I read a very thought provoking editorial in the Wall Street Journal today. The editorial Why Sunday School are closing looks at the decline of Sunday schools in local churches and ponders why this is happening. I think the writer, Charlotte Hays, makes some interesting points but ultimately the decline in Sunday school is not because of high rates of divorce or kids raised on video games. I do think she hit on some of the issues without even realizing it. For example, I think this is very telling :
Dubbed in Protestant circles "the greatest lay movement since Pentecost," Sunday school traveled across the pond in the 1790s, eventually becoming the Protestant norm here. By my own childhood, Sunday school was taken for granted. Catholics relied on parochial schools and special weekday classes to teach the faith, but Protestants had Sunday school.
The key is right there. Sunday school was taken for granted with nary a thought as to why or even if we should have it and parents became reliant on Sunday school to pass the faith on to their kids. Any wonder we lose most kids after high school? An hour or two at church is not going to offset years of parental neglect and secular humanism coming from the school system.
That is all too true as I have railed about before. The problem is multifold, but I think at its core it is an issue of mission creep. What is the point of Sunday school and other church programs directed at youth ( I am lumping them all together here)? Is it and should it be the place of the Sunday School to teach children the faith? We have become reliant on the local church body to do what we should be doing as parents, raising our kids in the faith. That is not the job of a local church organization, it is the responsibility of the parent. The local church can help but it cannot replace, but by and large that is what has happened.
These issue go way beyond just Sunday school. The problem is rampant in virtually all of the programs for kids (not least of which because the Gospel is not a program). Sunday school and VBS and youth groups try to do two things simultaneously, evangelize unbelieving children and disciple believing kids. In trying to do two things at once, they have failed at both because they don’t do either one very well.
VBS/Sunday School/Youth (hereafter SS/VBS/YG) has degenerated into fun and games with a very watered down “Gospel” presentation and a bunch of thinly veiled moralizing (this is not the case universally but it is the case in the vast majority of Protestantism). The more kids show up, the more “decisions” from kids who will never come to church, the more frivolous and silly the events, the better. Read the New Testament and show me an example of the Gospel message being presented in a frivolous, silly way to make it more fun for kids? Veggietales are OK for teaching kids to be nice to one another but not to hear the Gospel. Where do we get off, how dare we trivialize the Gospel that has the power to save souls from hell by turning it into a lowest common denominator summer time activity? Believing kids are not being discipled in SS/VBS/YG, they are being entertained. Entertainment is fine, but not when it is supposed to be discipleship. Youth activities are perhaps the worst offenders with stuff going on that would be inappropriate in a secular setting much less when led by adults who should know better or who have abdicated authority to the children. Even Sunday school aimed at teaching believing kids is often trite and moralistic instead of Gospel driven and Scripture saturated.
On the other hand, kids who are not believers are given a message that doesn’t challenge them in their sins. The local church provides free babysitting for a couple of days or one night a week and the parents are unlikely to ever bring them back. Even kids who “make a decision”, which Eric Carpenter pointed out is one of the main benchmarks for success, are unlikely to come again. Wonder why you get 100 kids at VBS and not one shows up later? We aren't losing the kids who "got saved" at VBS because they never were saved in the first place. They made a "decision" as an emotional response but their hearts were not changed. The Gospel is tough, it has some sharp edges but filing those edges down to make it easier to swallow isn't doing anyone a favor. It is preaching "another Gospel" and is anathema. It is also all to often business as usual in local evangelical churches.
Something else I found interesting about this editorial was this comment:
The decline in Sunday schools appears to be gradual but steady… And the future does not look bright: Only 15% of ministers regarded Sunday school as a leading concern. The younger the pastor, the study showed, the less emphasis he placed on Sunday school.
Think that perhaps has something to do with younger pastors having a fresher memory of their own experiences in SS/VBS/YG? If you are a young pastor with vivid memories of how little you got out of Sunday school, why would you want to encourage it?
If we want to evangelize kids, then lets evangelize them. Not by a backdoor, slip them the Gospel when they aren’t looking approach but by lovingly and boldly preaching Christ and Him crucified. We aren't being faithful to the Great Commission by getting kids to sign cards only to have them never show any signs of regeneration.
If we want to disciple our kids, let’s call on parents to do just that. It is my job to raise my kids in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Not Carriage Hill Bible Chapel where we go every Sunday. Not the Lutheran church down the road holding VBS next week. It is my job and I will not be able to blame someone else if I fail in that responsibility. The local church should equip parents and help them and encourage them, absolutely yes. Replace them with Sunday school and youth groups, no. Sunday school and VBS and youth groups can have a place but they cannot be all things to all people crammed into one hour a week. They cannot effectively evangelize without the Evangel. They can supplement but never replace Christian education in the home. It is not the job of the church to raise our kids and teach them. That is the job of Christian parents, no matter what our church traditions say. That is never the stated intent of SS/YG/VBS, but in reality that is what has happened. This is one of those cases where the church needs to step aside and call people out instead of trying to fill in the gap. In trying to help, for the best of motivations, the church has actually done great harm.