A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Moving Beyond Sunday School Religion?

My friend and fellow blogger, Joel Watts links into a post by the Rev. Otis Moss III who writes a deeply personal and thoughtful post on his sister's battle with mental illness and coming to grips with her death at a very young age. It's a post worth reading.

The purpose of my post is not to deal with the substance of Rev. Moss' helpful thoughts, but rather to raise some questions about the assumptions behind the phrase "Sunday school religion" as used by Moss and which Joel also seems to share.

The assumptions behind the phrase "Sunday school theology" (I am going to use "theology" instead of "religion." I find the word religion not to be very helpful.) as used in this context highlights a theology that is shallow and simplistic, a theology that provides easy answers to life's difficult questions. Thus, Christians that are growing in their faith at some point must move beyond the shallow theology offered in the Sunday school hour each week and move on to something deeper. (I am not sure where else they would get such deeper theological understanding if not in Sunday school. Perhaps it is sufficient just to read all of us religious bloggers who wax on infinitum ad nauseum.)

The use of the phrase in this way also reveals the unspoken assumption that Sunday school is primarily for children to learn some basics of the faith from the more popular stories of the Bible-- i.e. Noah's Ark, David and Goliath, Jesus feeding the five thousand-- without dealing at all with the theological difficulties these stories can raise. After all, children are not ready to deal with such difficult issues yet. Let's give them a firm but simple foundation in their Sunday morning classes and leave the moving beyond their child-like Sunday school faith to later years, when they can drink deeply from the well of the religious blogosphere (Yes, I am being somewhat snarky. Joel  will understand. He has perfected the art of snark.)

But as a pastor of thirty years, let  me say that I object to the use of the phrase "Sunday school theology" in such a way. It is a caricature of Sunday school that is quite unfair. To be sure, adult disciples must move beyond the Sunday school lessons of their childhood (and unfortunately some don't), and, yes there are adult Sunday school classes that never seem to get beyond the milk of the faith into the substantive solid food of discipleship (Hebrews 5:12-14), but my experience as a pastor has been that Sunday school is and should be an important part of the vitality of the faith community, It has been my experience that the most vital congregations I have served have a strong Sunday school, and in particular they have a strong adult Sunday school. Why? Because church's with a weak or non-existent adult Sunday school program betray the belief that Sunday school is really only for children, and because of this view such churches seem to produce more adults with a superficial understanding of the faith, than churches that intentionally give attention to adult discipleship, an important component of which takes place on Sunday morning.

In the church I currently serve, I lead an adult Sunday school class every week. Currently, we are going through the book of Acts. Another class  is working through Richard Stearns' book, The Hole in Our Gospel. And another class regularly deals with topics of discipleship as they relate to the biblical text. As a weekly practice they begin class by reciting the Shema, which provides the foundation for their discussions each week-- that in loving the Lord our God with our whole being, including our minds, we seek to know more about God as we get to know God more.

Shallow understandings of the faith are out there to be sure. But don't refer to such superficial and simplistic Christianity as Sunday school religion or theology. That does a great disservice to those who work intentionally to make that time each Sunday a vital link in the mission of making disciples.


Tina said...

Some of the seasoned members of the church are physically unable to do much at the church. Many times someone from staff parish says you (as a pastor) need to provide something for them to do. They suggest that I let them mentor the youth. The problem is most of the older people in this particular setting have never been true disciples. Many do not know the Word of God or live out his teachings unless they are comfortable. The other set know the Word, but lack Jesus' grace. So I am using Michael Slaughter's advice and starting with a fresh set of people that are teachable that will follow Jesus even when it is not comfortable and they will make great disciples because they are not perfect and they know they are broken. It will take several years, but I am starting to see fruit already.

PamBG said...

Just to say that, in Britain, Sunday School is most certainly just for children. In living memory, it happens simultaneously with the main church service on the assumption that children can't sit through the service.

Adult small groups usually happen during the week and often in someone's home.

So, "Sunday School religion" makes perfect sense in this context.

And I have to say that I cringe at some of the things that get taught to the children during the "children's sermon" too. In trying to make concepts concrete for the little ones, we often come out with "Be good and God will love you" even if that's not our theology.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi Pam,

Actually, when I was writing this post I was thinking a little about Britain. I remember years ago when I was over there studying, I had lunch with Jimmy Dunn and he was telling me about the SS situation there and how he wished the churches in Britain had a stronger adult SS program like in the US.

As I said, there is some real poor theology that can get passed along in SS, but I am not sure that should lead to a blanket condemnation of SS in general.

And, yes, it is certainly true that discipleship can be had at other days and times during the week, but in my experience the best time to get folks is on Sunday morning, so it is worth the effort to make SS as strong as possible.

Well, I must say that I am not a fan of children's sermons for the very reason you mention. I have one every Sunday because that has been the church's practice for some time. I think if congregations were honest they would admit that the children's message is primarily for the sake of the adults who like to see the children.

PamBG said...

I do think that house groups and bible studies perform the same function. And they can also pass on bad theology depending on who leads them.