Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Lutherans and the Sunday School. . .
It is a perspective born of the 1950s and 1960s when Sunday Schools were booming among Lutherans. Even into the 1970s, Sunday School attendance often competed with worship attendance. On my vicarage the Sunday School ran at the same time as the second of three Sunday services, thus providing a convenient way for parents to worship unhindered by fidgeting little ones in another building for Sunday School. Indeed, it was successful -- from a numbers perspective! Some 500+ children gathered in the gym and Sunday School rooms while the worship attendance was about 700. But those were the boom years and things have not been so rosy ever since.
Funny, though, because Sunday School was never quite a good fit for Lutherans. From the Catechism we expressed the desire -- dare I say expectation -- that the religious instruction of the young was the duty and obligation of the parents. In America the Sunday School was not so essential when most of our children went to the Lutheran parochial school of the parish and received their religious instruction there. But we Lutherans have never been one to ignore an idea when it comes to us from others. So we bellied up to the idea and owned it for a time. It became more essential when numbers in the Lutheran school dropped and when we began mission congregations without schools during the great boom years of church planting in the 1950s and 1960s. What else were we to do with kids who were not in a Lutheran school and whose parents had largely abdicated their responsibility as the primary teachers of the faith?
Now we find ourselves in the position of providing nearly all the religious instruction of the young through the congregation -- Sunday School, catechism class, and youth group. Little is expected from the home and many of our parents do very little there to impart the faith -- at least in terms of instruction. The Sunday School became our lifeline... until things changed again.
What changed? Lutheran birth rates dropped. We had less children to educate in the faith. Lutherans divorced. Their children were with the custodial period only every other weekend and often gone during the summer as well. Lutherans took up outreach. The unchurched changed from being lapsed Christians baptized as children and raised in the Sunday School into people without much of any religious background for whom Sunday School was a concept as foreign to them as the creed. They did not immediately warm up to the value of Sunday School instruction for their youth. Lutherans found alternatives to church and Sunday School. They found recreational choices, enrolled their kids in sports programs on weekends and Sunday mornings, and found Sundays a convenient time to sleep late and reduce religious commitments to worship only.
My neighbors, the second largest Baptist church in town, have also struggled. Once their Sunday School attendance was advertized as the most vital statistic of their vitality and growth. They found the same problems Lutherans did and now their folks are not necessarily there every Sunday, for Sunday School and worship, or for the evening services of Sunday and Wednesday nights. Many developed sports ministries of their own in an effort to reclaim youth to the church (and, their parents, of course). But even the mighty Southern Baptists have seen numbers decline.
My own hidden desire would be to ditch Sunday School and go back to the idea of a Lutheran home being the center of instruction in the Scriptures and catechism and where Lutheran kids are educated in Lutheran elementary, middle, and high schools. But that will not happen. So I am stuck with an institution Lutherans did not invent and are not fully comfortable with yet we cannot discard or our youth will not be instructed as they should in the great stories of the Bible and the six chief parts of the Christian faith. I kind of feel like the diabetic who must take the pill or shot to live but wishes every day he did not have to.... I suspect I am not alone in my ambivalence to Sunday School.