Why do we have to go to Sunday school?
Because I said so, and God and Jesus both commanded it (Pr. 22:6; Mt. 28:18-20).
Kids never like to hear that as an answer to anything, but it is a perfectly appropriate answer.
How do you answer if they ask whether they have to go to public school? Because I said so and the law requires you to. It's the same answer. A different law is specified, but it's the same answer.
I'm a big champion of traditional Sunday schools. There has been a big push in recent decades to abandon Sunday schools and go to small groups instead as a way to grow the church. Small groups may well be an excellent means of growing the church, but they are a notoriously poor way of actually training everyone as disciples.
In most small group settings that I have been a part of over the years, the reality goes something like this:
- A book (if you're lucky), or a video series (if you're not so lucky) that is on the churches approved list is picked either by a "facilitator" or by consensus of the group.
- The families gather at some appointed time to study.
- By the time all the introductory visiting and prayer requests are made and snacks and closing felicitations are done, you've lost half the study time.
- The adults sit through the material - sometimes there is discussion and sometimes not - the extent and nature of the discussion doesn't vary much compared to traditional Sunday School classes so this is neither a win or lose for Sunday School versus Small Groups.
- The kids of all ages are thrown together with a babysitter where they play in a supervised fashion with little or no instruction in the Word.
- The families eventually plow through the material - it's almost always a book or video rather than the Bible itself - pat themselves on the back - and then decide they'll start again in a month or two when they've rested up. They've brought their families together to learn about the Lord and can cross that off their list for a few more weeks.
- The cycle repeats - with various people dropping out due to other commitments at the time the group meets and various new families joining in.
I know that's a pretty cynical outlook, but it's also pretty realistic. For the groups I have attended, there is rarely anyone from outside the church who comes. Like with church, many may be invited, but few come. So in terms of outreach to non-Christians, it isn't living up to its purpose. At times people from other churches come, and some cross-pollination is always good, but it isn't working for outreach.
The reason that structured Sunday schools are good is that everyone can participate in the learning experience at an age appropriate level and everyone will get something out of the material. If you don't have good material, contact Gospel Publishing House. Their material is at least sound of doctrine, although I think they should back up about 40 years in the format as it has been made too lightweight for the younger kids. Target about 95% of the weight of the adult material for the high school (since high school kids think they know everything anyway), 80% for the middle grades and 65% for the elementary grades. Once they have learned to read, they should read and reduce the activities substantially. The hands on crafts and games should be wrapped up by the time they are in primary classes. The lessons and Sunday School time is limited to around 45 to 55 minutes if you're lucky. Any kid in elementary school or later can sit still for that amount of time and learn. What parents must do is stress by word and by example that learning is important to their future and just as on a school night, don't let them stay up till 3 Sunday morning and expect them to stay awake in class.
The teacher can take any lesson that is to be taught and present examples that are relevant to the particular age group at hand. Adults aren't offended because the examples are only appropriate to kids. Kids aren't overwhelmed or made uncomfortable by adult examples. Teachers have the opportunity to help kids deal with issues without their parents around which can sometimes make comments and examples freer. In the same way, adults can discuss adult issues without having their kids around - or somebody else's kids around - that they have to censor their problem discussions for. It's better all the way around to have things broken up by ages, and this simply isn't possible with small groups.
It takes dramatically less people to staff a Sunday school for a church full of people than to staff enough small groups for a church population. You don't have to find a horde of good facilitators - just a few good teachers and possibly a few good aids. With volunteers stretched thin and hard to come by, Sunday school is a win for any sized church.
Facilitators just keep the discussion flowing around a topic and may try to direct the discussion into particular areas, but groups of people learning solely from one another isn't the best teaching environment. Jesus didn't get the disciples together for a group discussion and hope for the best. He taught. Even when teaching the crowds, he used examples in parables that could get His point across. He didn't facilitate a discussion. Rom. 12:4-8 lists many offices and gifts of the Spirit - teaching is among them, but facilitating is not. Other references to teachers and teaching can be found in Mt. 28:18-20; 1 Cor. 12:28-31; Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 4:1-4 and many others.
If you stick to denominational material, you'll get through most all the Bible in the course of a few years. As you move through the various Sunday school classes the material changes so you aren't studying the same thing over and over. All too often small groups just study particular narrowly focused subjects without stretching you - there's a singles small group - a young family small group - a financial accounting small group - a divorced individual small group - a membership small group and so forth. If you've attended a few rounds in each there may not be any new subject matter for you to learn.
Sunday school meets right before or right after the main service (depending on the church) so you don't have to make a separate trip. That's a plus for older people who may not like to get out at night or may not be able to afford multiple trips. In addition, it's generally at the church so:
- There are always places to park.
- The sidewalks are shoveled in the winter.
- The place is clean.
- There are enough chairs. If not, you can switch to a different room or get more chairs.
- It has insurance in force for accidents.
- It is probably handicapped accessible.
All of these can be issues with small groups.
Of course there are problems common to both - you might be stuck in an age group with a bad teacher or the facilitator of the small group might be bad. Both are usually temporary phenomena. You'll either age out of the class or could change small groups.
But the one important thing that you must do is find a way to study what the Word of God itself - the Bible - says. Making disciples is something that the church is supposed to be doing, and we've been doing a poor job of it lately.
Even in Sunday schools, there has been a huge push to forsake traditional methods that worked for generations and move to modern methods that are more with the times. I've seen my kids watch TV. The TV turns on and they're entertained, but the brains turn off. That is no way to learn. It's more fun. It's more exciting. It isn't as boring. But it doesn't actually teach them in ways that they retain.
As an example, in school, teaching multiplication has had some real creative changes in the last decades. But to actually learn it, my kids have had to resort to plain old memorization with flash cards. It's old. It's boring. It works. Learning cursive is slowly becoming a thing of the past, but to do it you practice over and over. The methods are old, they're boring, but they work too.
Learning about what the Bible says is no different. We've let a couple of generations of kids down by experimenting in church in the same way that a couple of generations of kids have been let down as the public school system has experimented. If you think we haven't, then you haven't seen the youth of most churches today. They aren't nearly as separated from the world in attitude or action as those of thirty years ago. I know there are exceptions, but generally it is true. They also don't know much about the Bible and particularly the Old Testament.
When deciding what to do in a Sunday School department, keep this in mind. If a student is in Sunday School for an hour a week, 52 weeks a year, is taught the whole time - very optimistic - and continually attends from grade 3 to 12, they will have the equivalent of only 13 weeks of 40-hour per week instruction. One quarter of a year over that decade of their lives is all you will have them for. If you give up on Sunday School during summers because teachers or students are on vacation some weeks and you don't have the staff or the desire to deal with finding substitutes, you start out with less than 10 weeks of 40 hour instruction
Every 5 minutes you spend doing something other than teaching costs you about one 40 hour week over the course of the decade. If you spend 5 minutes in prayer - a good thing, 5 minutes with record keeping, 5 minutes trying to restore order after a game, you've lost three of the optimistic thirteen weeks you have available to teach and prepare the kids for the rest of their lives. Three months is little enough time to give them an understanding of the Bible. Hopefully, they will stay in church and have more time to learn, but if they give up on church or Sunday School after they leave home, you've run out of time. We owe our kids a better Christian education than this.
I fully support parents instructing their kids in religious matters at home as well when possible, but many will never have that option. This is due to three things.
- They aren't Christian in the first place so are unqualified to help or don't know the answers or won't provide the answers if asked questions.
- They're too busy working two or more jobs to make ends meet, get their kids to activities and birthday parties, keep food on the table, keep the house and clothes clean, and any of a hundred other things to have time to take an hour to teach.
- They think their kids are already getting taught because they are attending Sunday School.
As much as we would like the world to be ideal where only one parent worked and they had a bit of free time to train up their kids properly, the US today is far removed from that - even for Christian parents. Sunday Schools are given a responsibility to teach the Word to kids who are entrusted to them, regardless of whether or not the parents are Christian. We must do better. We can't complain about the state of the nation if we don't try to reach and teach as many kids as possible about what is right or wrong.
Many kids have grown up in Sunday School and have parents who are Christian. Many are from families who don't attend church and have little Christian instruction outside of what they get in church. There frequently isn't a lot of kids who fall in between. Classes tend to hit one end or the other predominately. You have to teach to your class. If you teach classes to kids who know all the stories already from home and don't provide any depth to instruction, you do them a disservice. They will grow up feeling Sunday School has no merit because they are never pushed. They won't attend or support Sunday School or small groups as adults, and neither will their kids. If the kids have no background in Christianity, that teaching method will overwhelm them. Let the Holy Spirit be your guide depending on who is there.
Couple your Sunday School to a bus ministry to reach kids whose parents will not take them to church. It's expensive and difficult, but the rewards are high. Encourage people to bring neighborhood kids with them if they have the space in their cars. But whatever you do for increasing the number of people actually attending, teach like there is no tomorrow. There might not be.
It's time to stop experimenting and playing games and making what is generally an hour a week or so less "fun" and starting doing our job of teaching. It's what Jesus commanded - and He's "the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever" (Heb. 13:8).
Because I said so. Sometimes the old answers are the best!