What is the proper place of the Sunday School? That is the question which we shall seek to answer in this paper. We might understand our subject to assume that the Sunday School does indeed have a place and consider it only to be our task to discover what this place is. We may also take the subject a bit more broadly, and then it demands an answer also to the question, Does the Sunday School really have a place among the covenant youth? In the more general sense we have looked upon the subject.
Among the children of the unchurched, there, to my mind, the Sunday School is first of all in its proper place. Sunday School is for those children whose parents fail to provide a Christian home, school and catechism instruction for them. It is for children born and reared outside of the church and covenant of God. To such children it should direct its attention first of all.
Such was the original intention of Robert Raikes who is generally considered to be the founder of the Sunday School movement. When Robert Raikes saw how the children of the unchurched, especially of the poor, profaned the Sabbath and grew up in total ignorance of God and His Word, he was deeply moved and finally conceived the plan of organizing Sunday Schools to provide some training for the “little heathens’’ and to take them off the streets on the Sabbath. That was in the year 1780. When the Sunday School movement grew by leaps and bounds, not only in England but also throughout the world in general, the Sunday School gradually forsook its original purpose and became an instrument for instructing the covenant children. However, even to this very day, especially in America, the Sunday School in a measure still seeks to provide instruction for the children of the unchurched. Most Sunday Schools welcome into their midst the children of the community at large, and seek to include them with the children of the church.
To my mind the Sunday School should remain true to its original purpose, and its proper place is first of all among such children. However, I do not believe that we ought to follow the example of American church in general in bringing the children who are not of the covenant into one Sunday School with those who are of God’s covenant. For obvious reasons. First of all, the method of approach necessarily differs. The children of the covenant should be treated as covenant children, while the others cannot and may not be. Furthermore, the children of God’s covenant brought up in Christian homes, in the Christian School and enjoying catechetical instruction certainly cannot be expected to study the same lesson the others study. The former have much greater knowledge to begin with than those who have not received this instruction. It is as pedagogically impossible to put them in the same Sunday School classes as it is to put an eighth grader in the same class with a beginner. And, finally, there are grave dangers connected with bringing the children of God’s covenant into one class with the children of the unchurched. Dangers of intermingling, of friendships, of the children of the church losing their distinctiveness and learning the ways of the world, and that in the shadow and under the supervision of the church. Hence, we ought to object strenuously against the practice of bringing all children promiscuously into one and the same Sunday School.
The Sunday School for the children not of God’s Covenant ought to be separately organized, at least there ought to be separate classes. And Sunday School is first of all in its proper place among such children. There can be no objection to such Sunday Schools. They are even desirable.
Lest you misunderstand my position, let me add at once that I do not mean that the Sunday School has no place at all among and for the covenant children. I admit that I do not believe its place is nearly as large as that frequently assigned to it, especially in most of the denominations of our day. Neither do I believe that its benefits anywhere near compare with the instruction of the Christian School, nor with those of catechism. However, neither am I of the opinion that the Sunday School has no place at all among the covenant youth, that it is really an evil. Some oppose the Sunday School for the covenant youth, many merely tolerate it; it is my position that we ought to support it.
It is a fact that there are those in our Protestant Reformed Churches that look upon the Sunday School with apprehension and fear, who oppose it or at best merely tolerate it.
Their position ought not to be misunderstood. By and large, they certainly do not assume this attitude of opposition and aloofness because they underestimate the task of the training of our children in the way they should go. On the contrary, they on the whole, are people that are strongly Christian School and Catechism minded and that fear the Sunday School will substitute School and catechism. They usually present the following arguments:
1. There is a grave danger that the Sunday School will usurp the place of catechism and perhaps the Christian School, especially in our American world where Christian School and catechism are slighted and opposed and the Sunday School is nurtured as a bosom child. This danger is certainly not imaginary. It is a fact, for example, that in the Reformed Church of America the Sunday School has largely replaced the catechism. According to the official statistics given by Dr. E. Romig in his address on the state of religion in the Reformed denomination, delivered at the General Synod in 1941, there are 29,729 children enrolled in their catechism classes while the Sunday Schools have an enrollment of 138,092. In other words there are five times as many children in Sunday School than there are in catechism. Dr. Romig also stated that in the Synod of Chicago the catechism attendance was fast falling off. For a man Reformed in his convictions, and not merely in name, it is distressing to see the official instruction of the catechism be replaced by the instruction of the Sunday School. It represents a distinct loss. For the instruction of ministers and elders comes an instruction of teachers only too frequently poorly versed themselves in the knowledge of God’s Word. Instead of the doctrinal knowledge gained in catechism comes the interpretative-practical knowledge gained in the Sunday School.
We should feel for this argument even though we cannot agree with the conclusion. By no means ought we allow any instrument for the training of our children threaten either the Christian School or the catechism. These above all. But still I do not agree that because the Sunday School has replaced catechism in other denominations, it therefore should be opposed also in our midst. We ought to oppose any attempt to take the place of catechism. But that does not mean that the Sunday School itself must be opposed. Because the Sunday School is frequently misused, it does not necessarily follow that it is an evil in itself. Not at all, no more than liquor in itself is an evil because many misuse it. To my mind the Sunday School can serve a purpose, a purpose of its own. We ought to foster and not to oppose it. But of this later in the article.
2. A second argument used against the Sunday School is that there is no room for this instrument in the Reformed “set-up.” We have the Christian home, the Christian School and the catechism. These three, each in its own place, fill the whole need of child training. The Sunday School can add nothing; it can only repeat what was learned before elsewhere.
We would answer that even if it were true that nothing new could be learned in Sunday School—which is by no means necessarily true—then even mere repetition would be valuable. Repetition is a large part of training, let us never forget. But, we do not believe that there is no place at all for the Sunday School. It is true it can never accomplish in forty-five minutes what the School accomplishes in daily periods of that length; neither should it teach the doctrines and doctrinal viewpoint, which is the duty of catechism. But we claim that if the Sunday School adheres to the method of the interpretative-practical-inspirational it can fill a place all of its own, and add its bit in the training of our children.
Hence, I believe the Sunday School should not be opposed, it should not merely be tolerated, but it should be supported. Indeed, not as the instrument of the training of the youth, but as another instrument, be it that its value is relatively less than that of catechism and Christian School.
I believe there is a place for the Sunday School for the covenant youth also for the following reasons: First, our children can never receive too much instruction, especially not in our day. Secondly, we do not have Christian Schools of our own (with the exception of Redlands) and the general tenor of school instruction our children receive is Christian Reformed. As long as this is true, the Sunday School can aid us in presenting the Protestant Reformed viewpoint. Thirdly, it provides, if it remains true to its character, the interpretative-inspirational viewpoint which is an asset for the children.
In conclusion, I wish to remark that to my mind the Sunday School should:
1. Adhere to the method of interpretative-practical instruction, and not attempt the doctrinal viewpoint. The latter is the task of the catechism.
2. Never place itself on a par, as to value for the covenant children, with either the Christian School or the catechism.
3. Be under the close supervision of the consistory. The more because it is an organization controlled, not by the parents, not by the consistory, not by the pupils, but by the teachers. Besides, it is busy in the serious business of the training of the children. Finally, since the consistory is better qualified to know the character and ability of prospective teachers than the Sunday School, all nominations of prospective teachers should be submitted to the consistory for approval.
4. Direct its efforts also toward the instruction of the children of the unchurched by organizing separate schools and classes.
Let us give the Sunday School an intelligent, healthy Reformed support.