It has been a common refrain over the past years for those inside the church to lament the changes in people’s lives that have occurred in our society, changes that have caused decreased attendance at church programming such as Sunday school and worship gatherings. The common desire is that, with no changing or adjustment to what is done, people would come back just like it was 50-100 years ago.
What must be remembered is that this is not the first time in the history of the church where it had to adjust something due to changing conditions in society. And when considering whether to somehow adjust what is currently being done or to begin something totally new and different, it is important to consider why something was started, whether or not it has achieved its purpose, and whether or not changes in society have necessitated an adjusted or new course altogether.
For example, let’s take Sunday school. It is often the case that when I ask people why Sunday school started, they are unable to correctly answer. The typical answer is to provide religious education to people, but that answer is based upon their own experience and the current model of Sunday school.
The Sunday school was created as a literal school. They were places where poor children could learn to read. The movement began in England in 1780s as a response to the reality in that culture, caused by the Industrial Revolution, that saw many children spending all week long working in factories and, because Saturdays were considered part of the work week, these children only had Sundays available for any learning to occur. Christian philanthropists wanted to free these children from a life of illiteracy. (Today, we know that literacy is absolutely essential to being able to move ahead in life.)
Well into the 19th century, working hours remained long. The first restrictions on limiting the number of hours children could work daily came in 1802 – 12 hours! This limit wasn’t lowered again until 1844. And, finally, by the 1870s, compulsory state education was in existence in both England and the United States.
The movement spread rapidly and many churches and church organizations created Sunday schools. Within decades, the movement had become extremely popular. By the mid-19th century, Sunday school attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood. Even parents who did not regular attend worship gatherings of a church generally insisted their children attend a Sunday school. Working-class families were grateful for the opportunity to receive an education. They also looked forward to annual highlights such as prize days, parades, and picnics, which came to mark the calendars of their lives as much as more traditional seasonal holidays.
True, religious education was always a core component. The Bible was used as a textbook for learning to read. The children learned to write by copying passages from the Bible. Basic theology and other spiritual practices, such as prayer and singing of hymns, were taught as well as teaching Christian morality and values. There was a graduation and many graduates became teachers in the Sunday school, allowing them to gain leadership skills and experience found nowhere else in their lives. Through educating the working class, the Sunday school empowered people.
Once universal, compulsory state education was established, the need for the Sunday school in its original form was no longer necessary since learning to read and write was done on weekdays at school. Since it was no longer needed to carry out its original mission, it was then that the Sunday schools adjusted by limiting its curriculum to religious education.
The “moral” of this example? Those who first created the idea of and the first Sunday school saw what was occurring in society at that time and creatively responded to it with the creation of the Sunday school. Once it was seen that the original mission/reason for the Sunday school was no longer necessary due to the changed conditions for children and working class families, the Sunday school was modified to only be for religious education, again, in response to what was seen in society at that time.
This type of evaluation of what we, as churches, do, must never stop. When what is being done, and not the why behind it being done, becomes the primary focus, that’s when inflexibility and irrelevance enter in force. But when the why behind what is being done is the primary focus, that allows for flexibility and continuing relevance in the community. This is true because it not only allows but actually encourages continuing examination of why something is being done and, from that, whether or not, due to changes in society or completion of the reason of why something was created in the first place something should be ended or changed in some way.
This requires four things from the church, all four being essential to the vitality and growth of a church: being a student of the community, allowing and encouraging creativity, a willingness to let go of what has been for what will be, and courage. The absence of one or more of these four will inevitably, I believe, lead to inflexibility and irrelevance which will then lead to the slow demise of the church.