By Justus Hunter –
I loved Sunday school. The gray-haired ladies corralled us into small rooms lined with hand-me-down toys. A flannelgraph easel occupied one corner, a sentry threatening our chaos with order. We learned Bible stories and hokey songs and how to keep our hands to ourselves.
My children will never know that Sunday school. I haven’t been in a church with a dedicated Sunday school hour in decades. At some point churches decided kids would stick around easier if you buy new toys every now and then. And if kids stick, parents stick.
Or so we thought. We built the most playful and accommodating spaces in the history of Christianity. And my generation fled.
Methodism’s relationship to Sunday school has always been ambivalent. Many argue the rise of the Sunday schools was a sign of Methodist decline. They prioritized intellect over heart. They fueled our move from revivalism into the mainline. They ripped out the heart of Methodism: discipleship through societies, classes, and bands.
John Wesley’s structured small groups – societies, classes, and bands – were remarkably successful. They spread Scriptural holiness across the land. But Wesley stood in a different position than we do today. He inherited a tradition in fine doctrinal shape. The doctrine of the Church of England was well-established. He worked for spiritual renewal in line with sound doctrine. What about us? Our experiments with doctrinal pluralism have left us doctrinally awash. We will always need spiritual renewal. But now we also need doctrinal renewal.
If my argument holds, then spiritual renewal through classes and bands and reemerging revivalism may be necessary, but they will not be sufficient. We also have to address our doctrinal indifference. We need a thickening of doctrine and tradition. And this will require significant effort at recovery, both of clear and essential teaching and of those methods whereby the church shapes lives by that teaching. We need doctrine and we need to propagate it.
This suggests we may need Sunday school now more than ever. As my generation left the church, those of us who stuck around are more and more concerned that our kids understand the faith we’ve held. Now more than ever, Christians young and old need to learn who they are. Toward that end, here are a few thoughts on what we might do with Sunday school, or whatever Christian education program has replaced it by now.
1. Teach them their history. Many nights I read from Plutarch’s Lives to my sons. Plutarch’s vignettes of the heroes of Greece and Rome have shaped character for centuries, and for good reason. Plutarch is a relentless, perceptive analyst of character. Tales of the people who shaped and sustained our places, help us make sense of who we are. They’re the kinds of stories we turn to when life gets confusing. We were made for heroes. We need examples. And if the church isn’t supplying them, someone else will.
Bible stories have been the backbone of Sunday school classes for all ages. Stories of Abraham and David and Esther and Christ will always work. But so will the stories of Perpetua and Felicity, or John and Charles Wesley. Adding to the Bible stories is important. Stories of the great saints of our faith give a sense of permanence. They remind us that the Spirit remains alive and active in the church. They remind us that our God is with us.
So keep the Bible stories. But find more. Tell them about the great saints of the Christian heritage. Tell them about the great saints of your church. Tell them about the faithful who planted it. Tell them about the missionaries it sent. Tell them.
2. Nourish faith while growing understanding. When we teach confirmation, we plan for a lot of information transfer. We want our kids to learn about the Trinity, who Jesus is, what the church is about, the sacraments, and the hope of heaven. But we don’t just want them to know a set of teachings. We want them to understand. We don’t just want them to tell us that Jesus is fully divine. We want them to find ways to live lives that testify to Jesus’s divinity.
Charles Wesley, praying for children, asked God to “unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.” The two go together. Dull piety is marked by a lack of knowledge. It substitutes pious sentiment for true understanding. Methodist classes were so formative because they gave early Methodists a common language of the soul. And that language was grounded in John Wesley’s teaching on the way of salvation. Early Methodists, in societies, classes, and bands, learned a way to speak the language of the soul, and learning that language allowed them to grow deeper in the faith.
Methodist Sunday school, if it is to recover the Wesleyan heritage, needs to be a space for recoupling. If your Sunday school classes are only about knowledge, complement them with vital piety. And watch for the warning sign of sentimentalism. You may have neither knowledge nor vital piety, and will need to work on both.
3. Love order like Wesley. One thing is certain: Sunday school isn’t necessary for the propagation the gospel. Sunday school is less than 300 years old, and the form you and I remember is significantly younger than that. It was an answer to a question American Methodists once asked. It was a similar question to the ones Wesley asked, and the one we ask. How do we propagate this faith? How do we nourish it in us and pass it on to others?
John Wesley was a master of order. His theological contributions were all in the doctrine of grace. He understood and explained the way of salvation, that path we pilgrims tread on the way to our heavenly home. His genius was chiefly in organizing meaningful methods for each stage of that journey, indeed every stage of that journey. He was wise about the way to holiness.
I don’t know if Sunday school is salvageable in your context. But I know that if we neglect to develop orderly structures for discipleship, structures that renew spiritually and doctrinally, then we risk another generation. The stakes are high. But we have an ideal example.
Justus Hunter is assistant professor of church history at United Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.