Sunday school is dead — or is it?

15 January 2016

All-age worship is all the rage, but has Sunday school really had its day? Margaret Pritchard Houston investigates

Andy Butler Photography

The way we were?: a more traditional Sunday school

The way we were?: a more traditional Sunday school

"SUNDAY school is dead — long live all-age worship!”

That seems to be the new wisdom, at least in Children and Youth Ministry circles: workshops on all-age worship are oversubscribed, articles with titles such as “Killing the Church with Sunday school” make the rounds on social media, and more churches are emphasising the importance of the whole body of Christ worshipping together regularly.

“I suspect that the Sunday schools of the last 50 years have made a significant contribution to inoculating many people against organised church,” the Cumbria area director for the United Reformed Church, Sarah Moore, says. There has been “too much twee, [too much] simplicity, and not much more than colouring. There’s been a lack of spiritual nurture. And there’s been no strategy for graduation to grown-up church.”

Jonathan Aigner, an organist and teacher, agrees that Sunday school — even a good one — can have the opposite effect from its intended purpose, and isolates children from church rather than bringing them into it. “Once [children] graduated from [Sunday school],” he writes, “there was no connection to the greater life of the church, especially the strange thing the church does together on Sunday mornings that it calls ‘worship’. Though much effort and expense had been expended to make them into little Christians, nobody had taught them how to be grown-up, churched Christians.” 

 

SOME churches are intentionally closing their Sunday schools, and focusing on all-age worship instead. But what is all-age worship? It is not “a children’s service”, as the Children and Youth Adviser to the Archbishop’s Council, the Revd Mary Hawes, points out. “If there have to be children present for it to work, it’s not all-age.”

Generally, all-age worship is worship that is deliberately aimed at welcoming those who may not be familiar with the Christian story and traditional patterns of worship. It is designed to be multi-sensory, including touch, smell, and visual elements, but all-age services are as different as the churches who do them — there are Anglo-Catholic all-age services, Evangelical all-age services, and everything in between.

Sometimes, the decision to focus on all-age worship is made out of necessity. The Hon. Priest-in-Charge of Harworth, the Revd Leah Vasey-Saunders, started a family service once a month because of “a church school, and an admissions policy that often brings in 30 under-fours. [And] we have no room to safely run a Sunday school at the same time as morning worship.”

The Revd Robb Sutherland, Vicar of Mixenden and Illingworth, also started all-age worship out of necessity, but for different reasons. “We didn’t have enough children to run separate groups. We can still not predict how many children will come each week. Sometimes it is 15 to 20; sometimes it is two.” The focus on all-age worship gave him a way to reach out to children in the community, and he began by including the local Scout group in worship: “It all started with ‘Can you come and build a fire on Easter morning? That’s a proper scouting task,’ and grew from there.” 

 

WHETHER the decision comes deliberately, or through necessity, many leaders find that replacing Sunday school with all-age worship is a powerful and effective way of raising children as Christians. “We don’t isolate our children from family celebrations at home,” the reasoning goes. “We don’t explain to them the theory behind birthday parties before we let them participate in one. We just get on with it, as an intergenerational family, and they learn by doing.”

John Westerhoff, speaking at the Household of Faith conference in 2014, explained that Christian formation is as much an anthropological exercise as an educational one. It is a process of enculturation: acquiring the characteristics and norms of a group as part of your identity.

Children who grow up in Sunday schools may be unfamiliar with the rhythm of worship, the liturgical year, the things we all do together as Christians on a Sunday morning. We are losing the opportunity to enculturate them. And the problem is not just limited to more traditional churches: it is happening in Evangelical parishes as well.

Marc Solas writes: “From a Noah’s Ark-themed nursery, to jumbotron summer-campish kids’ church, to pizza parties and rock concerts, many Evangelical youth have never sat in a pew between a set of new parents with a fussy baby, and a senior citizen on an oxygen tank. They don’t see the full timeline of the gospel for every season of life. Instead, we’ve dumbed down the message, and pumped up the volume.”

By providing regular all-age worship, we give our children just those opportunities, to become accustomed to worship as part of their identity. Carolynn Pritchard, a children’s worker in Cambridgeshire, has described watching children act out “church” in their play, or toddlers pause during the service and make the sign language learned in all-age worship to match what is happening — “bread”, or “Jesus”, or “pray”.

And all-age worship, many argue, has benefits not just for children, but for the whole church. As a result of worshipping together every week, Mr Sutherland explains, “our older people feel that they are part of a vibrant, active, missional faith. Younger people feel valued. No one gets to the age of 14 and thinks that Sunday school is too childish and church is too boring.”

Mrs Vasey-Saunders has discovered that “many of the things we do in [our monthly family] service remind and teach us why we do what we do the rest of the month. This service, therefore, is a good ‘way in’ for families; and, also, I find, actually improves the understanding of the congregation as a whole, of what we do and why we do it. I have worked hard to help the congregation understand that if they, as churchgoers, cannot explain what is going on, then parents coming to church for admissions purposes have little chance.” 

 

BUT doing all-age worship well is an extremely difficult tightrope to walk. Churches with strong choral and musical traditions may feel that all-age worship would cost them what they value most about their worship. Those with an emphasis on silence and contemplation may feel that all-age worship would change the ethos of their community beyond recognition.

Many clergy do not feel confident about leading all-age worship: to bring children into communal worship without turning them into performers, and the adults into spectators, is a difficult thing to do, and, without training or experience, many church leaders prefer to avoid it.

And there are still benefits to Sunday school. For Anglicans, the main Sunday service is centred on the gospel and the eucharist. Readings from Old Testament stories, prophecies, the Epistles, and Revelation are included without context or explanation. To someone familiar with the meta-narrative of the Christian faith, these connections are clear. For example, we hear the prophecies of Isaiah throughout Advent, and we understand the part they played in the minds of the people of Israel in exile in Babylon, and the symbolism of their imagery in the coming of Christ.

But what if you don’t know the stories of Babylon? What if you come to Lent and Holy Week without knowing the Exodus story? How will you make sense of what you’re hearing, if you never hear the whole story from start to finish? The lectionary is designed around the liturgical year, not around chronological order. From Christmas, we go straight from the baby Jesus and the wise men to the baptism of Jesus, then to a few stories of his ministry, then back to the baby Jesus at Candlemas, and then into the gospel readings of Lent, with their focus on atonement, and, eventually, sacrifice and new life.

If you know this pattern, and know where these stories fit into the overall whole, you can follow along. But if this is the only time you have ever heard these stories, and you do not know the big picture, it is easy to get lost and confused. I’m pretty unfamiliar with the Star Wars movies: if I saw three 10-minute clips of different movies, out of order, a week apart from each other, I am pretty sure that after a few years I would be no closer to understanding them than I was at the start. So Sunday school can be vital, just because it gives us a chance to say to our children: “Here’s the story. It starts with once upon a time, and goes — eventually — to happily ever after, and there’s so much in between. Let’s begin at the beginning.”

Because of that, Sunday school gives children the chance to spend time exploring the Hebrew scriptures, and the stories of the Early Church, in all their richness, which the gospel-centric pattern of our worship does not really allow for. These stories are crucial to our understanding of what Jesus’s life and works, his death and resurrection, meant to the people around him, and what they mean for us today.

Sunday school, more than even the most creative, multi-sensory, all-age worship, allows us to include children of different learning styles. Sunday school, when done well, can include art and drama, baking bread, and playing games. Children whose primary learning styles are physical or artistic can struggle to connect to all-age worship.

 

FOR many churches, the answer lies somewhere in the middle — between killing the Sunday school completely, and doing nothing but Sunday school. Children can be enculturated into church through a Sunday school that is itself liturgical; that models, in age-appropriate ways, what is going on in “big church”. Children can light candles, sing hymns, hear and respond to stories, learn the prayers, and then return to the congregation for the eucharist.

Programmes such as Godly Play are specifically designed to draw children into the pattern of eucharistic worship, and include sessions on the church year, as well as stories. The art that children make in Sunday school can be used and valued by the congregation in worship: children can decorate candles, make banners or altar frontals, prepare dramas for all-age worship sessions, bake the bread for the eucharist, and much more.

Some churches have Sunday school most weeks, and all-age worship once or twice a term, balancing the benefits of both. And it is possible, Ms Moore says, to bring children who have grown up in Sunday school into adult church, as long as it is done intentionally. “Lack of a plan to ‘graduate’ kids from Sunday school is a contributing factor [to children leaving], irrespective of [the Sunday school’s] quality. Another issue worth attention is the low level of faith formation of many Sunday- school teacher/leaders, many of whom rarely engage with a full act of worship, or attend Bible study, or do anything much to nurture an adult faith for themselves.” 

 

WHETHER a specific church decides to focus on all-age worship or on Sunday school, it is clear that clergy have a key part to play. As Ms Hawes says, more than any one particular model “we need culture change that leads to intergenerational community.” Both Sunday school and all-age worship have a part to play, “but the more important question is how committed the Christian community is to nurturing children in the faith.”

Clergy must work with congregations to discern what particular combination of all-age worship and Sunday school can effectively produce this change in their community. If there is a Sunday school, it must be supported by the whole community, who should know and celebrate what the children are doing, and welcome their offerings as gifts to the whole church. PCCs, clergy, and others should work with children’s workers and volunteers to determine how to graduate children from Sunday school. And Sunday schools must work to inculturate children into Christianity, as well as educating them.

Clergy must realise that Sunday- school leaders — whether paid or voluntary — need training in how to make the most of Sunday-school time, so that it fills the gaps mentioned above, helping children to claim the Christian story and Christian worship as their own, and make meaning out of them. And they must help Sunday-school leaders find opportunities for developing their own faith.

Ultimately, the most important lesson of this new focus on all-age worship is one that can be applied to all churches — children are not “over there,” in a separate box labelled “children’s work”. They are part of the whole Church. Every baptised Christian is a children’s worker. What does that mean for you?

 

Some resources: www.worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.co.uk 

www.uk.pinterest.com/revmaryhawes/all-age-worship 

www.flamecreativekids.blogspot.co.uk 

www.godlyplay.uk 

www.worshipworkshop.org.uk 

www.prospects.org.uk/churches/training/makaton-training-days  (for sign language — very helpful in all-age worship)

 

Margaret Pritchard Houston is the Children’s Mission Enabler for the diocese of St Albans, and serves the children and families of St George’s, Campden Hill. She also runs Mustard Seed Kids (www.mustardseedkids.co.uk) and is the author of There is a Season: Celebrating the church year with children (SPCK).

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