Is It Time To Bury Sunday School?

now now friends…don’t go all UU on me.

for those of you who know the history of Sunday School, this question probably won’t strike you as too odd. for those of you unfamiliar with the history of Sunday School, I’ve probably just confirmed every imaginable bad dream in your head about what seminary makes people think.

that said though, is Sunday School a good idea? or an idea that had really good intentions and purposes when it was started, but became institutionalized and is really just something that we do now just because that’s the way it’s always been done?


14 thoughts on “Is It Time To Bury Sunday School?

  1. Don’t get me started – but I have been preaching for the disposal (or maybe compost?) of Sunday School for years. Yet, the persistence of the “unworkable” model continues…for both good and bad reasons, I suppose. (good reason = humans are creatures of habit, change is hard…bad reason = we’ve invested no time, energy or thought so let’s keep things the way they were in the 1950’s).

    I wish that there was more conversation about the place of Sunday School in contemporary UU culture – and remain sad (and a bit exasperated) that Fahs is still on the MFC reading list as the primary “UU” philosophy of education. Glad to speak more on this off the grid, too ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. I have always been confused about the role of Sunday school, so I would be interested in hearing you say more on this topic.

  3. the handful of UU Congregations that Ive seen that had adult Sunday school, they seemed to be pretty good, and developed by the local congregation. In most cases SS/RE seems to be just an excuse to get disruptive kids out of the sanctuary to a daycare setting, usually without a structured program or lesson plan, other than “have fun”. And I’ve been to large congregations both north and south (not west though).
    So yeah, that seems kinda useless.

  4. WE moved to a “whole worship” structure several years ago, moving “Sunday School” to “first hour” (the hour before worship). Since then, our DRE moved on to her internship for her MDiv and we have been trying to do Sunday School through an all-volunteer group and every year I (as the RE chair) have raised this issue: if we are doing worship well, do we need to have this additional hour. I can see adding a youth group time, and even having some sort of babysitting during the service, but overall, I’m not sure the program is worth the effort. I’d much rather have a worship time that connects with the whole congregation than worry about this “identity-based” hour. Especially because we are a small church without a DRE and with a minister who is not involved in RE (because he is half time and because it isn’t an area of interest for him). I say a hearty amen. Let’s focus on worship and involving children in real “missional” type work and leave that hour of babysitting to babysitters–not parents who are trying to be DREs. Did I mention this is a hot button for me? ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. uuMomma knows my position – very, very similar to hers – about the worth and importance of non-age-segregated worship. I have trouble, though, not having her experience, in connecting that position with declining value of or need to discontinue SS/RE.

    In the past 10 years, how many new UUs became involved initially specifically because they wanted their children to get a religious education in a non-dogmatic setting? I’m asking. I have no idea of the number. I know anecdotally that this has been an important source of adult growth. If we are saying SS/RE is a drag on our ability to do our best, are we taking into account these parents who otherwise would never think to set foot among us?

    I am all for age-integrated worship all the time. But worship, while containing some educational elements, is not essentially RE. Given that reality (one I would not change), when do we propose giving children and adults age-appropriate education concerning:

    -Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist history and polity
    -Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism beyond the borders of the US (for US congregations)
    -UU identity, values, ethics, theology, and mission
    -Sexuality Education
    -Anti-racism anti-oppression
    -World Religions
    -Critical thinking and self-awareness

    And so on. I’m not suggesting that Sunday morning is the only time CRE and ARE can be engaged in. But given people’s cramped and conflicting schedules, if people are already going to be present on Sunday, is there a better time to schedule it? I guess that’s completely contingent on local realities. (And by all means, do stuff with teens in an evening setting rather than hoping they will love RE enough to overcome their natural circadian rhythms.) If people will participate on some other schedule in classes or activities that provide the same content/ understanding that has been the aim of SS/RE, then reschedule away. When it falls on the schedule makes no difference to me. But it does seem to me that there is a certain amount of knowledge that we need to cover whether or not we think SS/RE is the best format for accomplishing it. It is the age-appropriate engagement with the material that I think of as RE, not some specific schedule or educational format or curriculum.

    From those who think SS is past its sell-by date, I would like to see (an outline of) a proposal on the replacement for SS/RE so I can better understand your aims and processes.

  6. Paul, for all the good things you set out in an important view of what kids and families are searching for and need, I am caught by 18 years of experience where the typical ACTIVE family commits about 15-25 hours A YEAR for participation in a Sunday School program. Regular attendance twice a month is a HIGH level of participation in the east and west coast communities I’ve served. For the one family that comes every week, there are three that come once a month. It’s hard to build or sustain a program or cognitive development with that input….

  7. I hear what you’re saying, Ms. M. If, because of cultural patterns, people won’t participate sufficiently to have a viable program, they won’t. So that leaves the question in my mind, how can we offer age-appropriate engagement with at least the minimum acceptable amount of the stuff I listed above? I don’t think we have a strong enough coming-of-age tradition across the denomination to fall back on the equivalent of bar/bat mitzvah or confirmation classes, do we?

    And maybe I was wrong in my list of knowledge areas to engage? E.g., does history risk becoming hagiography? uuMomma suggested “involving children in real ‘missional’ type work.” Might that and gradually bringing children into lived governance experience cover the bases in engaging with UU identity, values, ethics, mission, and polity? Do we need to be teaching our children about World Religions when it sounds like we don’t get enough class time with them even to teach them about UU? But what about OWL?

    I had not thought of the problem in terms of the absence of a practice of presence. Thanks for making me think further – though absolutely without conclusion…

    • At our church, we have tracked attendance, and once every 6 weeks, we follow up with any family that has missed more than twice. We actually have really good attendance, even after switching to workshop rotation from a more traditional curriculum approach. Part of that was due to our former DRE doing visioning workshops with families, and getting buy-in prior to the switch. We also have a large congregation, with a lot of RE Committee and volunteer resources, which I think helps. I’d be interested in how this works in a smaller congregation with less resources and hours for a DRE.

      I am one of those who came to a UU because I was looking for non-dogmatic but religious and spiritual exposure for my children. I have seen it done really well, and seen it done so-so. As a seminarian, I’m really interested in this discussion. I doubt that there is a blanket approach in a congregational denomination.

  8. One of the things I learned from my professor of religious education, Robert Pazmino at Andover Newton, is that a lot of these arguments about Sunday school can arise because those arguing come from different educational philosophies. The folks who want to do away with Sunday school are often philosophically aligned with the unschooling movements. This stance is usually grounded in a romantic naturalist philosophy, similar to that of John Holt, Ivan Illich, etc. Romantic naturalists want to see a “free learning environment,” in which the individual is free to learn without the strictures of such things as classrooms.

    By contrast, Fahs is firmly rooted in a progressivist educational philosophy. Progressivists want to see learners doing group problem-solving, and they want to see learners using the democratic process and the scientific method. Forget reading Fahs’s _Today’s Children, yesterday’s Heritage,_ which is really a work of theology; check out Fahs’s earlier book _Exploring Religious with Eight Year Olds,_ which gives an extended case study of a progressivist educational philosophy applied to Sunday school. While I am highly critical of many things Fahs said, most of our congregations still don’t begin to approach the high educational levels of her Sunday schools.

    Another prevalent educational philosophy within Unitarian Universalism is existentialism. An existentialist educational philosophy aims to get people to learn how to become more authentic; Carl Rogers and Maxine Green have existentialist educational philosophies. This is the philosophical grounding of the old _About Your Sexuality_ curriculum, a philosophy which continues (albeit in somewhat modified form) in the new _Our Whole Lives_ curriculum. I’d argue that this is also the educational philosophy that underlies much of the small group ministry movement.

    So there you have three different educational philosophies prevalent within Unitarian Unviersalism, that result in three different approaches to education. Romantic naturalism is going to lead people to advocate for ending formal educational insitutions, and going towards more of an unschooling model; that is precisely what I see in the all-ages worship model of education. Progressivism has historically led us to use several different settings, including progressive classroom settings (i.e., Sunday school); “junior church” or “family chapel” settings; and settings that help learners engage in the democratic process through doing social justice projects (e.g., “Way Cool Sunday School”). An existentialist educational philosophy has led us in the direction of directed small group settings with carefully nurtured emotional closeness that allows learners to explore and learn about their sexual, emotional, and spiritual beings with others.

    So this generic call for doing away with Sunday school, while a fine polemical device for demonizing one’s opponents, is not very productive in terms of actually furthering a deeper exploration of how and why we can do education. I wish those of you who are Romantic Naturalists would go out and write positive philosophical justifications for your position so I can actually evaluate what you stand for (rather than having to listen to yet another tirade against an ill-defined straw man called “Sunday school”); then I wish you’d go out and create successful programs in local congregations and document what you do, how learners respond to it, and what the actual outcomes are of your philosophies. This is what we progressivists and existentialists have been doing for years (see Fahs’s _Exploring Religions with Eight Year Olds_ or my blog for unvarnished reports of the results of my teaching philosophy in entries tagged “teaching diary”; see e.g. the old _Haunting House_ curriculum for a lovely description of how an existentialist curriculum worked with real live children).

  9. Pingback: Burying Sunday School: a sleep-deprived RE Chair goes ape sh*t « uuMomma

  10. Great points Dan, and how wonderful it would be if there was support for those who’d like to write those positive philosophical justifications. Then it could go into the new text book for the MFC’s reading list you’re writing!?!?! Til then, hugs to UUMomma and the other volunteers working so hard, and gratitude to Kim for the provocative forum!

  11. Pingback: Arizona, questioning Sunday School, and more UU blogging « : The Interdependent Web

  12. Just a little clarifying comment re Dan’s statement, “Romantic naturalism is going to lead people to advocate for ending formal educational institutions, and going towards more of an unschooling model; that is precisely what I see in the all-ages worship model of education.”

    Of course, some of us who support age-integrated worship do not believe that worship is essentially or primarily an educational system or model. I believe it is partially or tangentially so, but IMO the aim of worship is worship (i.e., communal orientation toward the divine, toward the ultimate, toward our shared relationship with what is beyond us) not education. IMO, worship needs little to depend on age-appropriate levels of learning while education does, even if removed from age-segregated classrooms.

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