The evolution of the Sunday school superintendent
The evolution of the Sunday school superintendent

Country church

Let’s face it—in the 1950s, the religious education of children was easier. It’s not that the children were any different than today, but their environment certainly was. There are different societal attitudes, family support and information orientation today.

Back then, there was no question or feeling uncomfortable about going to church. The church grounds were a focus of community gatherings and youth sports. It was an integrated part of secular and non-secular community life.

My husband recalls playing youth basketball for church teams because there was no county league. He felt at home in all the churches in his community. The culture normalized church affiliation for families.

Back then, one could safely assume that children’s parents grew up “churched” and had legitimate biblical literacy. Also, grandparents often lived nearby. They were not only likely to be highly biblically literate but also played a regular formative role in their grandchildren’s lives.

Back then, information flowed into families’ lives in a one-way orientation: teachers, clergy, books, magazines, radio, television, movies. The content was not controlled by the people but by some entity more powerful than they. In this “pre-Information Age,” it was easier for society to control the messaging that the children received.

The Sunday school superintendent’s job was to keep the church school running with a curriculum, teachers, attendance sheets, and full snack bowls. The family and community took care of the rest, ensuring their offspring grew in an environment loaded with explicit and implicit messaging about the importance of faith and religion.

Needless to say, things are very different today. State and local governments have created larger schools and new community centers. These have become the focus of community and sports life.

For a variety of sociological reasons, overall church attendance has declined since the 1950s. Church affiliation has become less normalized. Besides changing the vibrancy of church communities, overall biblical literacy rates of community members have declined. Not only are today’s children more likely to grow up with biblically illiterate parents, but possibly grandparents as well.

Today, the makeup of our population has changed. We live in a more diverse society that openly honors different faiths and cultures. In school, children are taught of cultural differences, and open-mindedness is promoted. Without a grounding in a specific faith, children and youth may feel that faith is a choice like a channel on the television. Worse, without a language for their faith, they are unable to articulate what they believe.

Today, people are flooded with information and opportunities and options, nearly 24/7. Unlike one-way information transmittal of earlier times, young and old can now join online discussions to express their views and actually mold public opinion. Information is not moderated and messaging can be erratic and quite uncontrollable.

What does this mean for the church?

  1. Not only does the church have less societal support from the culture, it actually competes with the community for the time of its people.
  2. Churches can’t assume that parents have greater or even the same biblical literacy and/or faith language skills as their children.
  3. To return to being the centerpiece of the community, the church must shift to where the community has shifted: the two-way interactivity of the digital, virtual world.

What does this mean for the once-a-week Sunday school superintendent? To remain relevant in today’s society, a whole new paradigm needs to emerge from this role. The church now needs to disciple the whole family while simultaneously competing with popular culture/community for that family’s time and attention.

The model of “cradle to college” holistic family ministry emerges. In this model, leaders help engage the family in faith formation as a unit, and must be open to promoting formation at non-traditional times and places (e.g., in the virtual world).

Holistic family ministry provides formation so that parents grow in faith alongside their children. It helps build holy habits and rituals in families that promote faith that will stick for a lifetime. It supports the two-way information orientation that the people of today expect. It honors the time demands on families and acknowledges the information and choice load placed on them.

Children’s Christian education is no longer just about Sunday morning classroom time. It’s holistic family ministry—an all-encompassing outreach that sensitively nurtures the entire family in a format that fits our contemporary world.

Nina Bacas is director of children’s, youth, and family ministries at the Falls Church Episcopal and an M.A. student at Virginia Theological Seminary. She wrote this essay for a CMT-sponsored independent study called Digital Media for Ministry.

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