The Sunday School of Tomorrow

by John H. Westerhoff III

Dr. Westerhoff is professor of religion and education at Duke University divinity school.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 4-11, 1980 pp. 639-642. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Despite all evidence to the contrary, the author does not see a place of significance for the Sunday school in the future. It is too bound to the past to meet the needs of a new age. He has a different vision of the future of the church and religious education.

One has to be somewhat mad to accept a request to write on the future of the Sunday school. Those who have given it a try in the past succeeded only in revealing their own prejudices or desires. Though historians have ignored it and futurists have predicted its demise, the Sunday school has made its impact on our history, surviving every critical blast. Of late there has even been a revival of interest not to be explained solely by its 200th birthday. A few bold defenders and advocates have once again taken up the cry, "it’s OK to like the Sunday school." Perhaps Princeton’s D. Campbell Wyckoff best explained its persistence when he labeled it "as American as crabgrass."

Meeting Needs

How are we to understand this enduring institution? And what might we anticipate its life to be in the dusk of the 20th century? I have no crystal ball, but I would like to explore a few possibilities.

It is not easy to birth an institution. Institutions emerge slowly out of vital movements to give those movements shape, form and permanence. It is even more difficult to kill social institutions, for they share certain enduring characteristics: they outlast any generation; they are largely independent of the individuals and groups through which they function; they serve to conserve cultural values and life styles; they provide an identifiable, acceptable, familiar means to address basic human needs, interests and wishes; they offer both universality and variability; they become intricately interrelated with other institutions so that a change in one causes disease and necessitates change in all the others; and they provide people with the places and roles necessary for meaningful corporate life.

A particular Sunday school may die or suffer from terminal illness, but the Sunday school as an institution lives on, conserving the memory and dreams of the people, especially those who tend also to be the most institutionally loyal. The Sunday school meets various human needs: a concern for children, the perpetuation of the church and its faith, a place to experience community in an impersonal world. While a worldwide phenomenon, it has its own shape and character in every land, denomination and congregation; to have seen one is not necessarily to have seen them all. The Sunday school is so much a part of life on this continent that new persons in a community are reluctant to associate with a church that does not have one; churches that have eliminated Sunday school are faced with the difficult task of envisioning, planning and developing an alternative, something typically more difficult than maintaining that which is familiar. Further, the Sunday school has provided many laypersons with a place of significant influence and ministry in a clerically dominated church. Is it any wonder that it survives no matter what its health and vitality? Is it any wonder that attacks on its continuing viability are futile?

Death or Transformation

Of course all this could change and radically affect the future of even this most enduring institution; institutions do die. For example: if new, more enticing lay ministries were to emerge, there would be fewer adults available and interested in the Sunday school as a place of service. If styles of worship were to change and children were to feel both more welcome and more at home in the worship service, there would be less need for children to be separated from adults on Sunday morning. If activities at times other than Sundays were to become more vital to family life, there would be a diminished interest in age-graded schooling activities on Sunday. If the public school were to provide quality religious education within its curriculum, there would be less demand for Sunday school classes. If churches were to become smaller and more communal, there would be less need for the Sunday school class to provide a place of caring fellowship.

On the other hand, it is equally important to acknowledge that institutions can change radically to meet new situations; institutions are reformable. For example, in an age when the number of persons outside the church and unfamiliar with the gospel is growing, the Sunday school might return to its original missionary purpose. In 1898 at the Third World Convention Sunday School, H. M. Tamill of Tennessee, the superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Sunday School, wrote:

it must be remembered that after all the primary aim of the Sunday School is not so much educational as it is evangelistic [cheers]. God permits us to encompass the child with great forces that center in and about the Sabbath School in order that we may win souls of the children. What are these forces? In the first place, there is the Word of God. Second there is that holy place, and finally there is the personality of the godly man or woman incarnating God’s Word. These are the forces that come together for the saving of the children.

In that regard it is well for us within mainline Protestantism to realize that the Sunday school is an alive and growing institution among Southern Baptists and other evangelicals who continue to understand it as an agency of evangelism more than of nurture.

Further, the Sunday school might become an instrument of the ecumenical movement existing alongside the boundaries of the parish church and its denominational prejudices. This agency might also be given new birth by the emergence of a new committed core of laypersons able to attract, excite and lead large numbers of people in the joy of shared teaching and learning. Smaller parishes might, for economic reasons, begin to unify into larger parishes where the Sunday school could provide small intimate communities of nurture and pastoral care. If the culture and its public schools should become increasingly secularized, the church might transform the Sunday school into a Christian day school to preserve the faith and identity of Christians. Or if our society refuses to meet the needs of families and children, Sunday schools might be turned into child-care centers.

Of course, one last option remains. We might simply blunder along, keeping the Sunday school alive with drugs, surgery, and support systems, acknowledging that it is terminally ill but lacking the imagination or will to frame an alternative.

The End of an Age

All of this is pure conjecture. However, there are two trends that could influence the future. First, it appears that we are reaching the end of a secular age. A longing and a hunger for a new spirituality are emerging. Increasingly adults are seeking a context for their own growth in faith and a place to share their faith journey with others. In many congregations reformed Sunday schools are providing a convenient and useful context for the birth of a new spirituality.

If this trend continues and becomes dominant, it could result in a renewed pietism (a traditional heresy on this continent) with an excessive concern for feelings and right experience and the neglect of reason and faithful social, political and economic action.

We appear to be emerging from a reign of the secular; the return of the sacred is a key event in our time. As always, the issue is how we will respond. My own commitment is to stress the contingent and dependent existence of the universe and ourselves on the will and activity of God; to integrate the eschatological and historical so that there is no disjunction between our passion for social justice and personal fulfillment; to be open to secular thought and reason so that a return to the sacred does not mean a return to an inner world of religious experience; to integrate piety (personal religious experience) and politics (prophetic personal and social action) in a healthy, intrinsic religion of involvement rather than a sick, extrinsic religion of escape; and to affirm both a material physical reality known indirectly through sense experience and reason and a nonmaterial spiritual reality known directly through participation and encounter. I fear that the Sunday school will have difficulty addressing these commitments; its history is antithetical to such concerns, and it is a questionable context for their actualization, no matter what occurs within them.

Second, the liturgical renewal movement is taking hold. With its reform of the liturgy into a family-oriented, participatory, communal celebration of word and sacrament, there is a renewed interest in the relationship of catechesis (education) and liturgy (worship). In many churches the Sunday school is being transformed into an intergenerational preparation for the Sunday Eucharist based upon an experience of and reflection on the lectionary texts.

If this trend also continues and becomes dominant, it could result in a community of nurture without a prophetic transforming word or an evangelistic outreach. The history of liturgical life in mainline churches is a history dominated by a concern for didache -- for nurture, interpretation, formation and growing-up. Indeed, the emphasis of both worship and church schooling has tended to neglect the kerygma -- proclamation, conversions, transformations and new beginnings. As a result, many mainline churches have a basic understanding of evangelism as institutional incorporation and of ministry as service and care of its members. Faced by our pressing contemporary needs for community, identity, nurture and institutional growth/survival, the church could easily ignore social, political and economic action in the world; openness; and the need for continuous institutional reform and personal conversions. While a renewed, vibrant community could emerge, offering the world a sign of God’s Kingdom, it is likely to be insular, unable to make an adequate witness on behalf of that Kingdom in the political and economic contexts of society.

My own commitment is to the integration of these polarities: conversion-nurture, identity-openness and piety-politics. But typically the church has emphasized one or the other. I fear that the Sunday school, no matter how it understands its purpose, functionally cannot adequately address these polarities.

Imagining the Future

While these possible trends need to be acknowledged, I suggest that they cannot be taken too seriously because we are in the midst of a change period in history as significant as those in the first, fourth, 11th and 16th centuries. We have come, I contend, to the end of a fluctuating but trend-marked stage in our history. We are facing a period of foundational change. Our understandings of the church’s educative ministry and the Sunday school have been directly related to a historical period which is ending.

Like most folk caught in such a time, we find it extremely difficult to imagine the future or to plan for it. It seems as though we have all we can do to respond. Neither a doomsday nor a utopian mentality is reasonable in such a day. Daniel Bell once quoted Augustine as saying, "Time is a threefold present -- the present as we experience it, the past as a present memory, and the future as a present expectation." By that criteria, Bell continued, the year 2000 has already arrived, for in the decisions we make now, the future is committed.

Well, yes and no. I still contend that it is God’s future and that God, in the mystery of things, is still acting on behalf of that future. Hope is born at the moment we begin to turn our attention to God’s vision and to realize that we are not finished but have an infinite number of tasks to be accomplished. In just such an era as this, we might best spend our time and energy on renewing the gospel vision of life and our lives, deepening our experience of God, and preparing ourselves to act faithfully in the political, social and economic world; that is, to live under the merciful judgment of God to the end that God’s will is done and God’s Kingdom comes. We could easily deny that calling by worrying too much about the Sunday school and its future.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I do not see a place of significance for the Sunday school in the future. It is too bound to the past to meet the needs of a new age. I do not believe I am being melodramatic when I say that we are entering a new period in history. I can, however, hear my conservative friends, especially my historian mentors, saying that I have let my emotions overwhelm my intellect. Still, I remain committed to framing an alternative and would prefer to fail at that effort than to succeed in reforming old worn ways.

I hope that this position does not make me appear arrogant to those who are struggling for survival in the confusion of the present or judgmental to those who are responsibly striving to reconstruct our present understandings. I am aware that it is likely to frustrate those who desire simple, immediate, practical answers to the pressing needs of the day. I am also aware that the best way to achieve recognition and popularity is to offer simple, useful, pragmatic resources. But I contend that the issue is more than a matter of better education -- schooling and instruction. The issue is foundational; the questions are as profound: What are Christian faith, revelation and vocation? How is faith understood as perception enhanced and enlivened? How is divine revelation understood as the experience of a living, acting God made known? How is our vocation understood as life in spirit; i.e., reflective action in personal, social, political and economic life?

Further, I do not believe that these questions can be answered through the use of "educational" language borrowed from the social sciences; nor can they be resolved in the seminary or by professional Christian educators. Only through shared experience and reflection in community by persons who are engaged in a dialogical conversation between their story and vision and the tradition’s story and vision can new understandings and ways of educational ministry (catechesis) emerge.

A Personal Vision

In that regard, I can only share the outline of a vision that has resulted from my reflections. It is a vision of a lay-centered ministry integrating conversions and nurture, (lifelong transformations and lifelong formation); religious experience and personal fulfillment with reflective action and intentional social life; life in a caring family-like community combined with political, social, economic activity through "voluntary associations" formed within church and society.

I envision this endeavor of both religious socialization and shared praxis as characterized best through the metaphor of journeying and as taking place without specific reference to age or sex in three contexts: liturgical or familial/communal settings in which persons are nurtured, identity is acquired and caring community experienced; ascetical-pastoral or leisure/retreat settings in which persons withdraw and engage in activities aimed at continuing growth in personal faith or sanctification through conversions and nurture; and moral or societal/work settings in which persons participate in activities aimed at shared reflective action for individual faithful daily life and for cooperative responsible efforts in the political, social and economic realms of life.

Of course, this is only an incomplete and vague outline of a personal vision. But it is my conviction that we all need begin to imagine and experiment, and to share alternative understandings and ways even as we maintain and continue to adopt our known understandings and ways. The future is, as always, with those who act. In any case, in what better way could we celebrate the 200th birthday of the Sunday school and be as faithful as our foreparents?