it’s demanding chemical-free playgrounds or ensuring they get into the best preschool. At the same time, Christian churches have been rocked by a series of sex-abuse scandals that are the worst nightmare for any parent, from youth groups being coerced into sex acts to priests’ confessions of molesting boys. Even if the revelations have subsided somewhat in recent years, “people know the reality has been exposed,” says Robert Orsi, a professor of religion at Northwestern University. “I’m sure parents are thinking of this.”
LeeAnn MacNeil, a homemaker in McLean, Virginia, is a devout Catholic with four kids, but she has serious qualms about teacher selection at her church’s Sunday school. “They’re not vetted properly. That’s a valid concern in my book,” she says. And she can speak from experience: As a Sunday school teacher for several years, she says the sign-up process “was done very quickly. It’s like, ‘Have you been in jail before?’ — the generic questions, like on a job application. They don’t really check your background as much as they should when you’re dealing with young children.”
Yet it’s worth noting that the reason MacNeil’s kids don’t attend Sunday school is lack of time. Instead of a day of rest, Sunday has become just another day for over-scheduled kids to be chauffeured from sports practice to music lessons or SAT tutoring. It doesn’t help that parents themselves, so overwhelmed by life, are skipping church. “You would go to church, and then an hour or hour 15 minutes of Sunday school. It takes up all your morning. It felt like more of a chore for them to go, when you’re giving up some of your weekend and attending school during the week,” says MacNeil. “By the time they come home, it’s 12 noon, and when you have a weekend, you want to play with your friends outside and be a kid.”
Apparently a lot of people are busy, at least in rich countries. As marginalized as Sunday school has become in the United States, only about 5 percent of British kids went to Sunday school in 2010. A mere 11 percent of elementary school students in New Zealand were enrolled in Sunday school in 1985, down from 50 percent in 1950. Sunday school enrollment and membership in mainstream Protestant churches plummeted from 65 percent of Canadians in 1931 to 27 percent in 2001.All of which raises the question: What’s a church to do?
Change is always difficult in a 2,000-year-old institution. But give the clergy credit: They’ve begun to innovate. At Skyline United Church of Christ, about a 15-minute drive from Sass’ Sunday school class, the Rev. Laurie Manning has adopted something called “the Joyful Path,” where instead of Bible study in a classroom, kids visit families in homeless shelters, or raise money to build schools in poor countries. Such service projects help them “see the face of God,” Manning says. Other churches are broadening their horizons, like teaching lessons about the Muslim holy book, the Quran. And then there’s the obvious answer for the over-scheduled kid: Let them do Sunday school at home in their pajamas, with readings and activities set up for them by the church.“I don’t think parents are looking for weekly Sunday school,” says Day Smith Pritchartt, executive director of the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church. “I think families are looking for more quality time together.”
But back at the music room at St. Paul’s, Caroline Hickok, who leads the music and prayer portion of the class, asks two girls to pick a song. They flip through the songbook and settle on “Down by the Riverside.” An old-school male gospel voice growls through the CD player’s speakers. “Gonna lay down my sword and shield/ Down by the riverside,” they sing in deep, gruff voices as they pass out folders to the other students. Hickok then asks the rest of the class if they want to sing along. “I want to dance! I don’t want to sing!” pipes up one girl as she decorates her nametag with colored markers. Her classmates jump up and start dancing around the CD player.
“Usually I end up singing alone,” Hickok says.
Photography by Tim Hussin for OZY.