Sunday, January 19, 2014

Re-intellectualising Church

I was talking to someone recently about the state of Sunday School. She teaches Sunday School in a large church, where the word from the top down is "fun". She prepares questions for the children but worries that they are too hard, given the usual low standards.

Being the unreasonable, joyless man that I am, I suggested that far from making the questions a little easier, these children should be learning ancient Greek and Hebrew. An exaggeration, perhaps, but the point is that children are very eager and capable learners. In Monday-Friday School they are learning abstract mathematical concepts, foreign languages, and various forms of art. What are they learning on Sunday? Sadly, they are learning that what they learn from Monday-Friday is the stuff of real life, whereas Sunday is a bit of fun to break up the monotony. The rich tradition that is Christianity is relegated to the level of a cartoon, and not one of the goods ones, either. The tradition in which they partake is evacuated of its intellectual and artistic depths, which is why so many who grow up in church are actually shielded from all that the Church has to offer. They may even end up walking away from a faith that they never knew in the first place.

I am not a qualified educator of children. I am an idealist who thinks that every child is dying to explore that mystery within a mystery that is the trinity, and would jump at the chance to draw some Hebrew letters. That's obviously not true. But I do think that children in the church deserve better than what they get. They deserved better than what I gave them when I was a Sunday School teacher. These children come to Jesus week in week out, and we let them leave with a cup of juice and a biscuit. We do the best we can, or the best we're allowed, and in the end we probably think it doesn't matter too much.

Problems in the church are usually treated as adult problems, with solutions aimed exclusively at adults by other adults. Children are, by and large, left out of the picture entirely. We'll worry about them when they grow up and become "youths" or "young adults" (age categories invented by the church?) who will either disappear despite our best intentions or who will stay around because of our cunning marketing campaigns addressed at these demographics (which only exacerbate the problems). But as The Wire so expertly showed in its fourth season, these malfunctioning adults were once children, training for the street in the environs of the school. Sunday School is the chance to offer training for a different world, to equip and enrich humans of a very particular sort. It is not a break from serious learning, but an opportunity to understand the true end of all learning. If adults are turning up to a church service without any awareness of being disciples who are eager to learn something, it is probably because they have been turning up for church like that since they were kids...and because the preaching is crap. But also the former.


  1. The best thing I ever read about our responsibility to children and young people in the church is that we must let them eavesdrop on the traditions and practices of our faith. That means that for a start we must practice them...

  2. In other words, our practice *is* our education? While that probably negates most of what I've said, it is also much more insightful than most of what I've said. Damn.

    Still, one of those "practices of or faith" is surely the practice of actively educating children. As, er, someone once said, you don't really know something until you've taught it to someone else. If we become better teachers we may also become better practitioners, as well as the other way around.