Sunday School in the Protestant Reformed Churches

Some time ago I was asked to write an article on the Sunday School for the Beacon Lights. That’s a pretty broad subject, of course, so the committee wisely gave me a topic to which I was to address myself. Now, somehow or other, I managed to lose the letter which I had received from the committee. And I couldn’t remember what that topic was. A diligent search of my manse failed to disclose the whereabouts of said communication. I was, then, faced with two alternatives. I could contact the committee and ask them to refresh my memory, which would have been an extremely simple task. Or I could, because I didn’t know what the topic was, write on anything I wished. The more I considered it, the more this latter idea appealed to me – especially so because this past summer I’ve been busy with Sunday School materials and the Sunday School program in general, and this Beacon Lights article would give me an opportunity to write about something which has become of great interest to me. So, if the committee will forgive the obvious liberty I’m taking with their request, and if the reader will pardon the lack of unity one would be more likely to find under a narrower topic, I will proceed to ramble on.
It seems that an Englishman by the name of Robert Raikes was the founder of the movement called Sunday School. That was back in 1780, Raikes noted that children in the England of his time were receiving little, if any, education. They were being neglected by the church, as was also the church being neglected by the vast majority of Englishmen. The spiritual lethargy of the day was accompanied by a watering down of the ministry of the Word, and by non-attendance of church services. Catechetical instruction was all but non-existent. And, not only that, the children, except for those of the rich, were receiving no instruction in schools, either. Most of them were, at a very early age, slaving away in the mines and factories to help their families eke out an existence. They spent Sunday, their only free day, playing in the streets. They were, then, getting no education at all, either in the school or in the church. This situation bothered Raikes. The children were growing up in ignorance of God’s Word and accustomed to profanation of the Sabbath. So Raikes conceived the idea of the Sunday School – an attempt to get the youngsters off the streets on the Sabbath and, at the same time, give them the instruction they could get on no other day of the week an instruction they would, otherwise, have never received.
That, briefly, was the original purpose. Now, it’s obvious that the Sunday School, as we know it in our churches, is no longer necessary for that purpose. The fact of the matter is that our children receive instruction in the truths of God’s Word by means of the catechism, in addition to regular church attendance. And they are instructed in day schools, Christian day schools, in fact – even Protestant Reformed Christian schools. Then what about the Sunday School? Where does that fit? A superficial consideration of the question would lead one to conclude that it has outlived its usefulness. The truth is, though, that the Sunday School has become a useful instrument for additional instruction of covenant youth. To most of us, this is a truism. But we know that there are also those who find no place for the Sunday School in our churches. There are others who, though they do not oppose Sunday School, merely tolerate it. And since we would like to see it actively supported, it might, perhaps, be wise to consider that place for a moment.
We will have to concede, of course, that Sunday School does provide what must be called unofficial instruction in God’s Word. Though supervised by the consistory, it is, nonetheless, not the official means by which the church institute provides instruction for the covenant seed. It can never replace, nor is it even on a level with, the instruction provided in catechism. But this does not mean for one moment that the Sunday School should not receive our enthusiastic support. The fact is that it is, in our churches, a society in which children receive instruction in addition to that which they receive at home, in church on Sunday, in catechism, and in the day-school.
That sounds, perhaps, as if Sunday School is mere repletion. It happens that we do not believe that nothing new is ever taught in Sunday School. But even if there were not, there would be nothing “mere” about the repetition. Repetition is recognized as an important part of good pedagogy. Just as repetition (drill, practice) is necessary in acquiring a skill, so also is repetition (even a certain amount of “overlearning”) important to ensure retention. We all know from experience that to hear the details of a story once does not mean that those facts have found a permanent place in our memory. So it goes with Bible stories: they become familiar only after we hear them repeatedly. And I think that we also know from personal experience that there are a lot of Bible stories, especially in the Old Testament, perhaps, that are, in fact, not so familiar. The Sunday School deals with these, too – not just the familiar ones. I’ve heard repeatedly from Sunday School teachers, that they were not sure how much good they did for the children, but that Sunday School had done a lot for their own knowledge of Scripture. Now, if the adult Sunday School teacher finds a study, or a restudy, of the Bible stories to be of great value, certainly the pupils should be able to gain something. Perhaps all this seems to be belaboring the obvious; but the fact is that the most common complaint of disgruntled Sunday School students is that “we’ve had all this before.” Well, we think that, unless the teacher completely botches the presentation, a complaint like that can arise only from a dissatisfaction with the study of Scripture.
We should add that there’s still another reason why the repetition is no “mere.” The fact is that an older student should get more out of the Bible story than he got out of the same Bible story during a previous study. These seemingly simple stories actually have a depth which cannot be probed by the young child. As one grows older, he is able to see more and more truths in the same Bible passage. And the teacher who lives up to his responsibility is going to be sure that his older class does not get the same instruction, on a particular Sunday, as a class that is several years younger. He will lead his students deeper.
Well, I’m just beginning to warm to the subject; and already I’m at the point, space-wise, where I should start winding things up. For some strange reason, the editor will not give me half of his magazine; so the best best thing is for me to stop at this point and hope that he’ll give me a little space in the next issue. So far we’ve only begun to touch on the importance of Sunday School. Next time then, we’ll attempt to show that, if used properly, Sunday School can be of inestimable value to both students and we think parents.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 5 August September 1970