Does the term “Sunday school” evoke images of children in musty church rooms memorizing Bible verses and learning catechisms in classes taught by kindly old ladies? If so, you may be surprised to learn of the radical history of Sunday school, which began by offering free education to the poor — a bold example of churches addressing societal needs and changing lives.
Sunday schools date back to the late 1700s in Great Britain, when poor children worked all week in factories. Only wealthy families could afford education; they hired tutors or sent their children to private boarding schools. Churches recognized the need for the industrial poor to be educated, so they established Sunday schools that taught reading and writing using the Bible as the textbook. The American Sunday school system followed the same model, providing a combination of literacy and spiritual education for the working poor or rural families on the only day available for them to attend “school.”
As public education became available to all, churches became community centers for youth, still offering Sunday schools for religious education. My church, Westminster Presbyterian, built its three-story education building in the 1930s. At the time, the entire building was used for youth programs, with the first floor dedicated to the “cradle roll” and primary children, the second floor to juniors, and the third floor to senior students. The building included a gymnasium-style great hall with a stage, kitchen and classrooms, and was used not only for Sunday school, but also for Scout troops, high school dances, basketball games and midweek youth programs. In the 1950s, the women of the church started an innovative weekday nursery school for young children in the community.
Times change. Families change. Communities change. Today, many people do not attend church. Those who do tend to do so sporadically. Many children alternate weekends with different parents. Some are busy on Sundays with sports or camping. Many parents work weekends or nights. Others feel marginalized from faith communities, having been excluded or unwelcome in past experiences. And yet the desire to know God is still there, maybe more than ever in these challenging times. How can churches continue to share God’s love in bold and innovative ways with today’s families? We are exploring that at Westminster.
Believing that faith formation is a lifelong endeavor, we still offer Sunday school for children and for adults. However, unlike the classes of yesteryear that focused heavily on memorization and doctrine, our approach is to help students young and old experience the mystery of faith, struggle with the difficult questions and discover how God is present in their lives. We connect faith to daily living, always exploring how to put faith in action.
Sunday school is still important, but it only reaches the families who come to church on Sundays, and our vision is larger than that. We want to take faith outside the walls of our church and find God in nature and in our neighborhoods. We want kids to learn, and also to serve, care and act. Seeing the needs in our community, we want to serve marginalized youth who have been rejected by churches because of their sexual and gender identity, children with special needs for whom traditional church experiences are difficult, and modern families completely new to church or whose schedules don’t allow for regular church attendance. We are growing a new youth and children’s ministry at Westminster called REACH (Relate, Explore, Act, Care, Help).
Westminster’s vision for REACH is:
• A place that welcomes all children and youth and empowers diversity
• A life journey in which all generations collaborate to nourish faith, raise up leaders and meet the needs of the community
• A chance to wonder by asking big questions and exploring faith through nature and the arts
• A modern spiritual practice involving the whole community
We’ve already begun. We are partnering with The Q Center to offer support groups for LGBTQ+ youth. We are planning youth versions of our popular adult contemplative hikes. We are involving youth in identifying community needs and finding ways to address them. We are finding ways to stay connected throughout the week, using new technologies and social media. We are hiring a youth and children’s ministry coordinator to develop these efforts alongside the kids and families.
The world changes, but God’s love is constant. We are excited to share God’s transformative love with today’s youth, children and families in new and exciting ways.