The Death of Sunday School

I’m going to admit that one of my favorite moments every Sunday at St. John’s is not a teaching moment, it is a parenting moment. I have developed the habit of doing our community ritual of joys and concerns with my youngest daughter, Juliana. I carry her the whole time, because at a year and a half she is not yet able to wait patiently in the line alone – but she happily waits in the line in my arms, and gets to exchange smiles with others in the sanctuary.

I let her pick a stone from the bowl herself, and she holds onto it as we walk over to place in the sand. I keep my hand underneath hers, not holding it for her, but prepared, just in case she should lose her grip. We place the stone in the sand together. It is a great moment of ritual, one that helps solidify our connection.

My warmest memories of my childhood church, All Souls Unitarian in Colorado Springs, are also moments of ritual and connection with my family and the congregation – Christmas Eve service. I remember the candlelight, the annual references to our partner church in Transylvania, the sense of awe and mystery.

However, Christmas Eve service is the only time I remember going “upstairs” every year. The rest of the time I was in Sunday school. So were my sister, and my mother. I don’t remember a year when my mom wasn’t teaching my sister’s class, not because she just loved doing it that much, but because she felt she needed to. Out of a family of four, the only one who was “upstairs,” in worship, was my father.

I think that had direct consequences – neither of my parents remained active in UU churches once my sister and I got older, and my sister is now a Methodist, a path that started as a teenager when both she and I heard we could choose whatever we wanted to believe, but were never given a reason or a structure to explore those beliefs in a UU community. For myself, becoming a Unitarian Universalist adult has been a rocky process, that has often felt like it had nearly zero connection with my experiences as a child in Sunday school.

As a parent myself, I have struggled with the point of going to church every Sunday morning, sitting in worship alone while each of my children does something entirely separate – even from each other – then driving home. I found the whole experience isolating, and did not give me tools to talk about faith with my children, or feed my own need for community.

I knew none of this is that unusual, and over the last two decades some changes have been made. Most churches today don’t expect an adult to commit teaching Sunday school every week like my mom did; teachers rotate and get to have time upstairs in worship. However, that means training and coordinating three or four times as many volunteers – in an era when the volunteer base has shrunk due to smaller generations and most adults working outside the home. It also just increases the fragmentation and disconnection, at a time when children are often not in church every week themselves.

In The Death of Sunday School , Kim Sweeney talks about experiences just like mine as a problem common to most UU churches, and argues the Sunday school model just doesn’t work anymore. It’s not just UU congregations that are coming to this conclusion – it’s easy to find resources from mainline Christian churches with titles like Sunday Schooling Our Children Out of Church and Killing the Church with Sunday School .

The dramatic titles have our attention. Sunday school doesn’t work in it’s old model. So what do we do? The Winter 2018 issue of UU World profiles a Breakthrough Congregation in an article titled: “Better than Sunday School: Forty hours of Chalice Camp is almost as much time as kids would get in a full year of Sunday school.” It chronicles one congregation’s evolution from a traditional Sunday School model to multigenerational worship most Sundays, partly through adding a weekly summer camp as supplemental religious education.

When I have chatted about this with other folks at St. John’s, no one denies the obstacles with the Sunday School model. But when “multigenerational worship” is suggested as the alternative, the response is usually some amount of concern. People hear that and think it will mean every service will be an “Intergenerational Service” and no one’s needs will be served. I think it’s important to note that the church in the Chalice Camp article only does an “Intergenerational Service” once a month. Other Sundays are a combination of Children’s Chapel and a similar model to what we are currently using at St. John’s right now.

In reality, family ministry and multigenerational worship, as Kim Sweeney advocates, is not about the idea of making everyone always sit in the same room together, doing the same thing. It’s about orientation and the choices we make, seeing faith formation as a lifelong process, and community and connection as major goals for any time spent at church.

Sweeney argues for a balance between “huddling” – time spent separated into age cohorts – and “mixing” – time spent all together, mixing across generations. The Breakthrough Congregation in the Chalice Camp article does an Intergenerational Service about once a month, a Children’s Chapel some Sundays, and other Sundays uses a model of a Time for All Ages, and then the children are sung out for age-appropriate activities on the same theme as the adults.

You might notice the similarity between that last option, and what currently happens at St. John’s most Sundays. The reality is that even before I was hired as RE Coordinator in October, St. John’s was already doing far more family friendly worship than I ever experienced as a child, and in a few short months we have continued to move in that direction.

Right now, if a visitor shows up to worship at 11am on Sunday with their young child, they will be welcomed into the sanctuary or the chapel, and offered coloring, books, or lacing activities. The two of them can participate in some worship together, including the ritual for joys and concerns that I find so meaningful with my daughter. Then their child can go downstairs, where I as the Religious Education Coordinator endeavor to create one consistent face that knows all the children, with the support of other volunteers who show up when it is a joy to be there. The parent can stay and participate in our children’s activities, or go back upstairs and experience worship – both are acceptable and neither is awkward.

That parent might be invited to come at 10am the next week for the Parent Group, where Parents are invited to come and socialize, let their kids play, and get to know the community. If she has an older child, that teenager might be invited to come upstairs at 10am for the Teen Discussion, and then that same teen can join the service or participate downstairs with kids of other ages.

It is easy to feel that since we have not had “Sunday School” in its old format this year at St. John’s, that we have been failing to offer faith formation for children. The reality is that we have been engaging in an intentional, thoughtful process to integrate the children into the life of the church, to serve the faith formation needs that we all have across our whole lifespans, and serve the needs we all have to be connected and in community.

I’m very excited about the future of faith formation at St. John’s, as we continue to move toward thinking of ourselves as a whole community, not groups of adults and children that happen to be in the same building. I look forward to a future where my children remember their time in church as a warm time of connection, when they were held in safety, first by their parents, then by the whole congregation.