In last weekend's Wall Street Journal article on a "new" approach to Sunday School at a large and influential New York City church that is surrounded by poverty and educational dysfunction, the reporter noted without alarm that this is "a jazzed-up Sunday School, without a Bible in sight."
While this program includes the telling of some Bible stories, it "has dispensed with didactic Scripture teaching, religious workbooks, and off-the-shelf curriculum."
No books? Is it a "school" at all?
How tragic! At a church that could make a much greater difference to its children, youth and adults — and to its needy community — the urgent language empowerment is ignored, and the transforming engagement with Scripture is bypassed. What WSJ failed to mention is that this spiritual and educational dumbing down of Sunday School is nation-wide, infecting much of the full range of denominations and independent churches.
We all know that children and youth are increasingly failing to read well, as the Department of Education's National Report Card recently exposed again, and we quickly reported. Are people talking about this?
Now it is time for churches to take prophetic action to empower people both in words and in the Word. Language skills are precious for every human person, especially in a democracy. Besides, words are the primary tools for protecting human rights and empowering every person's potential and giftedness. Moreover, frequent and engaged Bible-reading continues to provide the most profound empowerment for vibrant Godly living.
Even non-Christian parents will involve their children in programs that teach word-power. The fact that the main textbook is the best Book does not need to be a distraction. We serve Jesus Christ, not the dictates of Politically Correct Religion. JC-relationship, not PC-religion!
In fact, the renewal of Bible-centered Sunday School could revitalize churches, empower children, youth and adults, and transform communities. There is a BIG solution to the visible collapses in language skills of our children and youth, and the pandemic of Biblical ignorance: renew the historic, transformative Sunday School Movement.
Very early in the Industrial Revolution, in 1780, the first Sunday School was created in England to teach reading and spelling to all the children in the neighborhood who could not go to other, pricey schools. In 1780, many children in England had to work in the factories every day but Sunday, and also many parents could not afford tuition for the private schools. There were no public schools at that time. Public schools began to be established in America in the 1850s — more than 70 years after the Sunday School Movement began!
From that start, 235 years ago, classes were held for four to six hours every Sunday, the one day that factories were closed. The Bible was the main text for teaching reading, writing, grammar, and spelling, and the original Sunday School program included a time for worship as well. The initial impetus came from outside of church leadership.
However, exactly 200 years ago, in 1815 — still more than 35 years before public schools — Sunday Schools began to be adopted as ministries of Evangelical churches. The Brooklyn Sunday School Union was organized in 1816 to encourage churches to host Sunday Schools and to equip them. The Union's goal was for all children to learn to read — and to love reading and learning the best Book, the Bible. The American Sunday School Union was formed soon after, in 1817, based in Manhattan, to serve the nation.
Over the years, the Sunday School time has shrunk from six hours to an hour or less, and its original purposes of teaching word-power — reading, writing, grammar, and spelling — with the Word of God have almost completely evaporated. In fact, even the "school" aspect of "Sunday School" is hardly recognizable in many instances, as WSJ also revealed. For some it is a glorified "baby-sitting" time for the children and youth while the "adults" worship God by themselves. And for far too many churches there is no Sunday School at all! How could this be? When will we fix it?
Now that the Department of Education has again documented these tragic failures of public and private schools throughout the nation, churches can arise to return to their own educational calling. Real Sunday School began when there were no public schools. Now it must be re-invented and re-established because the schools by themselves are not succeeding in educating the children and youth.
In fact, even if our departments of education fixed the public schools to fulfill their purposes — free of PC-religion, incompetence, bias, and tragic failure — we would still need vibrant Sunday Schools to be pro-Word and pro-word-power. And the renewed Sunday Schools can help every child. The non-readers can become enthusiastic, skilled readers — while the accomplished readers can increase further their word-mastery and also imbibe in the Biblical joy of helping other students to love to read.
Is there another plus? Yes!
These blessed students will then engage the Book that changes lives, without it being demeaned and dumbed down by PC-religion.
With many school systems adding Muslim holidays to their calendars, there are now additional days when working parents are stressed to find safe places for their children to have educational fun when the schools are closed for holidays. The "Sunday School" can expand to "After School" and "Holiday Academy" — with special Bible-based word-power learning at churches and ministries on some of the holidays when schools are closed. Both make parents happy and give children some holy fun.
The combination of teaching word-power with Word-focus brings hope into people's lives and for their communities. Also, some sports and games and study guidance can spice-up these days without any loss of educational and empowerment emphasis.
Immigrant families, including from Muslim countries, have a special interest in these ministry sponsored programs. Be honest. Call it what it is: "After-School Sports Club and Bible Study," or "Holiday Sports Club and Bible Study." Volunteers, including retired teachers and devoted high school students, can be cheerfully recruited, competently trained, carefully monitored, and creatively honored. Special reading programs in the Advent season can focus on the Bible texts that everyone loves.
It's time. Let's get ready for real Sunday School! — a new Sunday School Movement to empower and transform people and communities! And it will ignite Godly vitality and relevance in our churches.