And while attendance is declining, it’s even harder to give up the idea of going to Sunday School, which I started before I was born. I’m pretty sure my prenatal self knew “Jesus Love Me.”
But Sunday School has a much longer history than that. It started in the 1700’s as a way to teach child laborers from English factories to read as much as to love Jesus.
It wasn’t until 1802 that the first law restricting child labor to 12 hours a day was passed, and Saturday was a workday as well. Reformers saw Sunday as the only time to promote literacy and opportunity, so churches stepped up to do the job. They even paid teachers to teach kids to read and write.
Of course their goal was to teach them to read the Bible, and moral instruction was equally important in their agenda. But prize day and parades and other aspects of the experience were perhaps the brightest spot in these children’s lives. More importantly, many Sunday School graduates freed themselves from poverty.
By the 1870s, compulsory attendance laws were common, and public school took over much of the literacy responsibilities. But even up until the 1960s, when more permissive parenting became the norm, most parents believed Sunday School was an important part of a child’s life. But by then, as Keith Drury points out, parents were more likely to ask their kids if they had fun than if they learned anything.
Today, while 70% of adults in the U.S. recall going to Sunday School, according to the Barna Group only about 15% attend. And with only 20% of all adults volunteering at church in any way, Sunday School is often understaffed and under resourced.
But it is still important. Not much moral instruction is going on in public schools. My wife used to teach a neighborhood Bible study for kids in which none of the kids knew a single Christmas carol or had ever read a Bible. In fact, they could barely read at all.
So churches need to step up in some way.
I’m not saying it has to be Sunday morning and I’m not saying we have to use flannel graph. And I’m not saying parents have even more responsibility in this area. I’m just saying churches can and should do something.
Sunday School or something like it is more important than ever. Frankly, many disadvantaged kids in our communities could use more academic help and higher expectations. And love. Love is good.
Not only that, I’m pretty sure there are parents who would send their kids to church if we taught them to read and helped them with their homework.
And of course moral education is even more essential, because literacy without integrity is dangerous. Ability and accountability belong together. Kids may not be working 12 hours a day, but many of them spend that much time alone, or hanging out with friends, without purpose and without hope.
And without the benefit of the moral instruction so many of us enjoyed (or endured) to the good of our own souls.
So what’s your Sunday School story? Have you taught? Did you go? How has it shaped your life? What are your ideas about how to make it work?