Dr Juhani Tuovinen has put together a report on the value of Sunday School. The report is based on some items in the National Church Life Survey of 2001. While the data is now 20 years old, it does indicate some trends which are worthy of reflection.
The Sunday School movement was started by Robert Raikes in Gloucester, England. Raikes was concerned that the prisons were full because children received no Christian or moral education. Most children were working the rest of the week, and so he started a school on Sundays to provide some basic education for them.
Dr Tuovinen reviews the literature on the history of Sunday Schools in Australia. The first Sunday Schools were begun in Australia in 1810. At the beginning, they also offered basic education in literacy and numeracy, as well as morality and religion. As Protestant day schools were handed over to the government in the 1870s, Protestant churches focussed their Sunday school programs increasingly on religious education. In the 1960s and 1970s, Sunday Schools went into decline. Rather than catering for large numbers of children from the local neighbourhood, they were attended mostly by children whose families were involved in the church.
Tuovinen quotes the American study by W. Haystead (1995) in which Haystead argues that Sunday School is still the best agency of the church for ‘effective education and outreach’. Haystead sees four important goals of Sunday Schools as:
• winning people to Christ;
• teaching God’s Word;
• building supportive relationships; and
• encouraging Christian service (Haystead 1995, quoted by Tuovinen (p.15).
However, Tuovinen quotes a more recent Australian study by D. Goodwin (2012) as arguing that there needs to be more attention to the way children are embraced by adult members of the church and given involvement in church services, as well as being involved in activities where they can find Christian friends.
What Activities Lead to Faith
Tuovinen’s analysis is based on National Church Life Survey data from 2001 about what activities were most significant in helping people come to faith. While much analysis is recorded in the report which does not prove to be particularly helpful, there is an important story about the comparatively influence of church services and Sunday schools in the development of faith.
Respondents to the NCLS 2001 were able to note two activities which had contributed to their coming to faith. Four types of activities were shown to be most important.
• 28% of respondents indicated it was church services or Mass;
• 15% it was Sunday school / Sabbath school or kids club;
• 12% said it was a church youth group; and
• 9% that it was religious education or Scripture in school (Tuovinen p.23).
He also notes that 7 per cent of all attenders said that among the two most significant people in showing what faith was were Sunday school / Sabbath school teachers.
To some extent, these reflect what activities respondents were involved in when they were growing up. Just 17 per cent of the Catholics attended a Sunday School, for example, compared with around 70 per cent of Protestants and 57 per cent of Pentecostals (p.47). In comparison, he noted that 27 per cent of Catholics attended a church youth group, compared with around 50 per cent of Protestants and 44 per cent of Pentecostals. Tuovinen found that girls more than boys indicated that Sunday Schools were significant in their coming to faith, while youth groups had equal impact on girls and boys.
Differences by Age or Cohort and Its Significance
There are very significant differences when one examines the age of the person and their indication as to whether the major influences were church services, Sunday school, youth group or religious education in school as shown in Figure 1.
Among those under 50 years of age, just 20 per cent indicated Sunday School was significant in coming to faith, compared with 40 per cent of those aged 80 and older. In comparison, for those aged under 30, more than 30 per cent indicated that youth group had been significant, compared with under 15 per cent of those aged 60 and older.
In other words, in recent years, Sunday school has decreased considerably in importance in people coming to faith while youth groups have increased markedly. Tuovinen also found that youth groups were identified by respondents as having a greater impact than Sunday Schools on their continued involvement in Christian community. Tuovinen responds to this by suggesting that ‘as a matter of urgency churches need to face this problem to overcome the decline [in the influence of Sunday Schools’ (p.104).
However, one might put this finding in another context. In past generations, particularly prior to the 1970s, the process of coming to faith was one of socialisation of the child into the community of faith. It was generally expected that children would take up the identity and traditions of their parents, and these patterns were reinforced in childhood by Sunday School.
Since the 1970s, in an age in which individual choice has been given much more attention, young people have seen faith as something they should choose for themselves. They have assumed that it was a decision of life-style that they would make for themselves in their teenage years (Hughes 2007, chapter 3). In general terms, then, the change in importance for faith development from Sunday School to youth group reflects the change in culture from modern to post-modern. Children’s ministry still has a role to play, but the decisions about faith made by the teenager have become increasingly important, and the context of these in the communities of faith of their peers must be recognised. In our day and age, churches cannot rely on what happens in Sunday schools, or in other forms of ministry among children, for commitment to or understanding of faith. For young people today, the more critical decisions and development of understanding and patterns of church involvement mostly occur in the teenage years.
Goodwin, D. (2012) Lost in Transition: The church related factors that help or hinder children make the transition from Children’s Ministry to adult church. Master of Ministry thesis. Adelaide: Tabor Adelaide.
Haystead, W. (1995) The 21st Century Sunday School. Strategies for Today and Tomorrow. Cincinatti, Ohio: The Standard Publishing Company.
Hughes, P. (2007) Putting Life Together: Findings from Australian Youth Spirituality Research, Melbourne: Christian Research Association.
Tuovinen, Juhani (2013) What is the value of Sunday School Education for the development and maintenance of spirituality? Report prepared by the Graeme Clark Research Institute for the Australian Research Theology Foundation. (Available from Tabor Adelaide.)
This article was first published in Pointers: the Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol. 24, no.4, December 2014. pp.11-12.