In Defense Of Sunday School And Other Fixable Things
Evangelicalism seems to be splitting into two camps eager to outdo one another in their departure from the norms of the 1980’s. The progressives are running away from the theology and the reformers are running away from the methodology. While I identify more with the reformers, I am increasingly concerned that in some cases, we may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Many of my reform minded friends have recently been questioning the value of Sunday School. After all, Sunday School happened in the 80's and the 80's were a train wreck for Evangelicalism therefore Sunday School must be bad and should be jettisoned quickly in favour of something more strenuous and less attractive to regular people. Pragmatism is out. Itchy beards and self denial are in. Get with the program. One article I read on this topic actually went so far as to suggest that Sunday School is killing the church – seriously, that’s not a joke – and that it is Sunday School that explains why so many Millennials are leaving the church and joining the ranks of the “nones”.
Adding fuel to the fire, John Piper recently stated his preference for children sitting in church with their parents on a recent episode of Ask Pastor John. What makes me nervous is not that brother Piper (who no longer has to preach every Sunday) has stated a preference for having kids in the service, what makes me nervous is that this particular episode of Ask Pastor John quickly became the most listened to and shared episode of his podcast ever.
That tells me that there is a ground swell of momentum towards a potentially massive over reaction. For which we are fast becoming famous.
Full disclosure, I love John Piper. I am reformed. I am a little bit crusty and particular. But I am also getting tired of pulling myself out of one ditch only to land face down in the ditch on the other side of the road. Over reaction is hurting the church. We need more fixers and fewer flame throwers. Sunday School can be fixed and I think that throwing a hand grenade into the CE department and bringing all the children into the main service could potentially be a very bad thing.
Russell Moore has recently made a balanced and passionate defense of Sunday School – you can find it here. Let me add to that my view from the pulpit. Every time a toddler starts to squirm and fuss in a worship service it creates a distraction zone that stretches 3 rows behind, 3 rows ahead and 8 seats either side. Everyone is looking at the mother and wondering, “Is she going to take her out or try to sooth her here? Why isn’t she giving her a soother? Is she one of those all natural people? I bet she doesn’t vaccinate either – we’re all going to get small pox!”
I’m not sure if that is precisely what they are thinking but what I am sure of is that they are no longer listening to the sermon. How is that helpful? I’ve seen moms spend an entire service handing crayons and fishy crackers to a 4 year old all while the 30 people in her distraction bubble smile or frown aggressively depending on their personal wiring. Its hard to understand how that is helpful for anyone. If we really believe that listening to God’s word is how people get saved (Romans 10:17) and sanctified (John 17:17) then we may want to press pause on this head long rush towards bringing the little ones into the service.
We may also want to check our Bibles.
As reform minded people we are drawn to the stories in the Bible about times when people were getting serious again about understanding the Bible. We love the story of Josiah discovering the Bible in the house of the Lord and we love the story of the super long church service in the Book of Nehemiah. That passage contains some information we may want to take notice of.
"And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law." (Nehemiah 8:1–3 ESV)
Twice we are told that in that service dedicated to hearing the Word of God the participants included men and women and those who could understand. That ought to give us pause. That ought to remind us that hearing and understanding the Word of God is serious business. It is literally life and death. It is something worth protecting from over zealous reformation.
I am not saying that we don’t need to fix how we do Sunday School, I am saying we need to take a breath. I’m saying we need to stop blaming baby boomers for everything that is wrong with Evangelicalism. I’m saying we need to talk to some people who still have young children in their home. I’m saying we need to thank God for the many men, women, boys and girls whose lives have been changed by Sunday School.
Let’s teach our kids the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the whole Word of God in age appropriate ways. And let’s have fishy crackers, flannel graphs and sword drill. Let’s have candy, colourful crayons and safety scissors. And then, when they have understanding, let’s bring them into the service and have them sit with mom and dad.
Just like we used to, only better.
For the glory of God and the good of all people,
Pastor Paul Carter