One of the great questions the church is asking today is, “Can Sunday school programs live again?” What is driving this inquiry is churches are finding fewer and fewer younger families attending. In their heyday churches that were thriving and growing had large Sunday school ministries. My first parish in Detroit would show me images of hundreds of children attending; so many in fact it led to massive building expansion programs and the birth of a Christian day school. How do we turn back the clock and usher in those glory days again? Due to the complexity of this question, it will aid our discussion to take a trip back into time. Where did the whole Sunday school movement begin? And why?
It all began in Gloucester, England in 1780, when Robert Raikes and Thomas Stock first established a Sunday school for the poor and orphaned. While earlier Sunday schools were operating, Raikes and Stock have become the recognized creators of the movement. Through their efforts, they led pastors and laypeople to establish similar schools throughout England, and in doing so set into motion the Sunday school ministry. This educational endeavor spread like wildfire and by 1800, 200,000 children were enrolled in English Sunday schools, and by 1850, this number had risen to 2 million.
Sunday schools were popular because they met a need. The schools connected with individuals who found that working-class children required discipline. Out of that felt need was developed a tool to address this, Sunday instruction classes. These Sunday and evening schools taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and catechism to the poor. Unlike our current recruitment system, this one was determined by visits with parents, nominations from donors, and individual student applications. In its early development, students were expected to attend school four to five hours per week and they were the only educational opportunities most working-class children would ever receive. While the program received high accolades in the beginning and was celebrated as a great success, the program would later struggle to survive.
Based on historical records some of the challenges it faced were:
- There was often ecclesiastical pressure to not teach writing on a Sunday.
- Debates raged whether teaching the lower classes was, in fact, a good idea; there were worries that such education would lead them to forget their station in life.
- The Church of England often could not support the schools or provide them with adequate space or funds. 
How was Sunday School Financed?
These schools were financed by donors, who were urged to nominate children for enrollment. To gain further and on-going support, patrons were invited to visit the schools to oversee the progress the children were making in their lessons. This role would be that of a modern-day superintendent. And a novel idea developed, the teachers (men and women) were paid. Classes were often held in a person’s home, or in rented space.
Sunday schools caught on rapidly and were compelling because they were simple and served a noble purpose, the education of the poor and disadvantaged. They were a way for children to take their minds off of their dire situation and for parents to socially elevate the whole family. Education did not just end with the kids. It was a lifeline to a better life. It often spread to the parents and like today, the children were actively encouraged to take lessons and books home to share with their parents.
The Sunday schools in England became an important method of creating social interaction for a class of children and parents who were rapidly moving away from small, interconnected family settings in rural communities to large, over-populated, condensed urban centers.
Meanwhile, in America, the first national Sunday school effort began in 1824. In the beginning, its stated purpose was to “organize, evangelize and civilize.” The focus was intentionally mission focused. Over the next 100 years, the Sunday school became the primary outreach arm of the church. Sunday school ministry then expanded to embrace all ages. Sunday School became a vital tool to reach out to the unchurched in the community and introduced them to an authentic relationship with Jesus. Once they became members, Sunday school served as an efficient assimilation process into the life of the church. By the end of the 1800’s, Sunday school was viewed as the primary prospect for church multiplication and that hope is still alive and well in the twenty-first century.
Finally, all things have a life cycle. Today’s sad reality is Sunday school attendance has seen a slow decrease in the last 50 or so years. What has been the biggest culprit in decline? One might argue the shift away from the emphasis on evangelism to more of a program based on learning Bible stories and fellowship. Studies support the notion that in those places that Sunday Schools are thriving and are growing, church membership is also increasing. Church vitality is closely connected to the health of the Sunday school ministry.
The Hope for the Future
With the declining numbers of young people and families on the premises, this idea of Sunday School as a primary opportunity for evangelism is not lost on the church. Thus, the goal of this series’ question “Can Sunday school live again” is to explore how we can recreate a movement that meets a need for young children and families. Is that Sunday school or something else? Can Sunday school thrive again and be the model again that can help revitalize our churches? Before we conclude the series, we will together discover models that are working, and hopefully, this will spark a return to our evangelistic roots.
Other posts in this series: