The Problem with Sunday School


Today, however, things are quite different, and that for a host of reasons. The church in the West has largely abandoned serious catechesis as a normative practice. Among the more surprising of the factors that have contributed to this decline are the unintended consequences of the great Sunday school movement. This lay-driven phenomenon swept across North America in the 1800s and came to dominate educational efforts in most evangelical churches through the 20th century. It effectively replaced pastor-catechists with relatively untrained lay workers, and substituted an instilling of familiarity (or shall we say, perhaps, over-familiarity) with Bible stories for any form of grounding in the basic beliefs, practices, and ethics of the faith.

Thus, for most contemporary evangelicals the entire idea of catechesis is largely an alien concept. The very word itself—catechesis, or any of its associated terms, including catechism—is greeted with suspicion by most evangelicals today. (“Wait, isn’t that a Roman Catholic thing?”)

We are persuaded that Calvin had it right and that we are already seeing the sad, even tragic, consequences of allowing the church to continue uncatechized in any significant sense. We are persuaded, further, that something can and must be done to help the Protestant churches steer a wiser course. What we are after, to put it otherwise, is to encourage our fellow evangelicals to seriously consider the wisdom of building believers the old-fashioned way.

Gary Parrett & J.I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Baker, 2010)

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5 Responses to The Problem with Sunday School

  1. Carter says:

    This is an interesting concept, and certainly an important one. I’ve been teaching Sunday school for 5 years, the last two of which has been to high schoolers. The critique you quoted seems accurate. A lot of these kids who have been raised in the church know as little as I did when I was their age, and my church attendance stopped when I was 9! Having only recently discovered the reaches of the catechisms and confessions, I am convinced that having a framework such as the Shorter Catechism provides would benefit them immensely.

    How do you think this could best be changed? I would almost argue that Sunday school is still useful, but as a means of building upon catechesis.

  2. RubeRad says:

    The Problem with Sunday School…is that it is fun!

    Reminds me of a parallel truth that Mrs. Rad learned from Amusing Ourselves to Death (I still need to read it!); the problem with Sesame Street is that it’s fun, and early exposure to Sesame Street establishes children’s expectations that education must be entertaining, which has the corollaries that boredom is anathema in education, and entitles kids to tune out, which makes it pretty tough to include anything difficult or challenging in the curriculum.

    Carter, as to your question, I think pastors need to kick their churches in the pants. The easier task would be to implement catechism as a required part of all sunday school classes. It shouldn’t be that hard to divvy up the SC over 12-15 years worth of sunday school classes. As a matter of fact, Great Commission should construct catechism-based sunday school materials, instead of what they do now, which could barely be described as “catechism-sprinkled”.

    The harder task would be to get families to embrace it. Maybe if elders adopted a habit for home visits (assuming they do home visits!) where they ask the parents in advance, “So, since we have a visit coming up, what catechism questions can I review with your kids when I’m there?”

    Another possibility would be to tap into kids’ competitive natures and hold Catechism Bees. I guess like Awana for Presbyterians?

  3. RubeRad says:

    And of course there’s the whole Continental Reformed historical practice of using the Sunday evening service to preach through the Heidelberg Catechism every year (I think I’ve even heard that the evening service is often just named “Catechism”)

  4. Zrim says:


    There are probably plenty of ways to immediately answer the kind of question you ask. But, since I’m not much for pants-kickin’, I tend to think this has more to do with just how we view the church in the first place: is it a place to serve consumers (including doctrinal ones), or a place to make and nurture disciples? For my part, I view the HC as highly pastoral and nurturing. And where there is a will to see the church as a place to make and nurture disciples, there will be a way to properly catechize them.

    Another possibility would be to tap into kids’ competitive natures and hold Catechism Bees. I guess like Awana for Presbyterians?

    When I taught at a Penty school years ago they would promise kids Tootsie Rolls if they raised their hands in worship, which I found odd, forced sponteneity.

    But isn’t “Awana (Baptist practice) for Presbyterians” sort of the same way we came into “Sunday School (Methodist practice) for Presbyetrians”? How is tapping into the felt need for fun any different from tapping into the felt need for competing? I don’t have any problem with incentives, but even those fall on hard times in my experience, and the really old-fashioned pedagogy never fails: you must learn these things because that’s your duty, and I must teach them because that’s mine.

  5. RubeRad says:

    Fine, but how will anybody suddenly have a will to see the church as a place to make and nurture disciples unless there’s some pants-kickin?

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