Does Sunday School Work?

A few years back, I was talking to a parent whose children had been enrolled in her church's Sunday School and evening children's program. By all accounts, and from what I could tell as an uninvolved observer, this church has an absolutely exemplary children's ministry. And yet this mother was looking for another church. "I recently asked my kids some basic questions about the Bible and some of the foundational stories of Christianity," she told me. "They couldn't answer the most basic questions. What are they learning in Sunday School? Is all this programming even doing what it's supposed to do?" I thought about that mother this week when I saw this article from Associated Baptist Press about a new documentary. It should go without saying that the theology that undergirds the study, and the video (excerpt) at the link are quite foreign to me. But here's the gist:

In Divided, young filmmaker Philip Leclerc sets out to discover why so many people of his generation are leaving the church. ...Leclerc acknowledges grouping kids and age and developmental stages makes sense on the surface. In the Bible, however, parents are given the responsibility for religious instruction of their children. 

The modern idea of age-graded Sunday school, youth ministry and children's church came from somewhere else. When it started in the 1800s, Sunday school was intended for poor children without Christian parents. In most American churches today, Leclerc insists, Christian fathers [sic] relinquish their leadership to programs based on secular educational theories instead of the teaching of Scripture.

The video uses the word "carnal" about eleventy-five times, and I didn't even watch the whole thing. I don't resonate with many of the article's comments either. But I suspect the basic thrust is right. Now I want to go back to that mother and say, "What about your responsibility as a parent? What could the church do to support you as your child's primary Christian educator?"

Let's take my church as an example. We are small, with a good number of kids for our size, but the "Sunday School" aged kids range from kindergarten through third grade, with a smattering of middle and high school students.

We have Sunday School twice a month, during the worship hour---it is not practical to have Sunday School at other times---and we have a team of teachers who take turns leading. We went to this model because, well, our old model of having one teacher lead every week until s/he gets burned to a crisp didn't feel very biblical.

But even if we had a top-notch Sunday School every week, our most dedicated families are here maybe twice or three times a month, due to sports, out of town trips, and other weekend activities.

This is insane.

Churches are smaller, budgets are smaller. Tiny Church is not unusual. I look at this situation and think, This doesn't make any sense. Why are we trying to have a traditional Sunday School? Why aren't we offering truly intergenerational worship, and training parents to do religious education at home? 

I could easily dismiss this study as so much patriarchal BS. (Why is it only the father who bears primary responsibility for faith formation in the family? That's rhetorical; don't answer.) But I can't dismiss it outright.

It reminds me of the REVEAL study that came out of Willow Creek church some years back. The study found that greater involvement in church activities did not foster deeper commitment to the way of Jesus. (My paraphrase.) Some mainline folks crowed about the study, feeling vindicated that seeker-sensitive megachurches were finally admitting that they were serving up the thin gruel we'd always suspected. But the REVEAL study is not cause for smug rejoicing, but serious self-reflection. We are often no different in our mainline churches.

So what is the answer? I wish I knew. But I'd like to get some people together to talk about this. Let's start here. What do you say? Has your church figured this out?