What Is the Purpose of Sunday School?
What is the purpose of Sunday school? I’ve been cogitating on this question for a couple of months, and on the purpose of religious instruction for children, generally, regardless of the time and place. If you ask most people, if you’d asked me a few years ago, the answer would probably be some variation of, “To teach them the Bible stories, especially, the stories about Jesus.”
Here is the problem with that. Here is the source of my struggle. In our culture, we have developed a distinction between fact and fiction or myth. We assume that facts are “true” and fiction and myths are “lies.” This distinction does not acknowledge that what is reported to us as “fact” is always told from the perspective of some human being. In history, in human interactions, it is nearly if not utterly impossible to determine what “the facts” are. Even if you catch something on tape, people will interpret what they see differently.
This distinction between fact and fiction or myth also does not acknowledge that great and even eternal truth may be learned from either one.
The Bible contains both what we in the 21st century would call fact and what we would call fiction. Some of its stories are grounded in fact but told from a particular perspective, reflecting the ancient cultures of the writers. Some stories are embellished to support the writer’s point of view; some stories are told and retold with different emphases. Some stories are mythological, and the facts behind the myth, if there ever were any, were lost thousands of years ago. Many of the stories in the Bible are some mixture of fact, fiction and embellishment and it is impossible, thousands of years later, to tell which is which.
So in Sunday school, we teach young children, who are very concrete, these Bible stories. Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark, Jesus’ walking on water, Jesus’ feeding the multitudes. We teach the stories as though they are fact in a 21st century sense – as though the distinction between fact and fiction can be made easily, and as though that distinction is important. And then the kids hit about age 11 or 12 or 14 or 15, and because they have the same 21st century approach to fact and fiction as the rest of our culture, they say, “This is all a bunch of lies. You’ve been teaching me a bunch of lies. The BIBLE is full of lies. I’m out of here.” And instead of growing disciples, we’ve sent more agnostics and atheists into the world.
Then, if we are lucky – if they are lucky – they come back to church at some point and discover that Scripture shapes our faith and our lives and our relationship with God and each other in profound ways – with truth that transcends any attempt to label Scripture as fact of fiction.
I speak from my own experience. And I describe what I have seen with adolescents in my congregation. In my experience, Christianity is a very adult faith. Of course we welcome children. But is traditional Sunday school the way to do that?
What IS the purpose of Sunday school? I invite your thoughts.