Falling behind in (Sunday) school

OK, before 100 Quakers jump on me – some call it “Sunday School”, some call it “First Day School”, some call it “Christian Education”. I can live with any of these.

A lot of people think it’s just for kids – not surprising, since organizing an educational program for children takes a LOT of time, energy, resources (sometimes including money for materials) and especially people to make it happen.

Sunday School, as it was originally created in the late 1700’s, had a much more ambitious goal: literacy, and the formation of Christian character. In that era, very few families could afford to send their children to any kind of school. In rural areas, children were needed on the farm as soon as possible. In cities, the majority of working-class children grew up unable to read, and many never attended any kind of church.

Sunday School was just that – school on Sunday, for whoever wanted to learn. Most Sunday schools taught basic literacy, supplemented by lending libraries on a variety of subjects (books were scarce). In many places, attendance at Sunday School was considerably larger than the number of people who showed up for worship. (Most Sunday schools today draw less than 25% of the attendance at regular worship.)

The American Sunday School Union was an ecumenical, parachurch organization which distributed lesson plans, teacher training outlines, Bibles and other supplies. There was a heavy emphasis on memorizing Bible verses – as readers of Tom Sawyer will remember, students earned a small blue paper ticket for every 2 Bible verses they memorized. 10 blue tickets could be
exchanged for 1 red ticket; 10 red tickets equaled 1 yellow ticket; and as a reward for earning 10 yellow
tickets, students were given a Bible. If you do a little math, you’ll see that to get a Bible, students had to
memorize 2x10x10x10, or 2,000 verses of Scripture!

[Full disclosure: Springfield Friends Meeting, where I serve as pastor, organized the first Sunday School in the state of North Carolina in 1818, when Abigail Alberston began teaching children in her home. It grew quickly and was soon taken over as a ministry of the meeting. Hundreds of children – not all of them Quakers – learned to read here at Springfield, and Sunday School was often the only formal education they had in their lives.]

Sunday School also often taught social skills – cooperating with others, listening, politeness and grooming. It was the one place where kids were expected to show up scrubbed and clean once a week, with shoes if possible, and behave themselves. In the 1800’s, older kids in Sunday School were often encouraged to “take the pledge” against using alcohol and tobacco.

Today, Quaker kids are less likely to show up at Sunday/First Day school every week – especially during the COVID epidemic, which has caused havoc in Christian Education programs all over the country. Quaker kids are much less likely to get a solid grounding in the Bible, and are more likely to hear lessons on “Quaker SPICE” (the testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality).

Rather than offering serious spiritual or character formation, many Sunday School programs are a combination of child care plus a basic and inadequate religious teaching, in the vague hope that the kids will somehow absorb a smattering of ideas. (I still remember a parent at one meeting telling me frankly that they would drop their children off at Sunday School, and then drive home quickly and make love – it was the only private time they had all week!)

Most Sunday School programs suffer from a perennial shortage of teachers – very few adults are willing to commit to being here every week, with a prepared lesson, or to put up with little or not training, support or encouragement. I’ve known a very few meetings where adults were expected to take turns teaching Sunday School on a regular basis, either week by week or for a month or a semester at a time.

To be fair, I have also known number of loving and dedicated Sunday School teachers who were willing to do anything for the children under their care, for years and even decades on end. They are often retired teachers or other professionals who have spent a lifetime looking out for other people, and without them, most programs would fall apart in very short order.

An even deeper and more serious weakness is that most Friends meetings today are short on adults who are knowledgeable about the subjects we expect them to teach – Bible, Quaker history, spirituality and social issues. As an old saying goes, “no spring can rise higher than its own source” – you can’t teach what you don’t know yourself. Problems with children’s education often reflect serious failings in adult education. Very few people have taken the time to really know enough about the Bible, about prayer and the inner life, about the great and wonderful tapestry of Quaker saints, or other subjects, in order to create their own lessons and teach them to different ages.

Instead, most congregations rely on a mix of craft activities, pre-printed puzzles and coloring pages, and curriculum supplied by various Christian publishers. Kids may (or may not) wind up learning anything useful or enduring from these materials, which is very discouraging both for the parents and for the teachers.

It’s not all bad or wrong – some of the most essential lessons children can ever learn are that God loves them, that church or meeting is a safe place, that different adults outside their families care about them very much, and that the Bible can be a source of varied and interesting stories. That’s all very, very good – but it could be so much more!

In my next post, I want to talk about the challenges and serious failings of adult education in Friends meetings today.

As always, these posts are meant to encourage discussion and questions. Comments are welcome!

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1 Response to “Falling behind in (Sunday) school”


  1. 1 Molly Porter November 16, 2021 at 2:51 am

    I would like to write to Joshua Brown, from my Quaker Meeting in London. Is there an email address I can use, please? My own is msporter@mac.com. Reply requested, please – Thanks…


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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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