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Returning to Sunday School’s Original Radical Reform Effort

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With autumn approaching, many churches are planning the relaunch of Sunday School.

For some, it is a time of apprehension over dwindling volunteer pools and decreasing attendance. Yet, the decline of this once-vibrant sentimental favorite provides churches with a significant opportunity.

The church has the chance to return to the Sunday School movement to uncover its passion and power to challenge culture and change lives.

While modern-day Sunday School classes bring to mind memory verses and activity sheets, the enterprise began as a radical reform effort – an effort that was opposed by the church before ultimately being pressed into service as the church’s primary vehicle of Christian formation.

From its inauguration in England during the Industrial Revolution as a literacy initiative for child factory workers, the movement crossed the Atlantic to help form a new nation and eventually lead the way toward universal public education.

Sunday or First Day schools first appeared in the United States in the 1790s. They employed paid teachers and the Bible to provide rudimentary instruction to child workers.

Acting on the belief that education should not be available to the wealthy alone, the First Day Societies were instrumental in establishing free schools and common schools.

As tax-supported education began to take hold in the United States, the mission shifted toward plugging gaps, providing literacy education to blacks, immigrants and girls, all of whom were regularly excluded from common schools.

As with most reform efforts, the Sunday School movement was both a critique and a product of its culture. At its best, it stood against the prevailing ethos by insisting on basic education for all.

It was also often apologetic in its efforts to appease its opponents and sometimes blinded to injustice, inadvertently promoting a nationalistic agenda and moralistic intolerance.

The most important Sunday School lessons for today lie in following still-relevant guiding principles the movement offers to those who want to share the love of God beyond their walls.

  • Address real needs; it’s hard to feel loved by God when you are hungry, lonely or outcast.
  • Dare to be prophetic; challenging both the culture and the church with kingdom principles.
  • Be prepared for pushback by some folks; challenges to the social order can feel threatening.
  • Pray for wisdom and courage about ways you may be tempted to compromise or be complicit in injustices of the culture.
  • And finally, seize the courage to respond to the needs of the changing times in new ways.

The decline of Sunday School provides us with the opportunity to remember that the most traditional thing about the Christian church is its agility, its ability to accommodate new needs in new times while preserving the continuity of the gospel.

For the past two centuries, Sunday School has provided a comfortingly clear route for faith formation.

With the dramatic changes in our culture, in family structures and weekly schedules, and in the place of the church in the larger society, that familiar path has become muddied and obscured.

It may no longer be able to lead us to our desired destination. Yet we are reminded, in the words of the poet George Gordon Byron, “There is pleasure in the pathless woods.”

Returning to the roots of Sunday School compels us to boldness in trying new ways of sharing the gospel, in actions as much as – or even more than – in words.

Yes, there is pleasure in the pathless woods, but because we are accompanied on our journey by the one who is the true path, there is also hope and joy.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Missions Societies. It is used with permission.

Cassandra Carkuff Williams

Cassandra Carkuff Williams is an ordained minister with a doctorate of education who serves with The American Baptist Home Missions Societies as National Director, Discipleship Ministries. She is the author of “Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities” (Alban 2009).