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Any Given Sunday

Any Given Sunday

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By CHARLOTTE HAYSWhen Dorothy Stutzman was 5, she began a habit that would carry her through most of her life: Sunday school at the West Olive United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Ill.

"My parents said 'go,' and I went," recalled Ms.


It was that simple.


Stutzman went on to teach Sunday school at West Olive Methodist for more than 50 years.

She loved telling Bible stories, putting on little skits and befriending kids who didn't have it so easy at home.A few years ago, however, West Olive was forced to pull the plug on Sunday school.

Attendance had shrunken to one lone child.

"We couldn't compete with television and computers," Ms.

Stuzman said sadly.Although Sunday school was until recently a staple of middle-class Protestant life in the U.S., its origins lie among the rowdy poor of England's Industrial Revolution.

Robert Raikes (1736-1811), a crusading newspaper editor, developed Sunday classes as a way to reach out to England's poor in the 1780s.

Dubbed in Protestant circles "the greatest lay movement since Pentecost," Sunday school traveled across the pond in the 1790s, eventually becoming the Protestant norm here.

By my own childhood, Sunday school was taken for granted.

Catholics relied on parochial schools and special weekday classes to teach the faith, but Protestants had Sunday school.A childhood without Sunday school was unthinkable.

Like the roast beef and peas in cream sauce at Sunday lunch, and afternoon visits from uncles and aunts, Sunday school was an essential part of the day.

My mother had taught Sunday school, and when she got married the tots threw her a surprise handkerchief shower.

Another proud daughter of a Sunday-school teacher, Grace Terzian, treasures a little hand-made book of "Favorite Psalms" that her mother put together for her second-grade class in Nashville, Tenn.

Didn't everybody grow up singing "Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus" on Sunday mornings?Sunday school was hardly advanced theology.

Most of the programs ran parallel to the regular school year.

During the Sunday-school "year" there wasn't time to cover much beyond the major Old Testament stories and the Gospel stories about Jesus.

Acts and the Epistles always got short shrift.

(I was an adult before I realized that St.

Paul wasn't one of the original 12!) We either tormented or adored our Sunday-school teachers.

Some are dear to us still.

In short, Sunday school was a civilizing experience that assured some level of religious literacy.Fewer children are having that experience, though.

Like West Olive United Methodist, many churches have drastically curtailed or given up entirely on Sunday school for children.

Two years ago, Bruce Morrison, an official with the Missouri Baptist Convention, wrote about attending a "ministry conference where several denominations were represented." During a break, he recalled, "I overheard a discussion between several of the attendees about the value of Sunday School in today's culture.

The implication was that Sunday School ministry in the local church is obsolete."The decline in Sunday schools appears to be gradual but steady.

A study by the Barna Group indicated that in 2004 churches were 6% less likely to provide Sunday school for children ages 2 to 5 as in 1997.

For middle-school kids, the decline was to 86% providing Sunday school in 2004 from 93% in 1997.

Similarly, there was a six-percentage-point drop in Sunday schools offered for high school kids -- to 80% from 86%.

All in all, about 20,000 fewer churches were maintaining Sunday-school classes.

And the future does not look bright: Only 15% of ministers regarded Sunday school as a leading concern.

The younger the pastor, the study showed, the less emphasis he placed on Sunday school.A number of reasons can be given for the decline, including an increasingly secular society and the other demands on the time of the average child.

And then there is a content problem.

The kind of Sunday-school activities that pleased my generation simply wouldn't fly with today's busier and more sophisticated kids.

"A lot of the stuff we did was rote memory," said Mr.

Morrison of the Missouri Baptist Convention.Ultimately, if Sunday school is to thrive, parental involvement is necessary -- somebody has to say, "Go." But who? The Rev.

Neil MacQueen, a Presbyterian minister who develops software programs for Sunday schools, cites a crucial factor in the decline of Sunday-school attendance: divorce.

On any given Sunday, many children of divorced parents are out of town, visiting "the other" parent.Despite all of these factors, Sunday school may not be bound for extinction any time soon.

As Keith Drury, an associate professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, notes, Sunday school "has been ignored, starved of attention," and ministers and laity have started all kinds of other programs that compete with it.

But it just keeps going and going.Sometimes it seems that middle-class kids today are as spiritually untutored as the industrial poor of Robert Raikes's England.

So maybe there is still a niche to fill.


Hays is the editor of In Character, published by the John Templeton Foundation.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W11
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