Sunday School or Bust

Our congregation doesn’t have a Sunday School.  Are we still a church?

It’s an interesting question.  Our particular denomination (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) has always emphasized education.  Martin Luther developed the Small Catechism specifically so that families could educate their children, one another, and themselves about the essentials of the Christian faith and Christian life.  And ever since Lutherans arrived in America in larger numbers in the 19th century, education has been a prime focus.  This takes shape as Sunday School in the congregation, and pre-schools, primary and secondary schools, and a world-class set of universities.

But we don’t have Sunday School at our church for two reasons.  The first reason is that nobody really wants to lead and teach it, and the second is that we don’t have very many children.  We’ve made efforts at Sunday School over the past few years but they’ve always fallen by the wayside fairly quickly.

This has led some in our congregation to a state of angst.  After all, the traditional wisdom is that a congregation grows through families.  If you don’t have children in the congregation, you aren’t going to have the next generation of participants and leaders in the congregation.  A congregation without children, in the eyes of many, is a congregation headed towards death.

I understand and empathize with that angst to a certain extent.  I went to Sunday School, after all.  But the fact remains that we have only three children in regular attendance on Sunday mornings, and they happen to be my children.  My wife teaches them all week – both in the home schooling sense and in the Christian faith and practice.  I support her in not wanting to teach them in a Sunday School format on Sunday morning as well just so we can say we have a Sunday School.  It isn’t her responsibility to do that, and if nobody else wants to head it up, then we don’t offer it.

Yet, despite the prevailing wisdom (or at least accumulated experience) regarding Sunday School and children, our congregation is growing.  It has grown at a steady pace for the last seven years, despite the fact that our congregation is primarily made up of people over 70 years of age and therefore we have certainly conveyed a fair number of people into glory!  If a lack of children and Sunday School is tantamount to congregational suicide, we’re certainly not going gently into that good night!

The Church ultimately exists to equip the saints of God.  To teach them the faith as given to us by God himself in the Bible, and centered on the gifts of God in this Word, in the Sacraments, and most centrally in the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God, Jesus.  To show Christians how to live the Christian life.  To absolve them of their sins when they fail and are repentant.  To confront them with their sins and the risks associated with them when they are not repentant.  The Church exists, then, to give the people of God the gifts of God, that, sustained by God’s gifts, they may enter into glory eternally.

There are a lot of ways to do this.  And if you happen to have kids in your congregation, Sunday School is a really good and important idea.  I would argue that the primary importance isn’t for the kids, though, it’s for the parents.  The primary importance is that if the kids are in Sunday School, then the parents should be in adult Bible Study digging deeper into the Word of God and fleshing out the application of his Word in their lives for the week ahead.  How do I be a good spouse?  How do I be a good parent?  How do I be a good neighbor?  How do I be a good employee or employer?   And how do I model and teach and live out the life of Christian faith in a way that my children will see it and emulate it on their own once they leave my care?

It isn’t that Sunday School isn’t beneficial to kids, but it isn’t essential.  What is essential is parents who are grounded in the faith and encouraged and supported by the congregation to parent their children and love their spouses and neighbors with the love of Christ.  A congregation doesn’t need to offer Sunday School to accomplish these things.  But I would argue that it does need to offer and expect people to attend adult Bible study regularly.   I’m fine with not having Sunday School at our church for the reasons listed above.  I wouldn’t be fine with a congregation where nobody felt like studying the Word of God and learning how to apply it more and better was a really, really, really important part of their lives.

I understand that parents want Sunday School for their children for any number of reasons.  But I disagree that Sunday School – and nowadays it’s not just Sunday School but children’s programs on a larger scale – should be the primary criteria for determining which church to belong to.  Yet I’ve had plenty of conversations – or not really conversations, but just comments – by people visiting our church over the years that what they are most looking for is programs for their kids.

And because of that weird chicken and the egg dynamic, they don’t come to our church because we don’t offer extensive programming for children.  Because we don’t have any kids.  While our members like the idea of having kids and young families in worship, they so far haven’t indicated a desire to serve as Sunday School teachers and leaders yet.  Nor have they determined that they want to invest substantial money in hiring someone to launch this, not knowing whether or not it will draw kids and young families.  Like many communities, there are larger congregations around who can offer fantastic children’s programs that we can’t compete with in any way.  If children’s programming is going to be the main criteria for someone deciding to come to our church, we can’t compete with those folks.

Nor, I would argue, should we.

Rather, I think congregations should focus on the resources and giftings that they have, regardless of what those might be.  Maybe it’s a very loving and caring and welcoming community that can form bonds with visitors quickly and follow up with them so that they feel welcomed and an important part of the community quickly.  Maybe it’s strong educational offerings.  Maybe it’s a rich and vibrant worship service and environment.  Maybe it’s outreach and care for the elderly in a community.  Figure out what you’re good at and focus on that (always assuming, of course, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the grace of God are always front and center!).  Or figure out what you really think is important, what people are willing to commit not just their time but also their money and prayers towards, and pursue that.  The Holy Spirit is active and present!  Take seriously the idea that He gifts congregations and individuals differently!  Embrace that, rather than lamenting what He hasn’t give you, at least for the time being.  Don’t let Sunday School – or any other particular program – become the equivalent of speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 12.  If God has gifted you to be good at it, then go and do it and give the thanks and glory to God!  If He hasn’t, figure out what He has gifted you for and give thanks and glory to God!

Worrying about any one particular program – or the lack thereof – is probably not the key to a congregation’s longevity and viability.  The Holy Spirit works in unpredictable ways!  While our culture may write off anyone over 55 as more or less irrelevant, those people are children of God whom Christ died for.  They can respond to the Gospel just like a five year old can.  And improbable as it might sound, a congregation of mostly post-retired folks can continue to grow and thrive in the grace of God the Holy Spirit.

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