taking the words of Jesus seriously

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.

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 In an age of accessible information, the hierarchical concept of “teacher feeds students with information” is outdated.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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