Another bicentennial -- the Sunday school movement

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The much-belittled Sunday school is alive and (moderately) well, and in fact is (modestly) celebrating its bicentennial, with all apparent expectation of continuing another century or two.

Historians find numerous instances in various places when someone gathered children together on Sunday for instruction. But the origin of the Sunday school as a modern movement is generally traced to the initiative of Robert Raikes, beginning about 1780.

Raikes was a philanthropist and publisher of a newspaper in Gloucester, England. He noticed that the children who worked in the factories all week often drifted about, getting into mischief on Sundays.

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Deciding they would be better off learning to read and receiving guidance in proper behavior, h e hired a teacher and set up a school that met on their free day. The idea spread, soon took root in America, and, as public schools emerged here to teach the three R's, offered a way of handling the fourth R, religion, especially among those Protestants without parochial schools.

Today the Sunday school does not loom as large perhaps as it did in 1910, when Congress adjourned so its members could march in a parade of the World Sunday School Association. But it still has a place in almost every Protestant church of the nation, and lists the current President of the United States as one of its members and teachers.

Although Raikes paid the first Sunday school teacher, reliance on unpaid volunteers subsequently became the norm. And Sunday school teachers now represent perhaps the largest core of volunteer workers in any US institution.

Since it is an axiom of education that the person who learns most from any class is the teacher, the impact on the churches of getting this large body of members to teach the faith week by week must be considerable.

As an academic enterprise, however, the Sunday school is commonly derided. Using teachers without professional training, given only one hour a week, finding pupil attendance often erratic, the Sunday school operates against formidable odds. Some religious educators give up on it.

In "The Big Little School," is history issued in revised form for the Sunday school's bicentennial, Robert Lynn and Elliott Wright argue nonetheless that it has exercised a significant influence on American society. "Compared to public education, the Sunday School is marginal to American society, yet is an important little school in the rearing of the whole nation. The Sunday School is the big little school of the United States," they declare.

They go on to make their own criticisms of the Sunday school, including the judgment that it has failed to deal with posed by the critical analysis of modern biblical scholars. And they conclude that it has probably seen its best days. Yet, they note that it involves some 40 million Americans and insist that it remains an institution of some national importance.

In an introduction to the book's revised edition, Blaine Fister, Sunday school executive for the National Council of Churches, says, "In most Protestant churches, the Sunday Church School still represents the primary focus for the religious education program." And he adds that "Jews and Catholics have also been using Sunday as a time for religious education."

Interviewed at his office here, Mr. Fister said many critics judge the Sunday school exclusively in academic terms and overlook its evangelistic importance for leading people into a religious commitment and deeper participation in the life of the church. His point is supported by statistics, which show that denominations enjoying the greatest numerical growth, mostly conservative evangelicals, are those making the greatest use of the Sunday school.

Another function of Sunday schools is giving the moral guidance that is often missing from public school education. As Raikes wanted changed behavior as well as intellectual achievement, Sunday school leaders today also work for education that results in new ways of living.

Religious educators in the mainline denominations are frequently trying to stimulate the same kind of activity for changing society that their counterparts promote in socialaction departments. Many Sunday school professionals, Mr. Fister said, currently follow an approach called "analysis- action-reflection," as set forth by the Rev. Thomas Groome, a Roman Catholic priest teaching at Boston College. This, Mr. Fister said, is related to the work of Paulo Freire, author of "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," and basically amounts to a reworking of John Dewey's progressive-education theories.

But Mr. Fister said that a majority of people in the churches continue to demand an emphasis on biblical content, and this is borne out by the comparative sales of curriculum materials taking this approach and those focusing on "life situations" or some other emphasis.

The Sunday school movement of the last century had a strong interdenominational emphasis, Mr. Fister noted, and in 1872 this led to the beginning of the Uniform Lesson Series, a Bible-centered plan by which all denominations could study the same passage on a given Sunday, though each produced curriculum materials from its own viewpoint.

In recent years, several denominations have begun producing curriculum lines jointly under the Joint Educational Development, Mr. Fister said the one proving most popular is based on the Uniform Series.

Mr. Fister staffs the committe that continues to plan this series, and at its recent annual meeting in New York the committee was talking about the 1986-92 cycle, evidence that it expects the Sunday school to continue awhile.

In interviews, members of the committee expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for the Sunday school.

Earl Waldrop of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville said, "Like other denominations, we had a declining enrollment for a few years, but in the last four or five years we have been holding steady, registering gains and losses in small numbers."

Marvin Simmers of the Presbyterian Church, US (Southern), staff in Atlanta said, "We are looking for alternatives in religious education, but the Sunday school is still the key element."

Evidence that interest in Bible study remains strong came from Lawrence Denef of the American Lutheran Church headquarters in Minneapolis. He reported that his denomination is bringing out a new line of Sunday school curriculum materials, and in response to grass-roots demand will give enhanced prominence to the biblical text.

Although Sunday schools originated to serve children, they later included adults as well, and now constitute one of the largest adult-education enterprises in the nation. Mr. Fister lamented that some religious-education professionals tend to write off the Sunday school rather than work to improve it , though he saw signs that their attitude was changing. "Instead of criticizing what the untrained volunteers are doing," he said, "they should support them and help them do a better job."

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