Does Sunday School Have A Future?

Sunday school. It was one of the main reasons I enjoyed church as a child. As a young adult, it sometimes still is. But there’s a conversation brewing: Does Sunday school have a future? I think so, though it may not involve Sunday or school.

Sunday school has and will continue to look different for churches across the country. Since its creation in 18th-century England, some congregations have followed Sunday school’s traditional form — to teach children the Bible, protecting them from becoming casualties of social sins.

Today a wide range of Sunday school practices exist for all ages, including Bible studies, small groups and social gatherings. No matter what Sunday school looks like, it most broadly includes applying Scripture to our lives. For it is through imaginatively considering and applying God’s Word that we begin to love each other, our neighbors and God — which is at the heart of spiritual formation.

So while some call this Sunday school, others call it “Christian education.” No matter the name, it’s spiritual formation. Since modernity’s original creation of Sunday school was premised on a cultural need — to provide school for children — it seems we must likewise reinterpret it in our postmodern, post-Christendom context.

In 21st-century America, we’re in great need of a deeper, broader understanding of the Gospel, an understanding that is countercultural and runs against societal hegemony. At its core, it seems we need a call to conversation — honest dialogue on the world’s biggest spiritual and moral issues. Let’s face it, these conversations might happen more often than just on Sundays or in scholastic settings. In fact, they already are.

Sunday? As concepts of what it means to be and do church broaden, followers of Jesus are increasingly abandoning Sunday morning corporate worship times. This doesn’t necessarily mean Sunday morning is becoming less sacred. Rather, for some, meeting on Sunday evenings, or even Friday nights, makes more sense logistically, culturally or socially.

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School? In an age of accessible information, the hierarchical concept of “teacher feeds students with information” is outdated. Young and old seem increasingly wary of institutional frameworks that may stifle childlike faith rather than create possibilities for invitational and imaginative spiritual formation. Author Walter Brueggemann once said, “The Bible is an act of imagination that is rooted in memory but that presses always toward new possibility that is still in front of us.”

Though such formation looks and sounds quite different across our churches — praise the Lord! — it seems that people of faith are moving from “let me show and tell you what to believe” to “let’s have a conversation.” This is especially true for younger people, who are growing up in a social environment that more freely welcomes sharing stories, multimedia, fine arts and Tweets. The traditional Sunday school model is no longer life-giving for many young people.

Young and old enjoy spiritual formation for its social function. The future of faith lies in our capacity to engage in honest dialogue on the world’s spiritual and moral issues. In a social and cultural context that programs us to demonize rather than dialogue, honest conversations are more countercultural than ever.

As we struggle together in conversations and broader understandings of spiritual formation, we’ll ultimately learn more about how to love each other, our neighbors and God. And that’s what Sunday school is all about. We just need a new name for it. Any ideas?

Sheldon C. Good is a former Sojourners media assistant. He is assistant editor for Mennonite Weekly Review and blogs at The World Together.

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Sheldon C. Good

Sheldon C. GoodSheldon C. Good is Assistant Director of Eastern Mennonite University's Washington (D.C.) Community Scholars' Center. He is a graduate of Goshen (Ind.) College and a member of Salford Mennonite Church.View all posts by Sheldon C. Good →

  • Jack Harringotn

    Certainly the opportunity must exist for conversations on today’s “spiritual and moral issues.”  This is important for the individual and for society as a whole.  However, I don’t believe that this should take the place of Sunday school.

    I know that it would be easy to pull too much out of the article, because you only briefly touched on it, but you seem to dislike the idea of a system where older Christians outright teach to younger Christians.  Instead, you advocate for a system of conversation, where individuals are encouraged to develop their own beliefs.

    Yes, I know it sounds like I’m saying that developing your own beliefs is wrong, but, maybe that is what I’m saying.  The simple fact is, Christians today, by and large, have very little knowledge of the basic beliefs that form our faith.  How many Christians could tell you the Apostle’s or Nicene creed?  How many even know what a creed is?  What about the doctrine of the simplicity of God and what that means for human beings?  

    These bits of orthodoxy are important and life-changing, but they’re not exactly things that you can simply dialogue on and develop by yourself.  These come from hundreds of years of study that has taken place throughout the history of Christianity.  To ignore these so that we have the ability to form our own beliefs is to lose out on some of the most life-giving knowledge the church has to offer.

    I am all for dialogue on important issues, but I don’t think that should take the place of Sunday school.  I speak from my own history in this matter.  When I moved and was introduced to the world of orthodoxy, it was a breath of fresh air.  I certainly wouldn’t want to lose the opportunity to learn from those older and wiser than me because of the desire to be more “socially relevant”. 

    I don’t know if I misunderstood your own point behind this article or not.  If I did, let me know

  • new name “DISCIPLESHIP”

  • new name: DISCIPLESHIP

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  • Jennifer Roberts

    I must say, I am getting tired of the traditional Sunday church model. Praise and worship, sermon, communion and offering, and prayer. I don’t know why, but it seems very empty. It always has, really. I want to do more than go to chruch, sit around for an hour, shake a few hands, and leave again. But it is so very hard to get anyone interested in doing anything else! Sunday school attendance is really low, and I am currently looking for ways to get people more involved in spiritual education and formation in some media other than tradition Sunday school or bible study. I would would welcome any suggestions!

  • Susan

    What about Family Faith Formation, instead of Sunday School. I agree with you that we need to engage in meaningful dialogue, but doesn’t also need to be taken a bit deeper, like into faith formation of those in our communities of faith?

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