Sunday School has not been around since the days of Jesus. It was started in 1780 by Robert Raines in England. He started it because he was concerned about all the poor children who were roaming the urban streets without supervision or much of anything. Sunday School was a school where these kids could learn to read and write using the Bible as their textbook. It was held on Sunday because most of these kids worked in the factories every other day of the week.
Sunday Schools were introduced in America in the early 1800s. At first, there was much resistance. Pastors thought Sunday Schools would weaken the parent's resolve in teaching their children the Bible. Gradually, the idea won over most churches and the Sunday School movement grew rapidly. In the 1970s this growth stopped and some churches even dropped their Sunday School programs. Most churches today struggle with declining attendance in Sunday School and difficulties staffing it.
Has the day of the traditional idea of Sunday School passed by? It may have. Yet, the need for sharing Biblical truth in a teaching setting different from the worship service has not. It may be time to explore other ways to meet this need. Some churches are using small groups in place of Sunday School. We can't be afraid of dealing with this "sacred cow". After all, it hasn't been "sacred" all that long!
Whatever form Sunday School takes, there is a need for teaching the truths of our faith. Christian Education has been around much longer than Sunday School and we should not equate the two. Christian Education can and does take many forms. Sunday School can still be effective as a means for communicating Christian truth but it is a mistake to put all our eggs in this basket, alone. It is important to provide learning experiences at each age level.
Smaller Christian Education experiences promote Christian community which is difficult to experience in a worship service. It also allows for Christian personal interaction among different age groups. Persons older in the faith can serve as role models for the younger. Younger Christians can really get to know some other "real" Christians.
Christian Education ideally works in partnership with Christian parents. They are the ones who have the responsibility to train up their children in the faith. Sunday School or children's groups are not babysitters. Parents need to be involved in their children's learning. They need to be in Sunday School or some similar learning environment, as well.
As we discuss our struggles with Sunday School, I hope it will be a catalyst to step back and look at the larger picture. What forms will our ministry of Christian Education take in the church?