Ask an Anglican: Sunday School and Praying with our Kids

Pierre-Édouard_Frère_-_Child_Praying_at_Mother's_Knee_-_Walters_371330Jill writes:

What are the best prayers for my children to say? My daughter is 2 years old, and my son is 5 months old.  My daughter says “Amen” and “Jesus,” and I want to show her the right direction. We pray “God is great, God is good…” for grace before dinner and “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (new version)” before bed as well as sing “Jesus Loves Me.” The Christian education for children at our local Episcopal church looks very much like the children’s ministries at the consumerist, Evangelical churches down the street. How do I reconcile this? I want my kids to connect with God in the ways that he intended. Thank you.

This is a fantastic question and one that I am interested in both as a priest and as a parent. We want to raise our children to know Christ and be known by Him. We want them to be both educated and engaged by their faith. Yet far too often we underestimate our children and attempt to entertain them rather than giving them the life giving Gospel that they so deeply need.

The History of Sunday School

Believe it or not, there has not always been Sunday School. The very first Sunday Schools began in the Church of England in the late eighteenth century and they were viewed with tremendous skepticism at the time. In ages prior, children were simply expected to be a part of the worshipping community. From the Reformation onward, Confirmation was a time of special preparation for children. The Catechism in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and all subsequent BCPs in America (until 1979) is geared towards teaching the faith to children who were baptized as infants. The content is minimal – the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and a bit about the Sacraments – but the Catechism itself is in plain and surprisingly adult language. Children were expected to rise to their potential.

The first Sunday Schools began in the Church of England in the late eighteenth century, and they were more than just an effort to educate children in the faith. They were part of an effort to educate children in general. This was part of what made them controversial. The class system in Britain  made the idea of teaching poor children to read anathema to those in the upper echelons of society. But that was exactly what Sunday Schools did. They became the basis of church schools. They met on Sundays because children were expected to work during the rest of the week just like the adults. Evangelical Anglicans like Robert Raikes were among the pioneers of the Sunday School movement. The Evangelical movement within Anglicanism focused on a return to the basics of Christian faith for each individual believer, which meant that greater literacy and a far better knowledge of Holy Scripture was essential to the Christian life. Later, in the nineteenth century, Anglo-Catholics also became involved in the Sunday School movement as they began to take up residence in long forgotten slum parishes. It is one of the few areas prior to modern times in which Evangelical Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics had a common mission, even though they approached it separately.

There Used to Be No Such Thing as “Teenagers”

The first youth groups did not begin to appear in churches until the 1940s. It was in that generation that the distinctive notion of “teenagers” as a separate stage of development between childhood and adulthood began to emerge. This led eventually to the setting up of Sunday School programs that met during church services, offering particularly older children, but eventually younger ones as well, the opportunity to have their own age-appropriate worship instead of being stuck with the adults. Meanwhile, in post industrialized nations where children were no longer expected to work, adolescents suddenly had a lot more free time on their hands. Youth groups helped keep young people plugged into the Church socially. The rise of youth groups dramatically changed the look and feel of Sunday School, even as they have also reshaped worship in many churches.

Today the Church no longer serves as a social hub in most parts of America and other western nations. There is rampant decline in the Church, and one of the responses from Christians has been a frantic effort to make Church “relevant” to young people. In the process, we have lost a lot of the basics. Our Evangelical forbears would not be pleased. Sunday School curriculums have become moralistic, often more concerned with making kids happy than with teaching them Christian truth. In a lot of places, youth group has replaced Church for young people, and as those young people have aged, the few who stick around into adulthood have sought to make Church more like youth group since that is all they have ever known. Of course, most do not stick around, and no amount of hipster music or emotional pandering will change that. What children and teenagers need more than anything else are churches that will tell it to them straight, where the emphasis is on Christian truth and Christ’s love rather than on us.

If You Build It, They Will Come

So how do we get there? I wish I had the answer. Having better Sunday School curricula would help, particularly if we can find ways of connecting the curriculum to core doctrine rather than just to whatever is happening that day. Lectionary based curriculums, while they may have some merits, are largely not going to be able to do this because the three-year lectionary that most churches now use is not centered on doctrine in a systematic way. I firmly believe that it is possible to have curriculums that teach the faith in a straight-forward, age appropriate manner, but they largely do not exist yet. Creating them will require a concentrated effort. No individual parish is going to be able to do it themselves. Dioceses and other larger Christian bodies need to come together to develop resources. And that will only happen if there are lay people willing to champion it. Lay leaders who are willing to work across parish, diocesan, and even jurisdictional lines could change the focus of the whole Church on this. Supportive clergy can and should be looking for lay leaders whom they can raise up and equip for such an effort. We have a lot of work to do.

God Already Loves Our Kids

But in the mean time, how can Jill and others in her position ensure that their children are getting what they need? Well, from Jill’s description, it sounds like she is doing the right things already. When our children are small, we ought to talk to them about Jesus in an age appropriate way. Saying simple prayers like the ones Jill mentions, singing songs, and having pictures or icons or crosses in the home is a good idea. Talking about Jesus first thing in the morning, before meals, and before bed is also important. As they get older, they should learn first the Lord’s Prayer and then other prayers as appropriate. The old Catechism may not be the easiest for someone today to use with their kids, but the stuff in that Catechism is still what is best for them to learn: The Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, a little something about the Sacraments. I am currently working with a group across the Episcopal Church that is trying to develop a catechism for families that will center around just these things.

By and large, though, the best thing we can do to encourage the development of our children’s faith is to be faithful ourselves. The more faithful we are, and the more transparent we are about our faith in what we say and how we live our lives, the more our children will see and understand. Our example of faithfulness will stay with them long after Sunday School lessons fade away from their memories.

Moreover, we need to trust God to do His work of creating faith in our children. As the father of a child with autism, I take great comfort in the fact that God reaches out to my children through His Word and through their receiving of the Sacraments, even when they cannot fully grasp what is happening intellectually. After all, none of us really fully understands the mystery of God. And thankfully, our salvation is not dependent on us understanding. Faith is not about our intellects. It is about our hearts. Having your children in a good Sunday School program, in a church that teaches Christian truth and that values the presence of children, is very important. But if your children have been baptized into Christ, and if they are receiving His Body and Blood (or being prepared to receive it) and they are hearing His Word on a regular basis, then you can be at peace. God is far more faithful than we are. He made a promise to your children on the day of their baptisms, a promise that through the blood of Jesus they would be healed and made whole. Take comfort in that promise. God will never forget it.

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7 Responses to Ask an Anglican: Sunday School and Praying with our Kids

  1. Very interesting and topical (for me at least) discussion on this subject. In my own parish we’re in the midst of discussing issues surrounding the catechisement of children. We do have Sunday School for the children, but it’s clear that for many their Christian education is minimal when it comes to certain issues, either because they have not always attended Sunday School or because they didn’t internalise the material when it was taught in that context.

    I truly appreciate the thoughts you’ve offered in the final section of the article. Truly food for thought.

  2. arowhenua says:

    A good post with lots of room for discussion.

    Here in NZ albeit 30 odd years ago attending an Anglican Sunday school I never recall being taught about Jesus as in salvation, but I could have told you a lot of ‘stories’ and parables. In this sense I agree, children can understand more than we give them credit for.

    A very good resource for children I have come across is produced by Kidsreach written by a counselor and children’s minister in NZ who for some time ran programmes/camps for children in NZ and Sri Lanka – I know an interesting mix! The material has a lot of good object lessons that convey simple biblical truths and doesn’t shy away from the core messages of christianity.

    I was also involved in youth group teaching. Youth alpha was definitely a key to one of the groups we had. We did it when there was no formal material so we wrote our own based on guidelines. Nearly every young person in that group has continued in the church many in leadership positions.

    Others keys seems to be taking an interest in the youth/young people, and getting them involved with roles in the church. Two of our regular drummers were eight, and children were invited to share testimony… etc

    Re the church being a youth group?? Jury is out many young people crave modern worship as even I do at times now being in a traditonal church – soul survivor and in NZ the Parchute Musical festival have been great tools for engaging young people, for which they can understand in the context they liive in. Most of these stick true to the gospel.

    I could go on… every blessing in your musings. I think perhaps though you hit the nail on the head when it comes to family modelling, parents or people a person young people respect modelling ‘what genuine living acting, believing as a christian looks like’ is the greatest way to reach them. As it is for adults as well.

  3. Fr. Brench says:

    Fr. Jonathan, are you aware of the Catechism recently put together by the ACNA? It, too, is based upon the traditional format (with a bonus intro to the gospel opener for inquirers to the faith). While there are no special tools available yet for implementing its use for any specific age group, there are plans in the works along those lines. It’s worth checking out if you haven’t already!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Yes, I’ve seen it. The group I’ve been working with was eagerly anticipating it when it came out. Our project is slightly different in aim, but the general idea of having good teaching resources is appreciated all the way around.

  4. Fr. Don says:

    I think there are some very real positives with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. Which is not to say that I do not have some issues as well. That said, the children who are part of this program often have a greater sense of why we do what we do liturgically than their parents. There is some of the “storytelling” part that some take umbrage with, but at its core, is that not what the church is supposed to do: tell the story of God’s creation and salvation of the world? The program is also tactile, in that the children engage with their senses what is being taught. I can put you in touch with some clergy that have had fantastic success with this program, which has led to far greater participation in Jr/Sr high programs.

    On another, but related topic. I recently read your post about your son’s autism and the transforming nature of that experience for you. My sponsoring parish’s rector also has a child with autism or similar condition. My recollection was that this child also functioned well within the program, but in ways that were not necessarily the same as his peers. But, an important aside to that was my experience as a minister of communion with this child. I had always been a bit uneasy about small children receiving communion. I understand the Prayer Book understanding of Baptism as full membership etc . . . I was just uncomfortable with how the elements were treated by some of the children. I noticed over time that the kids in the Catechesis class seemed to “get it” more than the other children. They had a different approach to communion it seemed. It was also during this same time my rector’s child caused a change in my own thinking. It was clear that in many ways he “understood” what was being taught differently, but after years of serving as a chalice bearer I began to see that this child “understood” the mystery of what was happening during the Eucharist in ways that I did not. He had a sense of wonder, and a real sense of amazement when receiving the sacrament that force me to recognize that perhaps he “understood” it more than I did.

    I’m not sure that necessarily helps with finding a program to help with formation, perhaps it opens the door to more options about what formation might look like. +peace

  5. Aidan in Alexandria says:

    Here is an outline of one parish’s effort in the category of “how do we get there”:

  6. Zim Sifuba says:

    I’ve just joined the junior worship ministry in my parish. We separate the children into 3 groups: i.e kids praise (the pre-school to 3rd graders). 4th-6th graders are catered for in junior worship and high school kids attend what we call teen worship (this is more of a confirmation prep class for when they turn 16).

    Fortunately our priest is passionate about children so he put together a curriculum that goes with the lectionary. The lessons are basically the same as what we get as adults, but in a format and level that children will understand.

    I still feel that this is not enough though. My parish was deemed as one of the “dead ones” when growing up so we did not have much children’s activities or even Sunday School. This forced us to worship with the adults. For me those years defined my faith in God and I suspect that it is because of that foundation that I am still an Anglican Christian today. For an outsider, they’d assume that we were just reciting the prayers without comprehending. I still remember the impact the Prayer of Confession used to have (and still have) on me because it is the first recollection of communal prayer that I have. It resonates and blesses me in ways that I cannot explain in my now adult life.

    I feel then that children are better off worshiping with adults, while also making time for them to understand why the church does what it does (maybe 2 Sundays in church and 2 Sundays in Sunday school?)

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