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September 2018 Family Ministry By Kathy E. Smith

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By Kathy E. Smith, Director of Family Ministry

Questions for Self-Reflection:

What role did church play in the life of your family growing up?
If you grew up unchurched, what role did you witness church playing in the lives of families around you?
What role did church play in the lives of the adults you knew?
How is that different from the role you see church currently playing in the lives of families at UCBR?

Building Our Vision for Family Ministry
Part I – A Look Back at Sunday School

At the Family Ministry Visioning workshop in August, Courageous Faith Consultant Kim Sweeney helped us look at the history of our church and the larger history of religious education and led some wonderful discussions about what ministry to families needs to look like in the 21st century.  Over the next few months, I will be using my newsletter column, as well as email, Facebook, and conversations with the community, to help us engage with the work of building a family ministry.  Much of this work may seem as if it is directed solely at children.  But keep in mind that part of the work of re-thinking family ministry is how we do ministry with the whole church, with all families of whatever size or age or configuration.  We are in this together!   

So we begin with a retrospective of the history of Sunday School across denominations, excerpted from a longer article from USA Today.  As you read, keep the reflection questions in mind.  How would you answer them?  Are your answers different from others in your family?  If you’d like to talk more, my door is always open. 

“Many a prayer has been said over the fate of [Sunday School], whose struggles cut across denominational lines. Between 1997 and 2004, churches lost tens of thousands of Sunday school programs, according to data from the Barna Group, and more recent studies show that enrollment has fallen across denominations. From 2004 to 2010, for example, Sunday school attendance dropped nearly 40 percent among Evangelical Lutheran churches in America and almost 8 percent among Southern Baptist churches, prompting speculation that the problem may be more than just a decline in American religiosity.

“Parents and kids, as we all know, are just too busy on weekends, with everything from professional-level sports training to eight-hour SAT prep classes (at age 12!). The institutional inertia that churches are famous for has made it difficult for them to adapt to the times. … Decades ago, religious education programs served as the only social function after a grueling week. But today, Sunday schools must make an affirmative case to their audience. … While Sunday school conjures up images of postwar America — mom and dad in the pews while Johnny and Susie played Bible games in the classroom — it's actually an English institution that dates back to the Industrial Revolution, in the late 1700s. The original Sunday schools didn't aim so much at enlightenment as at discipline:

Factory children spent Sundays — their only day off from work — terrorizing neighborhoods, and parents were at a loss as to how to tame them.

Like a gift from God, Christian evangelist Robert Raikes took it upon himself to gather them from the streets, scrub their faces, comb their hair and send them to school, where the Bible was the textbook. …

“Not surprisingly, Sunday school soon caught on in the U.S., where over the course of a century and a half it evolved from an educational and missionary venture, which tried to spread the Gospel and attract converts, into a cornerstone of towns and neighborhoods. Nearly every parent, even those who didn't regularly attend church, sent their children to Sunday school. Indeed, the schools emerged as the center of social life, hosting parades, picnics and prize days.

“But the love affair would not survive the second half of the 20th century. …By the 1970s, Sunday school and church in general, like many traditional institutions, fell victim to a society that increasingly questioned authority. Citizens questioned the draft, students protested racial injustice and children challenged their Sunday school teachers. [And in today’s world] …Instead of a day of rest, Sunday has become just another day for over-scheduled kids to be chauffeured from sports practice to music lessons or SAT tutoring. It doesn't help that parents themselves, so overwhelmed by life, are skipping church. … All of which raises the question: What's a church to do?” 

From USA Today, March 22, 2015,