Why Sunday School?, Old First Sermon 06.05.16

Why Sunday School?, Old First Sermon 06.05.16

(Before I begin, let me say I had this great idea yesterday — I was going to begin the sermon with great ceremony by asking, first, all the Sunday School teachers to come forward and sit in the front row, to take the place of honor among us. And then I was going to ask, second, all their students and their parents to come and sit in the row or two right behind them. …As a way of showing their thanks and because we are celebrating them too — all they are and all they have accomplished.

But then I realized since the kids are leading worship, most of the teachers and the students will already be up here. Julius, is there anyone we should bring up? I am glad those of you are who are here are sitting first amongst us.)

These days, we are happy even surprised we can gather a few kids in Sunday School each week. Case in point — It’s Sunday School Sunday, and we’re really being carried by one family! Everyone else has other engagements…

With the unevenness of attendance we have, a consistent lesson plan or thematic arc are hard to attain. I don’t say that to make parents or families feel guilty. It’s just the truth. And of course, I’m preaching to the choir, (or the parents and kids who are here!)…

And somehow, I believe, this whole attendance struggle with our kids is related to a struggle the contemporary church is going through: Almost everyone is busy to overbooked these days, so that regularity when it comes to almost any weekly commitment is a long shot, at best, and more often an impossibility. With increased demands on and competition for people’s time, the church isn’t the only community suffering from decreased levels of participation. With the massive cultural changes since the 1970’s that have resulted in less civic engagement, a proliferation of options, and a squeezing of people’s schedules, almost all structured institutions have trended smaller. Church is not the only game in town anymore. Nor the only organization struggling to get its bearings in a new and quickly changing world.

In response, a recent blog post has been making the rounds among pastors: “Sunday School is Killing the Church.” It was inspired by an earlier essay, “Sunday Schooling Our Kids out of Church.”

I think the titles are a tactic — risking insensitivity to the faithful, dedicated Christians who selflessly dedicate themselves week after week to teaching Sunday School, in order to get the church’s attention — something provocative to grab ahold of us and open us to a discussion that we might otherwise avoid.

To be fair, the authors of the two essays I quoted, their point is not that there’s something wrong with Sunday School; they rather, are critical of Sunday School when it’s co-terminus with worship, when it’s the same time as worship, and when it robs children of corporate worship with the whole congregation.

I have to confess here, I have often thought we should move Sunday School to the same time as worship: I understand how many Sunday School teachers don’t want to miss worship (J.V. even has a little smirk right now), but I have thought that “all in one hour,” by compressing the time church demands of a family’s precious weekend free time…perhaps, we could serve more children and families regularly.

The impossible hope would be to do our best to balance too many competing needs, as Paul says to be all things to all people:

~ allowing Sunday school teachers to participate in corporate worship,
~ giving our kids the time, attention and help needed to learn the foundational lessons of our faith.
~ letting parents have the space and child-free moment to concentrate on worship.
~ keeping the Sunday morning time demands of church as tight as possible out of respect for families’ schedules.

(If someone can figure out how to accomplish all those with one church program, please share the secret with me!)

But the argument that children and Christian education need both
— the focused, age-appropriate teaching of the faith that get in Sunday School.
the opportunity to learn the ways and logic of worship, and to experience their place of belonging in the larger community —
has one me over.
…That in order to really love the church, our children need BOTH to get to know the holy story with Sunday School’s nurture and to find their place in the community of people who are trying to live out that story in their own lives that Corporate Worship affords.

Of course, implied in both commitments for our kids is an openness to envisioning and creating Sunday School AND worship services that truly appeal to and work for the ones they are to serve. But, as I said, the authors’ argument has convinced me to be bolder…and to challenge families to make Sunday School a commitment they make for their children.

I’m not picking a fight with the proverbial soccer practice, and the hundred other Sunday morning activities that can and do enrich your children and their lives… But I’m willing to argue forcefully and unapologetically that Sunday School and church offer something you want your children to have and something they need.

You see, the point of Sunday School and having children in church isn’t raising up the next generation of church-goers. The goal of Christian formation is to raise up disciples. Corporate worship is a key component to a lived Christian faith, but it is a support and inspiration for that lived faith, not an end in itself. Church, don’t we want to pass on faith to our children to build up the next generation of Christians, not for the church’s sake, but for the difference it will make in our children’s lives? And for the difference as Christians they will make in the world?

Church, the volunteer teachers who minister to our children in our Sunday School classrooms are dedicated, caring, and committed Christians. Even if they just spent each Sunday morning reading the stories of faith to our children, that would provide our kids with the great benefit of hearing the Holy Story and encountering an adult Christian role model, beyond their parents and the pastor. As we have often said at Old First, the relationships between the kids of this congregation and adults who are neither their school teachers nor their parents but are reliably caring and to be counted on…that’s a big part of the sacredness of church.

And our Sunday school teachers do much more than just read Bible stories. They introduce children to the great Biblical dramas, connecting God’s Story with their own. They teach children prayers, showing them the reality of an inner realm where God speaks to them and through them. They sing with children. They nurture creativity and imaginations, their hearts and minds and souls. They love our children.

Sunday school, on the best morning – or even on one when we’re all just barely getting through — it’s a sacred place of nurture. A place where, if nothing else, we act out the Gospel lesson — teaching and showing children that God loves them more than they can ever imagine, and that Jesus is with them always.

There’s no magic bullet, no secret solution, no one way to assure we pass on the faith and guarantee our kids grow into disciples who can live that faith out in the world as well as at church. The truth is that Christian formation can and must occur in a variety of places in a variety of ways and all through our lives. In worship, in Sunday school, in choir, in service work, at hospital visits, on mission trips or fellowship events, at home. Formation occurs through relationships with multiple people who are trying to live their Christian faith and are willing to talk about it. Formation occurs when people are reminded — or shown — that God loves them, that Jesus lived and lives for them, and that the Holy Spirit fills them.

I’m not sure that Julius, our Christian Ed. Director knows this, but he’s going to need more help next year. Well, I think Julius is a smart, spiritually astute man, and he understands that in his role as our Christian Ed. Director, he can take all the help he can get. But Maranda has shared she needs a break.. Or at least more help. And Jonathan is needing time off so he can start bringing Theo to worship (I like that a lot.) And Rich and Porsche will be having a baby… And I am going to need some help teaching the confirmands.

Folks, there is ministry to be done, now we need people to volunteer for the harvest. Would you consider getting involved or more involved with this ministry of the church? What if working with Holly– who wants to make working with the kids and music more a part of our congregation’s life– we can break Sunday School up into a series of 8 week segments, wherein you wouldn’t have to teach a full 10 months???

Here’s what I’m going to do:

As I prepared this sermon, it occurred to me that we might not be doing enough to help the parents talk with their kids about faith AND the children to talk to their parents about faith. When Jonathan and I taught Confirmation Class almost 2 years ago, we sent home every week a brief, couple-line summation of what we covered, and then we offered some prompts to help parents and their children to engage easily around the topic. And you might remember, I’ve promised for this summer, to come up with 2 questions to end every sermon or service to help you make specific connections between the Scripture story or message of the day and your daily lives. And I’m still trying to figure out some way to enable us to share some of the connections we find.

This year coming, I’ll make it my commitment, to work it out with Julius and whoever is teaching Sunday School, …some way that can offer such a spiritual prompt to our families — that we encourage them, just, at least, at Sunday night dinner, to make part of their table discussion the faith that they hope their kids are learning and the faith they all struggle with sometimes. Of course, families will do it when they can, but imagine if the efforts and dedication in worship and in Sunday School were being amplified or multiplied regularly at home? Imagine if our families and all the rest of us too began to speak with the ease and frequency and fluency and passion that we talk about athletic competitions and politics and dance recitals and school and our office and our friends?

What if we could all talk as if God were just one more, albeit central, person in our life?