The Sunday School movement began in the 1780s to provide education to children working in factories---children who were not receiving any other formal education. Teachers shared lessons on Christian religion, but also things like reading, sports, and drama. Today, more and more people are asking whether Sunday School is nearing the end of its life cycle, particularly in certain congregations and contexts.
Tiny Church's practice in recent years has been to have Sunday School class during the worship hour, following the children's time. For a small congregation, we have a good number of school-age children---this fall there will be nine, plus about seven middle and high schoolers and a handful of nursery-age.
That's if they're all there.
But they're never all there... which is one of the problems with relying on Sunday School as a child's primary Christian formation. "Regular church attendance" is different than it was even 5 years ago. Now, a couple times a month is considered regular. Around here, folks generally aren't slacking off and sleeping in. They're attending Girls on the Run, taking a weekend trip out of town, volunteering at the Kennedy Center, or helping a friend move. That means the adults who would teach weekly Sunday School are also out a lot, in addition to the kids.
Several of us at Tiny met this past Sunday to talk about Christian education in our congregation, and decided to see all of this as a creative challenge rather than a problem. We have the opportunity to think about Christian formation more holistically, rather than shuttling kids off to a separate room and trusting that they'll get everything they need there.
Starting this summer, Tiny Church will no longer have Sunday School.
Instead, we will continue work in our Upper Room, which is the kid-friendly worship space in our balcony. School-age children go up after the children's time and spend the rest of the service there. An adult leads them up and, before they go in, encourages them to "get ready to continue worshiping" by calming and centering, removing their shoes, and so forth.
There are always kinks to work out, but I'm happy to say that the Upper Room is working as well as I could have dreamed. Kids are able to wander, browse a children's Bible or picture book in one of the comfy chairs, draw or do a simple craft at the table, use the Buddha Board, or mess around with the wooden Noah's Ark or nativity set. And yet... they're listening. They'll walk over to the railing, peek over and watch what's going on. I was preaching about Pope Francis's recent remarks and a six year old walked up to Robert and whispered, "What's an atheist?" I love it.
That said, we also see the value in building intentional relationships between adults and children (which is one of the primary benefits of Sunday School), so we're thinking about planning a multi-week project maybe once a semester. At these times, children would have a "pull-out" during worship, perhaps to make a video about a Bible story, plan a puppet show, or prepare an anthem as an ad hoc children's choir. But---and here's the key---those activities would always connect to the life of the whole worshiping community. The video would be shown in worship, etc.
We also know we need to help equip parents. Like it or not, we are our children's primary faith educators. I've heard of a church that sends home a packet each month with stories, activities, questions to discuss together, rituals, etc. I love this "homeschooling" approach. Sometimes (when I have time and inspiration) I will put together a GPS guide (Grow Pray Study) in the bulletin that helps people think further about the scripture and sermon, and I try to include something for families. That might be something we do more regularly.
We are also still considering how youth fit into this mix. We can see them as co-leaders of the special pullout activities. And we're considering some mentoring, as well as partnering with another congregation for a mission trip.
Have you moved beyond Sunday School where you are? Would love to hear what you're up to.