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.