Bill Leonard provides a wonderful brief history of and apologia for Sunday School and its influence on Protestant American Christianity.
In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell report that in one 2006 survey 36 percent of Americans claimed participation in Sunday school or other programs of religious education. Fifty-one percent said they participated in those programs “very often.” Putnam and Campbell also note that “people who were involved as children in … activities, such as Sunday school, are significantly less likely to leave their parents’ faith as adults.”
In short, Sunday school continues to function well in many locations, even as it shows signs of serious decline in others. While some churches have replaced or supplemented Sunday school with “cell groups” that meet weekly in members’ homes, others have yet to find effective replacements that provide their constituency with consistent, systematic Bible study.
When it began, Sunday school was a creative response to a particular societal need and setting, confronting the massive illiteracy present among British and American youth. Later, enhanced by denominational networks and the sociology of the Protestant Sunday it offered opportunity for extended biblical instruction and Christian community.
As the sociology of Sunday changes can Sunday school remain an effective vehicle for addressing the escalating biblical illiteracy evident among American Protestants? If not, then we’d better do something fast. Otherwise we’re nothing but a bunch of prodigals!
I’m proud to be a lifelong Sunday-school class member. I’ve regularly attended classes in (as best I can remember) about eight different churches in four different states. I’ve recently finished a three-year stint as my church’s Sunday school director. I believe in Sunday school!
Even if churches ditch the Sunday-morning-on-the-church-property venue, Dr. Leonard is quite right that we will have to find alternative ways to provide systematic biblical training for Christians young and old. Something amazing can happen when a group of believers opens the Scripture together consistently over many weeks or months. Community happens and lives can be transformed.