Apr 10

Refactoring Sunday School

An examination and proposal for changing the whole concept of Sunday schools.


A lot of what follows are my rambling thoughts, some of them still forming. Pardon me if anything still comes accross as "stream of consciousness".

I find this article fascinating and informative on a number of levels. First, it documents the nature of this institution which has become sacrosanct in American Lutheranism, namely that it is very recent; it's original focus was reading and writing, with Christian education tagging along for the ride; from day one was at loggerheads with the ministry, and more specifically, the question of women teaching in the church; was ecumenical/unonistic from the beginning; is an exact parallel in England and America with the pietistic ecclesiolae in Germany during the same time period in that they began as private lay-institutions, but quickly subsumed functions of the public teaching office; having no doctrine of the ministry, the response of the churches were to absorb the Sunday schools, much the same way that all the Evangelical churches today incorporated the private Bible studies into church-sanctioned and sponsored "small group studies"; it began as a good work of love, but soon became a "divine calling" of its own, and thus was raised to the level of a divine institution.

The Lutherans had their own system from the beginning. Our emphasis on Christian education was not taught us by the Methodists. We brought it with us from Germany. The German settlers would often build the schoolhouse first, in which the church would initially hold Sunday divine service, and later build the church proper. The first schoolteachers were themselves in the office of the Ministry, and though not always in title, were the equivalent of assistant pastors in the congregation. Only when it was no longer possible to find enough men to fill this office, did the Missouri Synod start to change this practice and hire women to be schoolteachers (but NOT, of course, assistant pastors - although the issues raised by this practice regarding the relationship between pastor and the function of schoolteacher as an auxiliary office in the church was never resolved in the Missouri Synod, and to this day is still not resolved - a topic for a different post).

We have, with only a few exceptions, entirely abandoned our old heritage of Christian education. (By "We", I include the Lutheran churches descending from the Missouri Synod and the old Synodical Conference). Here is what I think happened: First, as the State subsumed the role of educator, parents by and large gave up their personal responsibility to teach their children the Word of God. This left a gap that was filled by the Sunday school. Second, the understanding and practice of doctrine of the Office of the Ministry began to erode. These two fronts of spiritual weather eventually met and created the perfect storm.

In those churches which had a strong understanding of the office of the ministry, where the Pastor took personal responsibility for the theological instruction of the whole flock, he also took great care to make sure that what was taught both in the homes by the parents, and in the Sunday schools by the teachers, was faithful to the Word of God. Parents then were just as lazy as parents are now. The only difference is that then the pastor, as a rule, actually participated in the home life of the family by teaching the parents to use the catechism at home, and read the Scriptures to their children. I think of Walther's instruction for pastoral home visits where the pastor asks the father to bring "the books" out, namely, the Bible, Catechism, such things as they were using for devotions, the Confessions, etc. He then had opportunity to discuss with the parents how they instructed the children, and was able to correct bad practices and make helpful suggestions. If necessary, he could admonish them for neglecting their duties, or for teaching from poor (read that "Reformed") material.

However, as the Lutheran understanding of the doctrine of the ministry degraded, the sunday school teacher was raised to an auxiliary office and the quality of Christian teaching began to degrade in the process, for it become more-and-more a stand-alone institution granted pseudo-divine authority with teachers "ordained by God" to fill this new "office". Parents, having grown accustomed to turning over the duty to teach their children God's Word to others, implicitly trusted the Sunday school to do the job of the parent, even more so when it had this aura of a divine institution. As a result, they entrusted their children to be taught by untrained teachers who had rudimentary or no oversight by either pastor or parent.

In spite of all of this, I do not conclude that the Sunday school should be abolished. However, it should most definitely be put in its proper place. There are a number of ways that this can happen. No matter what form such a school takes, this much must be established:

First, the Sunday school is optional. It is in no way commanded by God. Parents can choose to utilize it or not. Parents must be plainly taught that the Sunday school is at its root an extension of the parental office. As such they can choose to place their children into it or not.

Second, Parents should be taught that they are first and always responsible to teach their children the Word of God, and if they believe that they can do this only by sending their children to Sunday School or to confirmation class, then they have forsaken their God-given vocation as parents and should be admonished. This is just as much true for the non-member parents of non-member children who send their children to a Lutheran Sunday school. By all means take the children in, but by no means neglect to admonish those parents who send their children to Sunday school, but cannot be bothered to come and be instructed in the Christian faith themselves.

We do not currently have a Sunday school at Augustana. However we are hoping to implement one in short order. Here is what I propose:

There is a single "Sunday school" class, and I don't think we will even use that name eventually because it is a loaded term. It is for the youngest children, who cannot or will not sit still and listen during the Bible Class which follows the divine service. The goals are the following: Teach the youngest children Scripture in the form of Bible stories and Christian hymns. With few exceptions, skip right over all the sing-along-songs you learned in your own Sunday school growing up. Almost all of them are pietistic, horribly confuse Law and Gospel, or teach nothing at all. Little children absolutely LOVE to sing the hymns which we sing in the divine service. Why ever would you want to teach them sing-songy drivel instead? Craft-type activities may be appropriate, but should not take up the whole class.

Parents teach the class, and rotate through it as they agree amongst themselves, so that no one has to miss out on all the Bible classes. The curriculum is laid out in advance by the pastor.

There is no specific age limit for this "school". Children who can sit through the Bible class are always welcome to do so, at any age. Other children, in the in-between age group, who do not understand what is going on, and wish to learn Scripture and hymns can attend the Sunday school. Older children, who are able to understand some, but perhaps not everything taught in the Bible class, should by all means continue to attend the Bible class, and are encouraged to ask questions.

As children grow, they should be encouraged to join the Bible class as soon as they are able to sit quietly and listen and participate appropriately, even if they do not yet understand everything. Once such a class is established, I predict that the youngest children will naturally gravitate to want to be with the older children in the Bible class, and will understand that the only thing keeping them back would be an inability to sit through the whole class.

If a congregation has evening Bible studies, the same procedure can work, and whole families can then be encourged to come to such studies, rather than relegating it to just "the adults" as too often happens.


I'm a Lutheran pastor, a CTO, a father, amateur photographer, programmer, Irish music fan, and all around geek, but I only have one blog. So, you will find here a mix of theology, photography, geek speak, family news, and whatever else strikes my fancy. If you get confused, there are now categories…




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