This morning I went to a Sunday School class which has been ongoing for 64 years– and 3 of the original members were in attendance! One of the staples of Church practices since the 1700’s is Sunday School. They are a relatively recent phenomenon. Some of the early Sunday Schools arose in England, with the efforts of William Fox and Robert Raikes. Sunday was the one day that children were not working in factories, and so they tended to get quite rowdy on those days. Sunday Schools were designed to focus these young minds on religious instruction instead of on secular things and tomfoolery. Maybe the same is true of you– maybe you need some Sunday School.
First Baptist Church, where Celeste and I attend here in our neighborhood on Sundays, has 4 adult Sunday school classes, despite having little more than 100 members in attendance at the morning service most weeks. This morning I went to one of the classes– “home-builders”. One of my older couple friends were there, and I asked them how long the class had been running. “64 years” they said, adding that that was how long they had been married!
In an age when churches change up their groups and classes on a quarterly basis, and reorganize and change the names of groups more often than one can keep track of (core groups, home groups, signal groups, cell groups, home communities, etc), this class has been faithfully going for 64 years. One of the long-standing class members was Jack, who was the voice of the College World Series for over 20 years. 89 years old, he opened the class this morning with announcements and prayer. Then there was a motion that the class give $25 to the music director in appreciation for his playing the piano for them at their openning quite often. It was a democratic vote, but madam President gave a brief scowl as she asked, “are there any nays?” and everyone laughed.
One of the women members of the class talked today on John 1, and Jesus as the light of the world. She did a fine job, and there was some nice discussion and personal stories shared. What was evident was that this was a group who knows each other, and they together care about living out their faith. The responsibility for teaching gets passed around, and each person has a turn. They have a book that they use as a guide to study.
When I grew up in church, there were always at least three different classes (again, at a church with little over 100 people). My father recounts how that, when he was just married and the new young Christian Education chairman for the church, decided to switch up the sunday school program. There had always been a ‘traditional’ sunday school class (where they often spoke in Swedish) and a ‘young people’s’ sunday school class. But as my father stepped into his new role, there were a number of 65+ single women and men in the ‘young people’ class, and so he thought perhaps it was time for a change. But some of these people had been in their class for 40 years, and weren’t too keen on the change, but it ended up working out fine (although it didn’t make my dad very popular at the beginning).
Sometimes change is good, and things need to morph and develop over time. But sometimes we seek novelty because we are no good at sticking with things. These faithful Sunday-School goers at First Baptist, who have been going to the same class for 64 years were an inspiration to me for their faithfulness and I plan to join them regularly from here on out. Not because they have a rock-start teacher, but because they are a group of authentic believers seeking God together in a simple and faithful way. What I really enjoyed was the community of believers there interacting with each other around some common questions raised by the teacher. And I am convinced that that sort of faithfulness results in more real spiritual results than the most ingenious and sexiest of strategies.
Sunday School is sometimes taught by hired leaders, which is fine and often quite good. But one of the benefits of Sunday School in my mind is that lay-people (non-professional staff) have opportunity to be challenged to develop their God-given gifts. In churches where all the work of teaching is done by paid staff, the lay person has less opportunity to be challenged to take responsibility personally for strengthening the church. In the church where I was raised, few if any of the Sunday school teachers had formal training, but they all knew their Bible well and were challenged to know it well because they were expected to help share the burden of teaching their peers.
And Sunday School is not just for Protestants. I have found many sites giving advice for putting on Catholic Sunday school (although the focus is usually on children, not adults– whereas Adult sunday school has been a mainstay tradition in Protestantism for well over 200 years).
Many times people don’t go to Sunday School, and just attend the main service. The problem with that is that you don’t really get to be part of the body in the same way. There is something more intimate about Sunday School classes, and there is somehow more ownership when you join them– its a step up in commitment on your part, and that is both encouraging to the church you are in, and also good for you spiritually. The reasons people don’t go to Sunday School are usually pretty weak– I know this from personal experience! I would encourage you, if you have the opportunity– go to Sunday School– not only because you might learn something, but because it will likely be an encouragement to those who have been faithfully going for years before us. Its a fairly simple way to be an encouragement to fellow Christians.
May God have mercy on us all.