Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A whole culture has evaporated in our lifetime

I read with interest Robert's post on attempts to revitalise a Sunday School in the Methodist Church closest to Birmingham city centre. Let us hope that God blesses this initiative in an area with as much need as that surrounding our own church.

But Robert's post got me thinking about Sunday Schools and the whole culture that it represented. It also reminded me that within my own quarter of a century of preaching Sunday Schools and children's work have simply disappeared across whole swathes of the Christian community in Britain.

It is not an urban myth that some churches celebrate the Sunday School Anniversary long after the Sunday School is closed. To my knowledge a church in our circuit - now heavily dependent on the excellent West Midlands "Ring and Ride" scheme - consisting of six elderly people, still marks the anniversary.

When I started preaching in the 1980s it was taken for granted that during  the morning service the preacher would be expected to include a short children's story and ascertain with the stewards the best time for the children to leave for their classes. I still do some children's talks, but it certainly is no longer a universal requirement. Where children's work continues new schemes are used such as Godly Play or Mucky Church.

The Sunday School movement has a long and honourable history stretching back  nearly three centuries. For many it was the only education available, for others, it enhanced our state provided education.

There was a whole culture of Sunday School life, much of which has now disappeared, largely in the last twenty years: I have already mentioned the anniversary. Then there was the annual outing, the built up and delivery of the nativity play, the sticky pictures distributed weekly to denote attendance, the prize givings, the wonderful Bible stories (usually of Jesus's miracles plus the story of David and Goliath), the "sunny smiles", the stirring stories of missionaries in far flung parts of the world and the JMA collection or its equivalent in other denominations, and then the wonderful songs.

Ah yes the songs. There will soon be an entire generation who have never sung "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam", "Wide, wide as the ocean", "The best book to read is the Bible" (not available on the net so probably has disappeared forever) and, my favourite, with actions, "The wise man built his house upon the rock"

My childhood was spent in a working class area. Even then, amongst the non-Jewish population, only a minority of us went to Sunday School. I went to one with about two hundred other children. It was run each Sunday afternoon at Paragon Hall by the local Plymouth Brethren. The teachers were all interesting people with a deep love and fondness for their Darby Bibles which they had marked and remarked during many quiet times and nights of fervent prayer and fasting.

Other school friends went to other denominations - the Anglicans, the Methodists on Chatsworth Road (still there I see), the Sally Army at Congress Hall and the Round Chapel (where I went to cubs).

What was clear to me then, was that Sunday Schools provided a common culture and an understanding of faith that was not available through the RE lessons at our schools.  In later life that understanding was used as a basis for young people to hear the Gospel, be challenged and then become subjects of His divine grace. This has largely disappeared. The minority of the 1950s have become a tiny fraction. Evangelists of the future will have to start from absolute scratch.


Robert said...

I went to a Sunday School for a while as a kid, purely because I was under pressure to do so. I was bullied (nobody was any help), bored and bemused. I knew perfectly well, for instance, that people don't walk about on water, so how come this fellow Jesus was doing it? From what I remember, nobody had any answers. I solved it, apparently when I was six, by going home and telling my mother I didn't believe in God.

I think one of the main reasons the church loses people is that it takes them for granted, and that's particularly true of the kids. Too often, sunday School is just a way to keep them busy while the parents are in church, so of course they leave as soon as they're old enough to assert themselves. Fortunately, we've found a couple of ladies who want it to be more than that, so we'll see how it goes. We're planning an Open Day to give it a kickstart, but don't have a definite date yet.

Anonymous said...

I quite liked Sunday School, myself. However, only a very small proportion of children ever join the church where they've been a Sunday School scholar. These schools are good for creating 'diffusive Christianity', but not necessarily for building up strong churches.

Originally, these schools gave children a chance at literacy. They also provided kids with something to do, and a chance of being respectable. But today, what can Sunday School (usually known by different name these days)offer that kids or their parents want? Kids aren't going to attend Sunday School for purely religious reasons.

One suggestion is that we could have Saturday schools, where kids are helped with their homework as well as getting religious instruction. It would be hard to find decent teachers though, which has often been a problem for Sunday Schools as well.