Is It Time To Do Away With Sunday School?

edited May 2015 in Faith Issues
Is It Time To Do Away With Sunday School?

By Andrew Estocin

Apr 16, 2015

Will our children choose to live as Orthodox Christians?

This is the most pressing question facing the Church today.

Over the years, the conventional path followed to form young people in the Orthodox Faith has included a Sunday school program.  Today, it is a given that every parish needs a Sunday school in order to be considered successful.  However, as more and more parishes face serious questions about their future, one must ask whether or not Sunday school has served our children well.

The answer to this question goes well beyond money. It should be noted that at no time in history has the Church in America devoted more resources to the education of its youth. A look at available budget data shows that national spending on education for the period of 2005-2016 will top $8,200,000. Combine that figure with expenditures on youth ministry and family ministry and that figure balloons to an incredible $17,600,000.  Given these figures, you would think that our youth are thriving in the faith.  However, this is hardly the case.   Recent studies show that 60% of Orthodox college students leave the faith.   Meanwhile, as many as 85% of marriages are now of the interfaith variety, with one spouse choosing not to be Orthodox. The reality confronting the Church today is that a family that is united in living the Orthodox faith is far more the exception than the norm.  For many youth, Orthodoxy has become just another cafeteria-like choice between one parent’s church or the other parent’s church.

The greatest tragedy in the American Church today is that far too many parishes have alienated our youth by placing nostalgia before witness to Jesus Christ.   Nostalgia can only sustain parishes for so long before demographic collapse sets in.  As Orthodoxy comes to grips with this reality, it is evident that Sunday school programs have failed to provide the fundamentals needed to pass on the Orthodox Faith to a new generation.  Despite the presence of dedicated volunteers and the best of intentions, change is needed.

Should parishes in America reconsider their Sunday school programs or eliminate them all together?

The answer to this question is a clear and resounding YES!

Today, many parishes have Sunday school programs that undermine the liturgical life of the Church and the unity of the family.  The central message of Sunday school today is one of segregation, not integration.  Parishes separate children from their families and place them in a classroom so as to teach them facts about the Church.  This stunts their ability to experience the Church in all its depth and beauty.   It also divides families at a time when they should be together the most – the Divine Liturgy.  Sophie Koulomzin points this out clearly in Our Church and Our Children. “..the Sunday school movement proved to carry certain dangers within it…..The Sunday school replaced the Divine Liturgy, the classroom lesson replaced the Sacrament. Students graduating from Sunday school had not acquired the habit of going to church on Sundays. The life of worship, which is the essence of Orthodoxy, was thus undermined.”

What are some of the signs Sunday school may be undermining the life of worship in a parish? Consider the following:

Students show up late for Divine Liturgy, resulting in little actual time at worship before leaving for class.

Teachers are often late to Divine Liturgy as well and sometimes even skip liturgy to teach Sunday school.

Events like ethnic dancing and diocesan basketball tournaments take priority over the worship and witness of the Church.

Rehearsals and planning for seasonal events like the parish Christmas pageant are held during Divine Liturgy.

Graduating students lack the habit of attending Church regularly.

Challenging social and moral questions are avoided for fear of offending people.

Secular success is celebrated more than Christian witness. 

Service to the weak and vulnerable is discouraged as vocation or career.

Teachers frown upon fidelity to the teachings of the Church.  

Zeal for Orthodoxy is viewed as strange.

There is no question that the above problems exist in a wide variety of parishes across America.  If our children are going to choose to live as Orthodox Christians in the years to come, then they certainly deserve to encounter the Church in its fullness, much like the early disciples did.   Orthodoxy is not simply classroom knowledge or ritual knowledge.  Understanding the faith is not the equivalent of learning answers to trivia questions. The Church is a way of being that shows us how to be truly human.   This cannot be learned in a classroom.   It cannot be gleaned from a textbook.   And it certainly cannot be passed on through an educational bureaucracy created by paid professionals.  Orthodoxy is learned when it is experienced both at Liturgy and through the lives of others who witness to Jesus Christ with humility, compassion, and devotion.


  • Now that the crisis in Orthodox Sunday schools has been brought forward, here are three ways we can improve the quality of learning in parishes.

    English is Essential:  The complete use of English is essential for a healthy Church life in America.  Studies conducted by the Assembly of Bishops in the Unites States show that the use of English in the liturgy increases attendance and participation at liturgy by as much as 30%.   Being able to understand the liturgy matters, especially for young people, converts, and mixed marriages.  It is foolish to think we can pass on the experience of the life of the Church to our children if they constantly cannot understand the liturgy because it is in Greek or Ukrainian.  A vibrant liturgical life in English is essential in helping our children grow into mature witnesses to the Faith who have a strong understanding of how the Church answers the questions proposed by life.  Consistently participating in and understanding the Divine Liturgy is far more enriching than any number of classroom lessons.

    More Mentoring:  Orthodox Christians have mentored one another since the earliest of times. St. Paul’s letters are a testimony to such work. Every Orthodox Christian needs a mentor, and every parish needs a mentoring program where healthy Orthodox Christians take up the responsibility of mentoring young people and new arrivals.  The best way to learn the fundamentals of Orthodox Christianity is to see it lived with joy by others.   Imagine if all of the resources spent on Sunday school were dedicated to mentoring programs that formed relationships across generations that helped people grow in hospitality, humility, and service to the weakest among us.  Nostalgia-centered parishes would have a very different feel than they do today.

    Servant Leadership:  Nothing undermines the Christian development of our youth more than leaders who do not live the Gospel. Love of power, wealth, and social status are all problems facing the Church.  These problems must be overcome by ensuring that all leaders are first and foremost servant leaders who understand that real power in the Church comes from humility and service, not wealth or family legacy.  Leadership begins at Liturgy, and Orthodox leaders educate our youth best when they model servant leadership both at Liturgy and outside our Liturgy.  A servant role model provides a lifetime of lessons for a young person.  These lessons are far more effective at communicating the Faith than any textbook.

    Confronting the Sunday school crisis in Orthodox parishes today is no easy task.  No doubt much emotion is tied to this issue. However, to ignore the need to change is to risk having our youth live – according to the warning of St. Justin Popovich – “as fireflies in a universe of darkness.”  America’s Orthodox youth deserve better than such an impoverished existence.

    Living as an Orthodox Christian is not something we inherit through our genes. Orthodox Christianity is a deliberate choice that must be affirmed time and again.  It must renewed day after day.  Therefore, the Church must not educate young people based on pre-supposing the Orthodox Faith.  The Church must constantly refresh itself and propose the Orthodox Faith time after time.  In this way, it can truly live the vision of St. John Chrysostom, who wrote, “With Christians everything should be secondary compared to our concern with children, and their upbringing in the instruction and teaching of the Lord.”

    Our youth are not only part of the Church of the future; they are more importantly part of the Church of today!
  • Also on the theme is this quote from Liturgy and Life:

    "...although the need for Christian education is generally accepted in principle, the same cannot be said as far as the forms and methods of Christian education are concerned. We must frankly state that confusion reigns in this field and the situation is all the more confused because the difficulty is not fully recognized, and therefore no effort is made to overcome it. This applies not only to various details, but is true of the basic problems as well. A good example is the general acceptance of the “Sunday School” in the practice of the Orthodox churches in America. Sunday Schools surely are an outcome of a Protestant philosophy of education. Introducing them into the practice of the Orthodox Church should have been preceded by their critical evaluation in the light of an Orthodox conception of the purpose and principles of Christian education. Sunday Schools should have been adapted to serve these. No such question, however, was ever raised and “Sunday School” (frequently taught during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy) became an accepted pattern of our Church education without ever having been discussed. Many other similar examples could be cited here.

    I believe that the preliminary question must be formulated as follows: Does our own Orthodox tradition show us definite ways and methods of Christian education? We certainly do not mean a mechanical restoration of methods of teaching used in a different historic epoch, but the spiritual effort of “reading Church Tradition,” discovering its spirit, its eternal meaning. The Orthodox way of life consists in this creative “actualization” of Church Tradition; refusing to follow it, we consciously or unconsciously abandon Orthodoxy."

    Fr Alexander Schmemmen, Liturgy and Life, Part 1
  • This Sunday school article is perhaps a sad reminder that sometimes people like the way they talk than actually understand basic facts. It also relates more to EO issues which for the most part us Copts don't suffer from. The problems in this article are numerous and I wish to respond later to it. I hope that no Church loving Copt takes this article seriously. It's premise is wrong. If something needs fixing it should be fixed not be done away with completely. If it has benefited generations and the effects are clear. Why, then, retract such a fundamental educational tool from churches. It is now more than ever that children ought to spend their time in church learning in an environment that is conducive to their well being both spiritually and socially..

    We shouldn't jump on any well written article, full of nice words thinking it must hold some sort of the truth that we've yet to discover and implement. This is a huge problem nowadays which I see with youth in particular who can't form an opinion and solid defense of church practice so they are caught in between those glossy speakers and the simpletons who know the truth but can't seem to express it adequately. Ill respond later, God willing

  • Given that our Coptic Orthodox Church is often associated with the Sunday School movement (which was surely needed at the time when education was at an all time low), could it be possible that certain trends toward reductionism, traditionalist rigorism, evangelical ethos and biblical literalism that we are seeing in pockets of the Church today are a result of the presuppositions that Sunday School pedagogy seems to impart?

    Not saying that there's no value in Sunday School (some of one's fondest memories of Church might be associated with Sunday School and the love that the servants gave and passed on to them), rather that there may be underlying ways of thinking about the Faith that have been influenced by Sunday School. For example the focus on text as primary locus of theology could be linked to presuppositions about the Bible and how to read it (ie. Sola Scriptura). Perhaps one apparatus that is often used to introduce our youth to religious sementalism and reductionism is Sunday School? But maybe the structures of Sunday School are fundamentally rooted in what Fr Alexander calls a "Protestant philosophy of education"?

    I wonder if something like this

    is more aligned to Orthodox education than a Sunday school program that mirrors the regular school year?

    Do educational methods that we use speak, teach, witness and encourage Theosis or do they say that Sunday School and Christian life are put on pause for the summer when students "graduate"?

    Mind you to our Church's credit the Mahragan Al Keraza competition does impart a sense of continuity, so for us life of the Church it is not something that we take a break from for summer vacation.

    Still I do think the question should be asked about the implications of the foundations of the "philosophy of education".
  • @Tobit the article also seems to point towards the focus on activities as the main focus instead of beauty and worship as locus of theology.

    “When theology is false, then Christianity is reduced to activities.”
    - Fr. John S. Romanides

    "Nowadays, especially in the U.S., the Church is perceived as an enterprise, an activity. The priest constantly harasses people to do something for the Church. And their activism is measured in quantitative criteria: how many meetings, how much money, how much “doing.” I’m not sure it is all necessary.

    What is dangerous is not the activity itself, but the reduction of the Church, the identification of this activity with life in the Church. The idea of the Church, the sacramental principle of its life, lies in taking us away from activity (“let us put aside all earthly cares”), in making us commune with a new life, eternity, the Kingdom.

    And the idea of the Church, the principle of its life, also demands that we would bring into the world this experience of a new life so that we would purify this world, illumine it with the non-worldliness of the experience of the Church. Quite often the opposite happens: we bring activism into the Church, the fuss of this world, and submit the Church, poison its life with this incessant fuss. What happens is not that life becomes Church, but the Church becomes worldly."

    - Fr Alexander Schmemann, Journals, Thursday, February 18, 1982
  • @Tobit here's an article that also asks the question about Sunday School:

    Orthodox Catechism and Teaching Children

    Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou | 25 June 2014

    An Address at a Conference for Greek and Sunday Schools, London.

    Whenever we speak of Orthodox catechism, particularly for children, we tend to think exclusively in terms of school lessons or church visits, of learning symbols and information or experiencing worship. While all this is important, and should form part of the Christian Orthodox instruction and rearing of children, I would like to focus on another aspect of teaching children that is frequently overlooked, and which has been summed up well by St John Chrysostom:

    “Let everything take second place to our care of our children, our bringing them up to the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If from the beginning we teach them to love true wisdom, they will have great wealth and glory than riches can provide. If a child learns a trade, or is highly educated for a lucrative profession, all this is nothing compared to the art of detachment from riches; if you want to make your child rich, teach him this. He is truly rich who does not desire great possessions, or surround himself with wealth, but who requires nothing” (Homily 21 on Ephesians)

    “Let us train boys from earliest childhood to be patient when they suffer wrongs themselves, but, if they see another being wronged, to sally forth courageously and aid the sufferer in fitting measure” (An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children, 66)

    Here St John makes it clear that the most important and earliest lessons we should teach our children are the Christian virtues. Note, I did not say “morality” or “family values”, but “Christian virtues”. I am trying to make clear here that Christian virtues are distinct from morality, and certainly from moralism. The above passage from Chrysostom, for example, exhorts parents and teaches to instruct children in learning to love wisdom more than wealth, and spirituality more than glory. How many of us teach our children this? We prefer to urge our children to become wealthy and well-to-do, rather than devout and self-denying. We would prefer our boys to grow up to be doctors and lawyers, not priests and monks. We would be happier to see them millionaires than charitable, patient and humble.

    When it comes to teaching our children about Orthodoxy in our schools, we should go beyond learning about customs and religious devotions (things which, quite frankly, they should be learning from their parents at home and in church, not school). Instead, our schools should teach our children about what it means to live as a Christian, how we should treat our neighbour and environment.

    Certainly, at the heart of this instruction in virtue should be the Scriptures and biblical stories. Alas, in our day, children grow up knowing nothing of the bible, and it is shameful that our children should grow up ignorant of God’s word and the many wonderful examples of virtue and holiness in the Scriptures. Biblical knowledge is of fundamental importance to the Christian character of our children and their upbringing. As St John Chrysostom writes:

    “Don’t think that only monks need to learn the Bible; Children about to go out into the world stand in greater need of Scriptural knowledge.” (Homily 21 on Ephesians)

    In addition to Scripture, our children should also be introduced to the lives of saints. The tradition of parents and grandparents passing on such stories is sadly a thing of the past, and here our schools and churches can assist parents who may be lacking in such knowledge. Of particular importance is the patron saints of the children and members of the family. Again, in the words of Chrysostom:

    “So let the name of the saints enter our homes through the naming of our children, to train not only the child but the father, when he reflects that he is the father of John or Elijah or James; for, if the name be given with forethought to pay honour to those that have departed, and we grasp at our kinship with the righteous rather than with our forebears, this too will greatly help us and our children. Do not because it is a small thing regard it as small; its purpose is to succour us.” (An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children 50)

    It is unfortunate, that instead of teaching children the virtues at a young age, and religious beliefs at a later age, we do things the other way around, and try to introduce the Christian virtues to our children when they are in their teens, too obstinate and rebellious to be instructed in the virtues of self-denial, patience, and humility, and too grown up to still be learning Sunday school theology. As our children become young adults, their knowledge in every area of learning increases: science, maths, language, literature, history. But when it comes to religion, we never get past primary school. No wonder many of our young adults reject Christianity as childish. We do not prepare our children for the world as they reach their teens; we do not prepare them for the anti-Christian propaganda they will hear, or the many atheist pupils and students they will befriend.

    So, if we are to enable our children to hold on to their Christian heritage and Orthodox tradition, and more importantly, if they are to grow up as devout Orthodox believers, first we must teach them the virtues, the Scriptures, the saints, and then our doctrines and beliefs and church practices and customs. Admittedly, many of our young people will no longer be experiencing these things at home and learning from their parents, and so in addition to the efforts our schools are making to teach our young people, initiatives must be taken to support and instruct parents. I believe that this is something schools and teachers cannot do alone. Clergy and teachers, churches and schools, must work together for the instruction and edification of Christian Orthodox families, young and old. The most important school of all is the family, and if we do not engage with families and teach parents, we are failing our children, and the Church will continue to lose them, if not to the atheist and secular culture which surrounds us, then to other Christian churches or even other religions. And so I will conclude, once again, with the words of St John Chrysostom:

    “In children we have a great charge committed to us. Let us bestow great care upon them, and do everything that the Evil One may not rob us of them.” (Homily 9 on 1 Timothy)
  • edited May 2015
    I attended Sunday School for most of my childhood and young adult life.

    Some Sunday School teachers were good, some were boring. Ultimately, its a useful time to pose questions about the faith. Sure, at times, it becomes a massaging-of-ego of the Sunday School teacher. We end up attending the Sunday School for him, rather than for our own benefit. 

    But you enter in a dichotomy, Cyril, with your argument: your opening argument is a bit flawed: You state that Orthodox youth are far from Orthodoxy and then you link this to Sunday School. What does that have to with them leaving the faith? We could argue that the problem is, or could be, lack of good Sunday Schooling!? 


    If our youth attended the correct training and understanding of their faith, why would they leave? 

    The problem isn't with Sunday School, but the Sunday School curriculum or program. I personally found it pointless at times.

    You want the person to enter into spirituality. You cannot teach them this. 

    The only way to enter into it is by experiencing God through Prayer. Through Worship. Through Praise.

    Its like giving a lesson on how nice Peche Melba, Tiramisu or Pain Perdu tastes. You cannot describe the taste. You spend ages telling students: "The 1st instance it enters your mouth, you are just dumbstruck, the marscaponi cheese begins to melt and the rum begins to subdue your taste buds as feelings of guilt over your weight begin to overshadow any possible enjoyment of the this amazing gateau". 

    Its best that each student simply buys it and tastes it.

    Experiencing Christ's Love, and Life-With-Christ cannot really be taught. It has to be done through prayer directly. Maybe sunday school curriculum should be focused on prayer and how to pray?? 

    Maybe it should include things like the "Art of Prayer" - or the "Philokalia". 

    What Im trying to say is that at times, I find Sunday School a pointless (at least concerning the one I attended), non spiritual experience. Its not a stage of spiritual development. Its pure socialisation. It has shown me the knowledge of God, yet has not led me to actually KNOWING God. 

  • +1000

  • "Making the Liturgy more "relatable" is the opposite direction one should take in presenting the Church to your child. Holiness speaks to a separation from the things of this world that distract us from God. Using cultural distractions to encourage participation in the services of the Church muddles this reality. If what we should be seeking after is packaged in a secular pop-culture medium a false equality and connection is made in the minds of our children that life in the Church is just another way to pass the time. Making the Way into a video game, a music video, or any other trivial entertainment serves to undermine and not reinforce your child's faith. The hard lesson that evangelical efforts to grow the Church through making it more "relevant" have been learned over and over at the expense of tradition and with little to show for it beyond empty coffers, infrequent attendance, and a "spiritual but not religious" ethos.

    The Liturgy is best presented as a constant walking towards the transcendant where His people gather in reverence and anticipation of His imminent return. A child that sees himself as someone in service to a thing not only much greater than he, but also something that can transform him into the man God would have him be through service to His Church, is a child that will grow in faith and love of the Lord. "

    "You may, being teachers, be interested to know how we teach our faith. Well, I could put it in a nut-shell by saying, badly, because if what I have said in the beginning makes any sense to you, it is not by making children to learn doctrinal formularies or formal prayers or any such thing that you make a person into a Christian or an Orthodox. He must be introduced into an experience. And an experience can be caught as one catches the flu, it is an infection, it’s not something which can be conveyed in a sterile manner. So that what we expect is that in the family people should have a sense of worship. I do not mean, do special things. It’s not by praying before a meal or not praying before a meal that one conveys a sense of a sacredness of the event, but I remember one of our young theologians saying, “Everything in life is an act of love divine even the food, which we eat, is divine love that has become edible.” And if the food is prepared with love, if it is served with beauty, if it is shared with reverence, if it is treated as a gift of God, a miracle, and for people of my generation and that of my parents this attitude is easy because we have gone so often without any food and in hunger, that really a piece of bread or any form of food is an act of God or an act of human love. So that is an example. The same could be applied to everything which is the life of the home — the way parents treat children and children treat parents."
    - Metropolitan Anthony Bloom,

  • edited May 2015
    Maybe the objective of Sunday School is to simply make friends. No one I attended Sunday School since my childhood or youth is my friend today anyway. 

    Rehearsing Christmas Plays was not a spiritual exercise. 

    Learning how to chant Ezpasisty Allilos En-Philimaty did nothing for me.

    The only useful exercise we did in Sunday School was read the Psalms, and at best this was a reading lesson, not a spiritual exercise. Sunday School never taught me how to pray the Psalms. They taught me how to read it in Public. It was pure public speaking exercises.

    Nothing spiritual about it.

    Yes. I agree. Do away with Sunday School. 

    Our spiritual growth comes from deep prayer. From wanting God so much that you pray silently with all your heart for God to come in your life.

    It comes from praising God also, and being in communion with Him. 

    Sunday School is basically that: a school to teach you about how good God is, and how nice He tastes. Its about teaching you how to drive without actually giving you a car and allowing you to drive. Its only theory. 

    Learning how to drive by simply reading a book on the highway code doesn't mean you can drive. You need to drive. 

    In fact, you'll most likely learn the highway code by driving than reading a book anyway. You'll understand the importance of a 50 mile speed limit when you get a speeding fine. A book won't teach you the importance of that.

    I recommend, that rather spend every 2 hours every Sunday in Sunday School; kids should go home early. Leave the Church in peace and enjoy the experience they had from the liturgy. 

    And if at all possible, I highly recommend they spend 10 days in a spiritual retreat in any Coptic Orthodox Monastery of their choice. That would be more beneficial than any Sunday School lesson.

    What Sunday School teachers try and do is at the least tell you how good God tastes and how good God's Love is for you by reading to you Bible passages. This isn't wrong. Its good. But it assumes, in part, that their spiritual level is a good example. How can a Sunday School teacher talk to me about God's love UNLESS they themselves had experienced it?? So then it ultimately boils down to you learning about God through a person. What if your Sunday School teacher is an awful lady. I had a Sunday School teacher who was a nightmare. 

    Do I hate her? I regret every second I spent in her class.

    I'd have learnt more about God, benefitted more, had I spent my precious time in Sunday School with her, by going to bars. (LITERALLY!).

    Her entire family were a nightmare. 

    Our spiritual life cannot be a function of people and their experiences with God. Whether it be a sunday school teacher, a priest, a bishop, or a Pope. 

    Our spiritual life should transcend these obstacles. 

    If Christ IS my Saviour, who became my Sacred Salvation, who is a Sunday School teacher to come between Christ and myself? To even dare to teach me about God's love??

    Is there a parent who would accept a stranger teaching their kids about how much a father or mother loves their children?? No matter how much a parent rebukes or chastises his children, he doesn't need a stranger to tell his kids how much their own father loves them. 

    So ultimately, all this depends on the spiritual relationship a Sunday School teacher has with God. They may well indeed have a good spiritual relationship with God, but whose business is that? That's personal. 

    God doesn't have Grandchildren. 

    God doesn't consider me His son (lower case "s") because my dad is a good man and has been baptised. No! I need to be baptised and accept Christ.

    If my father is a good man and I'm far from God, it doesn't give me any spiritual edge. It just means that I will have more to be accountable for in terms of my repentance and my actions.

  • edited May 2015
    Our Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on us and save us.
  • Hang on Cyril,

    You know, the aim of Sunday School is also to prepare us for a life with Christ. Its meant to be give us the tools and user guides on to assist us on this journey.

    The problem is that the method of delivery isn't always great.
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