It’s 1780. It’s dark when kids go to work; it’s dark when they come home. Saturday is another work day, leaving Sunday the only day for anything other than toil. General education doesn’t exist. Children are drowning in a sea of poverty and illiteracy. But the Holy Spirit has not gone quiet. Like a bolt of lightning on a summer’s eve, an idea bursts into the parlours of Christian leaders in England: why not run schools on Sundays so that children stuck in coal mines and factories the rest of the week can learn to read and write? Thus Sunday School was born, and the idea rushed like a torrent across Britain and America so that, within 100 years, Sunday school was a standard part of childhood in the English speaking world.
The roots of Sunday School are an example of the innovative spirit that has led the church in her brightest days. At times, fulfilling the call to be salt and light, the church has had a prophetic awareness of the needs of the hour and responded accordingly. But does the church presently share this creative spirit? I worry the answer is ‘no’, that we’re much better today at following old ruts than paving new roads.
There is a general truth about tradition that the church must heed: you either innovate to keep up with a changing world or the relevance of what you do eventually expires. This rule applies to all extra-Biblical tradition, including Sunday School. Now to question the inherited model of Sunday School might sound, to some, like a joke and, to others, dangle on the verge of impiety. But unquestioned reverence to tradition is never a good thing. The question stands: is the inherited model of Sunday School sufficient to meet the needs of children living in the 21st century?
I have doubts for two reasons. The first regards the depth of teaching in Sunday Schools. To be matter of fact, we’re not teaching at the level of worldview. A lot has been written in the last decade about the way in which a worldview, or embedded framework, is a basic part of self-identity. This may sound strange to some since a worldview is not something your average Joe is aware of having. People don’t go out and shop for worldviews like they do new phones or tablets. Having a worldview is more like speaking a native language: you pick up a worldview simply by being born in a particular place at a particular time. Or, to use a different image, having a worldview is like a wearing a pair of glasses. Most of the time you don’t even realize your glasses are on unless something is wrong: they’re broken or dirty. Yet, conscious or not, moment-by-moment you are seeing reality through their lenses. The same is true of worldviews. They’re a part of who we are, and they determine how we see the world.
Deuteronomy is an important book because it reminds the church that covenant – besides being a relationship – is also a worldview. When God tells Israel that He is one, that they are to love Him with all of their heart, soul and strength, and that they are to impress the things of the covenant upon their own hearts and upon their children (6:4-7), He’s speaking at the level of worldview. As moderns, we probably hear these commands as exhortations to piety (i.e. ‘be really, really religious’). But God is saying more. He’s calling Israel to imagine reality differently than how their neighbours see it, to take a role within a living drama, and to impress a unique identity upon their children. As churches, indeed as denominations, we need to be asking whether our Sunday Schools are designed to meet the expectations of God. Are we, in other words, impressing the covenant worldview upon our children?
Secondly, I worry that the inherited model of Sunday School is actually playing into the hand of secularism. The church, I fear, has fallen behind the times. From the Reformation all the way until the 1960’s, society reinforced the basic worldview of the church. Thus throughout this period the church didn’t need to do much more than fine-tune the doctrine, tweak the ethics, and share the gospel with children. But times have changed. The former marriage partners of church and society are now estranged. I trust most Christians don’t need convincing that the world no longer reaffirms a Biblical framework. But we can’t stop there. What’s equally true is that the world is now promoting a competing worldview. Like a new Tesco built beside a local market, this new framework (‘secularism’) is not interested in collaboration. It wants to dominate the market by forging the shared identity of the up-and-coming generation. That’s our kids, too.
The church cannot be naive about the threat of secularism. Too much ink has been spilt lamenting the death of truth in a postmodern age. As Anthony Giddens points out, other than handful of croissant-eating intellectuals, people today believe in truth just like their great-grandpas did. The strategy of secularism is not to say that there is no truth, but that there is no religious truth. Consider the obvious: every primary school in Scotland insists on right answers to questions about the molecular composition of water, the formula for deriving the circumference of a circle, and the historic date of the Battle of Waterloo. But when it comes to religion, like poetry, there are no ‘right’ answers. To ask whether it’s true or false that Jesus rose from the dead is a mistake of categories. Belief in the resurrection is a matter of choice, of preference, not of truth.
Unfortunately, rather than contesting the secular framework, the church is naively playing into its hand. How are we doing so? By happily living within the attic of religion that society has ‘graciously’ made available to us. We’re limiting our efforts to teaching children ideas about God (doctrine), morality (ethics), and salvation (the gospel), unaware that the real framework of our children is in the hands of secularism. To use a picture, we’re playing the role of granny in our children’s lives. For a while they listen to us because we tell nice stories and teach good values. But eventually they grow up, and when they do, they quickly realize that granny is out of touch with reality. At that point, they look to the world, not the church, to tell them what’s true.
It’s worth remembering that when Sunday Schools were first created they did more than teach religion. They were real schools that taught reading and writing, basic skills needed to get through life. Of course, the world has changed. Children today don’t need the church to teach them phonics or handwriting. But, at the same time, there are new needs that didn’t exist two hundred years ago. At the top of this list is the need for children to gain a Christian worldview, to learn how to see the world through the lens of God’s word.
We all want Sunday School to be relevant, and I think most of us are aware that being relevant requires more than playing a clever game of pin the tail of religion on the donkey of pop culture. My proposal is that, in the 21st century, relevance will mean teaching children that the death and resurrection of Jesus, besides being a means of personal salvation, is also the cornerstone of a superior way of seeing and living reality.