Is It Time to Bring Back the Original Sunday School?


Sam Weller, associate professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and authorized biographer of Ray Bradbury, recently published an article in The Chicago Tribune that got me thinking: “Without school librarians, we’re on a dystopian path.”

In his commentary he expresses his concern about cuts in staff and funding for school libraries. During a visit to rural Shawnee, Oklahoma, he found out that their school library received no funding whatsoever for new library books in 2016. In Wichita, Kansas, certified librarians were being replaced by clerks. The Kansas Department of Education has reduced the number of certified librarians in their state by 31%. The number of school librarians in the Chicago public school system has dropped from 454 to 160.

Mr. Weller reminds the reader that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 depicts a dystopian society that no longer values reading and education.

As Bradbury famously stated: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

So like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (“You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” “No! You got your chocolate on my peanut butter!”) I started putting some things together in my head.

Like the reason for the original Sunday School.

Quite literally, the first Sunday Schools were a reading program. Robert Raikes, an English Anglican evangelical, is credited as being the key promoter of the Sunday School movement. It began in England around 1780, in part as an effort to rescue children from a life of illiteracy due to deep poverty and the long hours they spent working in factories during the week. The church provided these children with clean clothes and learning materials, and instructed them in reading, writing, hygiene, morality, and proper manners.

Although the Sunday School at this time was not focused on religious training, the Bible was a primary textbook. It was hoped that the children would learn good morals, and because of their regular exposure to Scripture might eventually be converted.

As one might expect, the Sunday School movement spread to America, and by 1950 most children attended Sunday School, even if their parents did not go to church. By this time compulsory state education had been established, securing the opportunity for a decent education to all of our nation’s children, but many parents continued to send their kids to church, believing that Sunday school was an essential part of their children learning to be good citizens. Churches seized on the opportunity for Sunday School to become a dedicated evangelistic tool. At this point, Sunday School curriculum was focused solely on religious education.

Here endeth the history lesson.

I’ve never been a huge supporter of Sunday School, although I’ve served as a Sunday School teacher and superintendent on and off over the years. I saw the problems, but I wasn’t allowed to try to resolve them. I objected to the mish-mash of Sunday School as an evangelistic tool and discipleship method for churched kids.

Week after week the bus kids came and went sporadically so there was little hope of teaching precept upon precept, line upon line. Church kids were bored if you taught for the bus kids, and the bus kids were bored if you taught over their heads. Parents were concerned about the influence that children from troubled homes might have, with their exposure to everything from violence to porn to drug abuse. In spite of the fact that this was a legitimate problem, moms and dads were sometimes shamed for not being “compassionate enough.” You all know what I’m talking about; I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before.

Maybe at this point we’ve learned some things about how to do Sunday School in a way that meets the needs of children at their developmental and spiritual level. I hope so, because now it looks to me like we’ve come full circle, and the original Sunday School is needed once again.

Many of our nation’s children live with serious moral and physical deprivation, in districts with failing schools that don’t have the necessary funds for teaching materials, safe learning environments, or quality teachers. These children have few if any advocates and little hope of escaping the life they seemed destined to lead. Poverty, crime, dysfunctional families, and a vicious circle of life continues.

As educators at heart, we know the difference that reading makes in the life of a child. From acquiring basic information about the world around them to developing empathy, books and reading are an essential part of finding purpose and fulfilling one’s potential.

As Christians, we know the difference that reading and understanding the Bible can make in the life of a child, having an earthly and Heavenly advocate, learning they are loved and forgiven, and understanding their place and purpose in the world.

Christians who care about both the temporal and eternal destinies of the children in our community and our country are in the position to begin to repair the huge aching gap our government simply can’t fill.

What do you think? Do we need the original Sunday School again?


The outstanding thing about Raikes’ approach - he saw a very specific need, and created a program to meet that need. Since it was novel, he didn’t have the pressure to conform his program to existing expectations.

If, as Susan R has mentioned, our ministries are suffering from a lack of focus and definition, how about bringing back the original Raikes’ approach instead of copying his original method?

John B. Lee

….but that noted, I’ve noted a lot of kids really can’t read well by age ten. There are probably a lot worse things to do than to teach kids to read!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

I’m always leery of churches getting involved in activities that are outside of their purpose. But in some places, the connection between literacy training and disciple-making wouldn’t be a strained one at all. It’s not hard to imagine communities where it would make sense for a church there to go that direction… but I can’t say I’ve been involved with a church where I thought that would be a good idea.

It might work better as a Saturday/Sunday PM kind of thing… and in some places you need a class for adults.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

On the loss of librarians …

In my view probably has more to do with automation than an a decline in reading

Here’s an article that looks to be 25 years old that suggests the correlation between librarian jobs and automation’92/195-hor.htm

Another on decline…

Personally: I’ve been to the library perhaps 10 times in 20 years but am a voracious reader (new and used books … buy and recycle)

One very nice benefit our our Hennepin County library: online access to Value Line Investing. Worth probably $ 500 per year

The average graduate of Chicago Public Schools (40% do not graduate, by the way) reads at about a sixth grade reading level. That would indicate that there is a large portion of students in each grade who have an obvious reason not to use libraries; they can not read well enough to use those books. This, in turn, would imply that the core problem in CPS is not a lack of librarians, but rather a lack of competent teachers.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for libraries and good librarians. My family benefits from them immensely, and small town librarians love their “regulars”. I just don’t think a lack of librarians is a key issue in Chicago Public Schools—it’s rather that a LOT of students simply have no ability to enjoy one!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

The way I see it is this is a huge gap the church can once again fill. Whether it’s an organized ministry or members are encouraged to volunteer for literacy programs in their communities, the point is that being able to read and understand the Bible is essential for conversion and then growth, and the church should invest in that.

The problem I’ve always had with Sunday School is lumping kids together by age, more lumping of unregenerate kids with saved kids, and then even more lumping of kids from at-risk homes with kids in stable families. It’s not about keeping ‘bad’ kids from ‘good’ kids—there’s nothing wrong with a church having separate classes for kids who have different needs, whether it’s the need to learn how to read, or to understand the Gospel, or to dive deeper into doctrine.

If we want children (and families) to learn about God and the Gospel, I think we have an opportunity to solve two problems at one time.

Susan, we might suggest it’s really three problems. You solve the problem of illiteracy for some people, you help members get the tools they need to grow in Christ, and (as the poor are hit most severely by illiteracy) you get the church to reach out to the poor.

Hats on the ice, gentlemen.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

With any ministry these questions must be asked:

  • What is the Biblical basis for it?
  • What needs to be accomplished?
  • How is it best accomplished?
  • Are the methods Biblical?
  • How are results measured?
  • What adjustments must be made?

There’s very little “school” in the typical Sunday school

This week on FB a “friend” was starting his SS teaching prep at 8 pm Saturday night (posted on FB)

…teaching is pointless. You can tell kids (and adults) what the Bible says, but they can’t search the Scriptures, study, or rightly divide the Word. It’s not necessarily the church’s ‘responsibility’ to teach reading, but you can’t effectively disciple people who can’t read the Bible.

The comparison to the original Sunday School is that it filled a real need, contributed to the overall well-being of society, created a partnership of sorts with parents, and offered the opportunity for children to hear the Gospel. There’s no bad here.

The evolution of the Sunday School IMO shows what happens when the church starts thinking like an organization instead of an organism.

That looks really neat Rob! I would love to help with something like that. Wish my church did it!

Rob, my church does a lot of children’s ministries with..sometimes little apparent fruit. As Sunday School Grand Poo-Bah, I am of course partially responsible. I would love to learn more about the implementation—I get and understand the need to screen volunteers and the like, but getting people who actually know how to teach reading and the like, and who can communicate that to parents, is a bit tougher nut to crack. So in the “copious free time” I know you don’t have, would love it if you’d write something up….

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

was started by two Christian School teachers as a summer job. It was a ministry of an ethnic Chinese church which has since disbanded. HSBC inherited the teachers and the program.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Programs like these definitely have a win-win aspect to them. In my area (high poverty/high ELL) a properly formed partnership that included reading practice, basic homemaking skills (for males and females) and the “morals and hygiene” part could go quite a ways. I have way too many elementary age students who are already responsible for their younger siblings simply because the adults are working several jobs trying to survive.

At the founding of our church in 1873, the deacon’s wife was Sunday School teacher (very rural Minnesota), and also taught school in the town (for $1 per student per month - 16-20 students), which wasn’t more than a village until 1903 (when the town incorporated). Although I cannot tell what the content of the teaching was at the time, the church records speak for years of a “flourishing Sabbath school.” So Mrs. Azariah Smith was doing both - both the public and the Sabbath school. It is safe to say that the content at that time wasn’t contradictory.