How Sunday School created a theologically illiterate American Church

sunday schoolOne of the places where America began to become theologically illiterate was an odd one: Sunday School.

I believe the introduction of Sunday Schools truly has caused the American Church to know less about what they believe.

There are a few reasons:

1 – When we began focusing on Sunday Schools, we moved from having theologically-trained pastors teach to having laypeople teach. (Don’t get too worked up about this yet. More below.)

2 – The Sunday School movement was ecumenical (i.e. representing a number of different Christian churches). A lot of denominations have at least slightly different beliefs regarding doctrine, so they moved away from teaching any version of those debatable doctrines.

3 – The easiest commonality was to teach Bible stories. So that’s where the focus went.

Some disclaimers. Please hear these before any angry comments!

1 – I’m thrilled that laypeople teach. I don’t believe you must have been to seminary to be allowed to teach. With that said, there are times that we’ll take any warm body. Even if that warm body doesn’t know what repentance is or why in the world we would need to be adopted by God. I applaud willing volunteers, but we can’t expect our learners to learn theology that their teachers don’t know.

2 – I love ecumenical efforts. The catholic Church has far more in common than it has in opposition. But if we run from any disputed doctrines, we’ll run from some things that have had the greatest impact on my life (e.g. a Wesleyan understanding of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace).

3 – We must teach the Bible! Of course! And learning theology through the narrative of Scripture is incredibly important. But we’ve tended to replace our wider theological beliefs with the stories. So you can find a lot of teenagers who know the story of David and Goliath, but very few who can define sanctification, or even articulate a Christian understanding of growing in holiness.

Some suggestions for change:

1 – Our teachers need to know basic theology. We don’t have to have seminarians teaching every class, but there does need to be a baseline. Please don’t just look for the best warm body.

“But we don’t have enough people! We have to take whomever will volunteer.” That’s probably true in a lot of places. So some more encouragement: if you have a good handle on basic theology, we need you! Please volunteer to teach. If you are willing to teach but don’t have a good handle on basic theology, please find a way to get a crash course! You and those you teach will all benefit.

2 – We need to teach the specifics of our faith. Presbyterians, teach about election and perseverance. Methodists, teach about prevenient grace and entire sanctification. Dispensationalists, teach about… well, never mind. (I jest. Kind of.)

3 – Continue to teach the Bible! Teach all of the stories. But make sure that you are teaching something beyond just the story and beyond just nice morals. (E.g. Please don’t teach the story of Noah and the ark and then use it to talk about Noah’s patience with all those stinky animals and how we should be patient, too [actual children’s Bible usage]!) This means intentionally asking what big doctrines are being communicated through certain stories.

Elijah and the prophets of Baal teaches us about God’s faithfulness, judgment for the wicked, and God’s almighty power. Emphasize those! And don’t be afraid to teach from non-narrative pieces like the psalms and New Testament letters.

Yes, Sunday School (along with many other factors) has contributed to rampant theological illiteracy in the American Church. But we can fight back!

Resources for Re-gaining Theological Literacy

When Martin Luther realized how theologically illiterate were the masses around him, he created a catechism. It was a short summary of the faith in question and answer form, with the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, and Lord’s Prayer as its fixtures.

Lutherans, if you don’t have it, go get Luther’s catechism and start using it and teaching it. Presbyterians, go get the Westminster Catechism. Dutch Reformed, grab a Heidelberg Catechism. Non-creedal Bible-only independent churches… oh wait. (Again, I jest.) Wesleyans, take a look at the resource some friends and I have developed and published with Asbury Seedbed. It’s called “Echo: A Catechism for Discipleship in the Ancient Christian Tradition.” I think you’ll like it.

Take a look at my follow-up article: “A Crash Course in Theology.”

20 thoughts on “How Sunday School created a theologically illiterate American Church

  1. Teddy, is the concept of prevenient grace the main reason why Methodists view infant baptism as symbolic rather than regenerative?

    1. Good question, Lauren. Methodists occupy a bit of a middle ground on infant baptism. We actually do recognize a regenerating grace of infant baptism, though we would also say it is neither essential nor sufficient for salvation.

      So I would call baptism a sign/symbol of God’s saving grace in someone’s life AND a means of receiving that grace from God. It’s more than a mere symbol, but less than sufficient per se for salvation.

      Does that begin to answer your question?

      1. This is such a tough one for me! I just can’t find where scripture draws the line between the powerful effects of Baptism and why we, as believers, would ever want to not have that grace or share it with our children as soon as possible. If baptism really does bestow such grace, what are the effects of not having it?

      2. It’s funny, Lauren. Others look at the same issue and say, “I just can’t find where Scripture shows that we should baptize infants, or do anything other than immerse.” It’s a terribly divisive issue, and I wish it weren’t.

        I think there’s a true and beautiful grace that comes when infants are baptized. I also think there’s a true and beautiful grace when adult believers are baptized. I have my own personal preferences, but above them all is my preference that however a particular church, family, and individual handle baptism, they recognize it as a truly powerful means of grace, but they don’t confuse it to be an essential or sufficient means of salvation.

  2. I have my doubts that Sunday School is a big culprit, here. The Catholic church rejected Sunday School, opting for a model that emphasizes the catechism, child presence for the Mass, and parents as teachers, but the theological illiteracy is still pervasive. The available (and, I admit, extremely limited) sociological evidence indicates that parents are absolutely crucial for the transmission of religious belief (a point I know you’re not denying). Unfortutely, neither the Protestant nor the Catholic model seems to have effectively enabled and motivated parents to play their role.

    1. Great points, Claire.

      First, I certainly agree about the importance of parents. See my post here:

      Second, I do still think the shift that came with the Sunday School emphasis has damaged our teaching of theology. I’m at a loss about how to handle your reference to the Catholic Church, though. Why have they suffered the same slide? Especially if they have continued to emphasize parents as teachers – what you suggest (and I agree with) as the major key to passing on faith well. Stated more clearly: if the Catholics are still emphasizing theology, using catechisms, and parental teaching, why haven’t they been able to teach their kids what they believe?

  3. Claire, can you help me understand your note about the Catholic church rejecting the concept of Sunday School? I agree that theological illiteracy is pervasive among Catholics, but not sure that the catechism and child presence for Mass are culprits (and you may not have been claiming that either). I’m with you and Teddy on extreme necessity of the role of parents…I just had a conversation with my mom a few weeks ago in which she told me that her parents (potentially encompassing the generation of her parents as a whole??) were under the impression that the church was supposed to ‘take care’ of passing along the faith. As a result, they did little or no study of faith at home…and my parents/their siblings followed suit with their children. However, catechism, in appropriate hands, combined with diligent (even routine) Mass attendance seem to have been very successful in carrying the Holy Spirit’s presence on (at least in our family) through the failings of our flesh from generation to generation. On a side note, this thought serves to strengthen my belief in the true Presence of Christ at Mass in the Eucharist. What do you and Teddy think?

  4. I meant that both the Catholic and Protestant churches have experienced the same problem despite different approaches on the Sunday School issue. (From what I understand from my Catholic friends who went through CCD, CCD is very different from Sunday School, but I could be wrong, here). I actually think that having kids in the service is really good things as it makes the service a more accurate reflection of the body of Christ, so, no I wasn’t finding fault there. I guess my overall view is that, for the past 80 years or so, something in our culture has made it very difficult to 1. motivate and 2. equip parents to do their part. Getting both of these jobs done on a broad scale appears to be extremely difficult in the present climate, and I do not have a solution, unfortunately.

    1. Claire, I understand…thank you for clarifying! It is interesting what you mention about your friends’ comments on CCD. I was taught by nuns in a Catholic school when I was very young (and lived in the North) and I have beautiful memories of their teaching…then we moved to a small town in the South and, what was still technically called CCD was a completely different experience altogether! I hadn’t really thought about this much, but what an impact the environment made in how the religious education translated! I agree with you also on children being present with their family at Mass/Service from the very beginning. Children understand so much more than adults often give them credit for;) There is plenty of time for ‘breaking it down’ at home, as a family.

  5. Honestly, I wonder why we don’t just have a Systematic Theology class in the church. I feel like we could sell it as something cool. 😛

    And honestly, the Baptist Faith and Message sounds like something totally lame to teach through!

  6. Teddy, you’ve made an interesting stab at trying to pinpoint where we went wrong. I have so much to say on this, it could fill a book. But let me start with an agreement that Sunday School has been inadequate to produce a Biblically and theologically literate laity. The UM Board of Education had rigorous laboratory training available for many years to produce higher quality Sunday School teaching & leadership in the church. Many conferences and districts used to offer periodic leadership training for teachers also. I was a Diaconal Minister and Certified Director of Christian Education for 20 years, and back in the day, academic educational programs and professional development were pretty good. The UM Publishing House had (and I guess still has) a Scope and Sequence for Sunday School material for each developmental level of the life span. If a person were to attend Sunday School every week throughout their lives, they would have a comprehensive understanding of the Bible, Church history, and yes, some theology from a distinctly Wesleyan perspective. That’s the kicker, isn’t it? Who goes to Sunday School every week of their lives? We don’t even give out perfect attendance pins anymore. And what percentage of the membership has historically attended Sunday School at all? I used to be thrilled when it was over 50%. And what percentage of those get voluntold to be teachers? And what percentage of them actually receive training to be a Sunday School teacher? For several years, I was one of the writers who contributed occasionally to the literature that was available for local churches to purchase. One could argue about the main theological perspective of the material from UM Publishing, but they did try to utilize a variety of writers. Many churches chose to use literature from other denominations or independent Christian publishers, but it rarely had a Wesleyan perspective. I’m excited about Seedbed and what they are developing now. There are a lot of factors for the failure of Sunday School. But remember also, that many who did go to Sunday School found more than just meager food for their brain and heart. As Dick Murray of Perkins used to say, “The power of a church in in its sects life.” (That sentence makes more impact when spoken aloud.) The small groups (sects) in Sunday School, continuing year after year, were powerful lifelines of love and support for those members. They lived with each other through life events: births, deaths, marriages, divorces, illnesses, and retirements. They were family. It wasn’t just about the coffee, but the “lesson” each week could have been 20-30 minutes and “fellowship” the rest of the time. Sorry this is so long, but I wanted to muddy the water for you, just to say it’s more complicated than it appears.

    1. Thanks for this response, Dottie. I agree with you about the complexity. My title to this post may have over-promised for anyone expecting me to name the one place where Methodists lost our theological moorings. It would be better to say that the introduction of Sunday School represents our retreat from serious, systematic teaching of theology. I think it was probably a cause – and a significant one – of less theologically educated Methodists, but far from the only one. And it has had some other benefits, like those you’ve named here.

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