It’s a chilly Sunday morning in Oakland, California, and in the glass-paned school adjacent to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Allison Sass is on a mission to teach 12 small children to love Jesus. Bless their hearts, and Sass’ heart too, because despite her smile, this is going to be quite a struggle. One messy-haired boy, all of 6 years old, refuses to budge from the lap of his mom, who’s there because he’s a little shy. Two girls, both barely 10, are frankly dozing off, sprawled out on the carpet.
Sass holds up a drawing of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and asks the kids to “help tell the story of the Christ child” through toys and other objects in the room. Some of the children pluck wooden figurines from a Nativity scene, and one girl with, yes, purple-tipped hair, chooses a baby doll in a white baptismal gown. It’s a move that rouses some of the kids, who gather around the doll and, as Sass watches on, start chanting in a playground manner: “Take it off! Take it off!”
The girl obliges. Then she peeks beneath the doll’s underwear and announces her verdict: “I think he’s transgender.”
Obviously, this wasn’t in the lesson plan. But while getting young kids to pay attention in church has often required miracles, something about this moment seems to reflect a broader current about Sunday school. Many a prayer has been said over the fate of the vaunted American institution, whose struggles cut across denominational lines. Between 1997 and 2004, churches lost tens of thousands of Sunday school programs, according to data from the Barna Group, and more recent studies show that enrollment has fallen across denominations. From 2004 to 2010, for example, Sunday school attendance dropped nearly 40 percent among Evangelical Lutheran churches in America and almost 8 percent among Southern Baptist churches, prompting speculation that the problem may be more than just a decline in American religiosity.
Parents and kids, as we all know, are just too busy on weekends, with everything from professional-level sports training to eight-hour SAT prep classes (at age 12!). The institutional inertia that churches are famous for has made it difficult for them to adapt to the times. But experts say that many churches are also discovering they’re paying a far heavier price for past sex scandals than they had anticipated, and that Sunday school is the latest collateral damage. All of which raises a troubling question — at least among the clergy and the deeply devout — about whether Sunday school has outlived its usefulness.
Decades ago, religious education programs served as the only social function after a grueling week. But today, Sunday schools must make an affirmative case to their audience. And so churches have entered the innovation game, with everything from “Godly Play” to global programs. They forge on, like Moses wandering in the desert, stripteases and all.
While Sunday school conjures up images of postwar America — mom and dad in the pews while Johnny and Susie played Bible games in the classroom — it’s actually an English institution that dates back to the Industrial Revolution, in the late 1700s. The original Sunday schools didn’t aim so much at enlightenment as at discipline: Factory children spent Sundays — their only day off from work — terrorizing neighborhoods, and parents were at a loss as to how to tame them. Like a gift from God, Christian evangelist Robert Raikes took it upon himself to gather them from the streets, scrub their faces, comb their hair and send them to school, where the Bible was the textbook. The children also learned the basic catechism, as well as prayers and hymns, and the townspeople were pleased. In fact, according to one Mr. Church, a hemp- and flax-maker who had hired many of the children, they had “been transformed from the shape of wolves and tigers to that of men.”
Not surprisingly, Sunday school soon caught on in the U.S., where over the course of a century and a half it evolved from an educational and missionary venture, which tried to spread the Gospel and attract converts, into a cornerstone of towns and neighborhoods. Nearly every parent, even those who didn’t regularly attend church, sent their children to Sunday school. Indeed, the schools emerged as the center of social life, hosting parades, picnics and prize days.
But the love affair would not survive the second half of the 20th century. The first crack may have been over race. Even as the civil rights movement gained momentum, churches remained racially divided in most parts of the country. (Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”) By the 1970s, Sunday school and church in general, like many traditional institutions, fell victim to a society that increasingly questioned authority. Citizens questioned the draft, students protested racial injustice and children challenged their Sunday school teachers. Today, many people remember this transition as though it were yesterday. “They were essentially telling me to believe in a fantasy world without proof,” recalls one Sunday school ejectee, Pennsylvania management consultant Thomas MacPherson, who says he was booted out after demanding evidence of heaven and hell.
But today, most church leaders probably wish that kids like little Tommy MacPherson were their main problem. We live in an era defined by a confluence of two big trends: Parents, especially middle-class ones, have become ever more concerned about the welfare of their children, whether it’s demanding chemical-free playgrounds or ensuring they get into the best preschool. At the same time, Christian churches have been rocked by a series of sex-abuse scandals that are the worst nightmare for any parent, from youth groups being coerced into sex acts to priests’ confessions of molesting boys. Even if the revelations have subsided somewhat in recent years, “people know the reality has been exposed,” says Robert Orsi, a professor of religion at Northwestern University. “I’m sure parents are thinking of this.”
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