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Sunday School: How Important Is It?


Proverbs 1:7
Joshua 4:19-24
Deuteronomy 4:1
Exodus 4:10-12
Isaiah 28:10

I: — How important is our Sunday School? I know, it’s important that adult worship not be disrupted, and therefore younger people leave the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. But more profoundly, how important is the Sunday School itself? Surely one measure of how important it is is given by how deeply Sunday School events imprint themselves on someone’s mind and heart.

One hot Sunday in July when I was 7 or 8 years old there were so few of us youngsters that in place of our age-divided classes there was an open session conducted by one teacher. The lesson was simply a protracted children’s story. It had to do with mailing a letter through Canada Post (at that time, Royal Mail). We were told that the moment we dropped a letter into a letter-box vast resources were mobilized. The simple act of sending the simplest communication activated unseen myriads in ever so many places. Why, things hummed at the local post office, at a regional postal station, even at the airport where an airplane would soon be speeding to Zambia or Zimbabwe, only then to render operative ever so much there! The simple act of communicating shifted so much in the world as to leave the world altered ever after. I was only 7 or 8, but I was old enough to remember the point which the teacher made from the story: every time we prayed we called on resources vaster than anything we could imagine. Not only did we call on them, they were rendered operative, mobilized, so as to leave the world forever different. As often as we pray our praying is honoured and its fruitfulness guaranteed. As often as I pray now I think of the story — and find myself encouraged to pray again.

Some time later, at another open session, a woman introduced us to the ‘tater family. The ‘tater family consisted of potatoes which had had faces carved in them and had been dressed up. There were several members of the ‘tater family: spectator, dictator, prestidigitator, plus so many others. Spectator said much, did nothing, offered useless advice, helped no one. Dictator, nasty, was everywhere disruptive and destructive. Prestidigitator was a trickster, a phoney, deceiving people day after day. It took 30 minutes for us to meet all of the members of the ‘tater family. The teacher has been dead for several years now, but I have never forgotten her or what she brought to us.

During the season of Lent, when I was 9 or 10, the teacher told us of Good Friday, told us about the cross and what it meant. After the class I stayed behind to tell her that I now understood the provision that Jesus had made for me in the atonement. As a 9 year old I certainly didn’t use the words “provision” and “atonement”; of course I used the vocabulary of a 9 year old. Nevertheless, that particular Sunday has been seared into my mind and stamped on my heart forever.

A few years later I was walking down a Toronto street with two fellows who weren’t in my Sunday School class inasmuch as they were older than I. (I was 12, they 14.) Still, we were friends, and soon we had the idea of a contest among ourselves as to who could think of the most repulsive thing. What was the most revolting thing imaginable? I did my best but I lost. When Gordon Rumford brought forth the fruit of his fertile imagination we all agreed that Gordon was the winner. (I won’t tell you what his ultra-revolting idea was, since I want you to hear the rest of the sermon.) Gordon Rumford is currently the preacher at Erindale Bible Chapel, just south of us at Dundas and Mississauga Road. We get together frequently at Pastry Villa for coffee. Recently he told me that as a 14 year old he ran with a rough, rough crowd, several members of which went to prison. Gordon was tempted to fall in with them too in their assorted escapades, but couldn’t quite let himself do it, for as often as he was about to he asked himself, “How am I going to face Jack Shepherd”? (my father, and Gordon’s Sunday School teacher). Gordon tells me that the fellows in the Sunday School class (not to be confused with the crowd he ran with) ridiculed my father behind his back, played the occasional practical joke on him, were regularly rude, smart-alecky, obstreperous. My father’s response, Gordon tells me he will always remember, was endless kindness and affection and patience. “How am I going to face Jack Shepherd?” Gordon tells me that my dad’s unwearying kindness and affection and patience stayed him when nothing else would have. (I have asked Gordon to write my long-widowed mother, and he has.)

II: — I am aware that many people are fearful of teaching Sunday School. We say we are not born-teachers. We say we don’t know enough; the children are too smart; our biblical and theological resources are too slender; we can’t make the lessons sufficiently interesting for the children, and therefore won’t have their attention. All of this is little compared to the natural curiosity of children. The natural curiosity of children is the entry-point, the beachhead, from which we can move ahead in exposing children to the riches of our faith. Put differently, the natural curiosity of children is their invitation to us, an invitation to impart information, to be sure, but more profoundly an invitation to include them with us in our ventures in life and faith. The question the child asks us is the occasion of our inviting the child into that venture under God which discipleship is.

Before the Blue Jays came to Toronto the city had a professional team in the topmost level of the minor leagues. In those days players were not introduced one-by-one through the public address system. Instead, when the clock struck game-time the dugout exploded as nine men ran onto the field at the same instant. It was a moment of magic for me. The magic, however, was complicated by one perplexity. As soon as the Toronto catcher ran behind the plate he dragged his cleated shoe through the lime which marked out the catcher’s box and scuffed it until he had obliterated it — when the groundskeeper had painstakingly limed the perimeter of the catcher’s box only minutes earlier. I asked why and my father told me why. If an opposing baserunner attempted to steal a base and the catcher had to rifle the ball to the proper base; and if at that moment the pitcher inadvertently threw the ball into the dirt, the catcher didn’t want it coming up with lime on it, for then his grip on the ball would slip and he would throw it wildly.

Because children are naturally curious they are always inviting us into their lives and inviting themselves into ours. As they invite themselves into our lives they invite themselves into our apprehension of truth and life and way. It is no accident that Jesus speaks of himself as way, truth and life — in this order. Our Hebrew foreparents scarcely undervalued schooling children in the truth, scarcely undervalued schooling them in truth for the sake of life. At the same time they knew that such schooling unfolds most naturally and penetrates most thoroughly as youngsters are exposed to that way which the parents themselves are walking. As children see the way their parents endeavour to walk the children will ask questions concerning the truth and come to know the life.

Joshua is the leader of the Israelites as they move toward the promised land. Their deliverance at the Red Sea and their crossing of the Jordan are behind them. Joshua has brought with him 12 stones from the Jordan riverbed. He has the people set up the stones in a pattern that will intrigue children. Then Joshua tells the adults, “When your children ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’, tell them! Tell them about slavery in Egypt and deliverance at the Red Sea! Tell them about their parents’ resolve to cross the Jordan and never go back! Tell them of your resolve always to be moving ahead to the promised land!”

In the same way it is assumed that the peculiarities of the Passover celebration will be the occasion of a child’s natural curiosity as the child asks, “Why is this night different from all others?” And then the parents will have an entry-point for telling their children of the mighty acts of God.

I was riding in a car when a boy spotted a bird in the sky and asked, out of the blue, “How high does an eagle fly?” In the same way when children see what we use in worship and do in church life they will ask, “Why do we worship on Sundays? Why is the cross everywhere we turn? Why is there a candle on the communion table? Why does the minister wear a gown? Why do we always read the bible in church? Why is money received at worship?” The questions arise as children see us older people in our venture on the Way. The children’s curiosity invites the children themselves onto the Way with us. As they move onto the Way with us our schooling them in the Truth of the Way unfolds naturally and penetrates profoundly. The result is Life at the hands of him who is himself Way and Truth and Life.

I mentioned a minute ago that adults are often reluctant to teach Sunday School because they fear they are going to be “stumped”; lacking vast erudition, they feel they can do little beyond retelling bible stories.

But this is the most important thing we can do! Northrop Frye, the peerless scholar of English literature in Canada, insists that children should be told and retold the stories until the stories have sunk into the child indelibly and have become the interpretive key which they must have to unlock the riches of English literature, replete as it is with biblical allusions.

English literature? In Sunday School we have to do with something far more important than English literature; we have to do with life under God, in the world, at a particular point in history, for the sake of a creation which God loves ceaselessly. Our children have to be equipped for this. The old, old stories must sink into the child indelibly so as to become the interpretive key for life. You see, the old, old stories are never merely old. Stories which have to do with the human condition are rendered forever new as they are used of God to illumine our situation before him and his people and his creation. It doesn’t matter if the child doesn’t understand the story thoroughly right now. Nobody, whether child or adult, even octogenarian, understands the story “thoroughly” in the sense of understanding it exhaustively, since the story is inexhaustible. What matters is that the story become permanently part of the child’s mind and heart, for then the story will forever yield riches as it is pondered years later in different life-settings and perplexities.

This past summer I re-read the old story of Lot’s wife. She and her husband and others were fleeing Sodom, now in flames, when she looked back, according to the ancient legend, and became a pillar of salt. I had heard the story a hundred times ever since I was 3 years old. At one point I was satisfied with the most arbitrary understanding of God’s judgement: she had been told not to look back, she looked back anyway defiantly, she became frozen salt right there. As I grew older and understood what Sodom was all about I thought she had been attracted pruriently by the luridness which Sodom represented. And then during the summer as I read the story again I saw that there is nothing in the text to suggest that she was attracted by the luridness of Sodom. I thought about the thrust of biblical narrative as whole, thought of the surge forward of it all, realized that the God of history is always directing us ahead. Ahead, forward, onwards! We look ahead to that city whose maker and builder is God; we look ahead to that kingdom which cannot be shaken; we look ahead to the visible manifestation of him whose triumph is known now by faith. Lot’s wife looked back inasmuch as what was behind her possessed greater significance for her than what was in front of her; and such a mindset is fatal! We don’t look back! Never look back!

In my older age I have been nurtured endlessly by stories on which I was raised: Abraham and Isaac, the deranged fellow who ran around in the Gadarene hills and whom our Lord restored to his right mind (even as the townspeople objected!), the woman who unselfconsciously poured out on the feet of Jesus everything she had and was, the dying criminal whose eleventh hour desperation wrung from him a one-sentence prayer of repentance which rendered him a citizen of the kingdom.

When we feel we can do little more than tell the stories we should understand that this is the most important thing any of us will ever do.

If we are still fearful of becoming Sunday School teachers we should remember that we are not the only teacher in the classroom. Not only are we not the only teacher, we are not even the primary teacher. According to the book of Deuteronomy God sends Moses to be the teacher of Israel. At the same time that Moses is to be the teacher of Israel (without peer to this day), God says to the people, “Give heed…[to what]…I teach you”. When Moses complains, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent…I am slow of speech and of tongue”, God replies, “I will be with your mouth…”.

If we feel that the Sunday School enterprise appears to move ahead so very slowly, with little seeming to be taught and even less appearing to be learned, then the prophet Isaiah reassures us that the process is cumulative, and the accumulation is always underway even if we cannot measure it. Says Isaiah, “For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” It takes a long while to build up a coral reef in the ocean, but no one doubts the fact of coral reefs!

If we still feel under-equipped to teach Sunday School we must remember that everywhere in scripture the effectiveness of the teacher has much less to do with what the teacher knows than with who the teacher is. The apostle James makes this point most tellingly; so does Peter; so does Jude; so does Jesus himself. It is the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom, not a postgraduate degree in theology. It is that respect and reverence for God and his living truth which the teacher quietly exudes, however little might be said; this is the beginning of wisdom for our children.

III: — I began the sermon with the question, “Does anything of lasting significance happen in Sunday School?”, and I said then that the answer is given by how deeply Sunday School events imprint themselves on someone’s mind and heart.

A confirmation class is a Sunday School class for adolescents. In 1932 Dietrich Bonhoeffer conducted a confirmation class for youngsters from the slums of north Berlin. Bonhoeffer himself had been born to the aristocracy. His family was well-to-do, socially prominent, cultured. His father was professor of neurology at Berlin University and chief of the hospital’s department of neurology. Germany of 1932 was in dreadful economic condition. Inflation galloped at 1000% per day. The economic collapse was matched by near-social chaos. Bonhoeffer himself was brilliant, having completed his doctorate by age 21. Now he was with a class of rowdy boys who were poor, ill-educated, and whose future was materially bleak. The first day Bonhoeffer appeared on the scene and walked up several flights of stairs to the classroom the boys pelted him with balled-up paper as they threw it down the stairwell at him. Later in class one boy took out his lunch and began eating his sandwich. Bonhoeffer said nothing, merely looked at him until he put his lunch away. Gradually, however, the boys came to cherish their teacher. In his spare time Bonhoeffer taught them English; weekends he took them to a cottage in the Harz mountains. One boy fell ill and was told that his leg would have to be amputated. When the youngster was hospitalized Bonhoeffer travelled across Berlin by streetcar three times per week in order to be with the boy during the latter’s difficult days.

1932 was 60 years ago. I like to think that somewhere in Germany today there is a 75 year old man whose life was rendered forever different because of his Sunday School teacher. More likely there was a 25 year old serviceman who died in North Africa or the North Atlantic and who died in the holy comfort of a gospel pressed upon him by his Sunday School teacher.

The boys in Bonhoeffer’s class were poorly educated and expressed themselves haltingly. The story I have just told you comes to us from one of the boys in the class, Richard Rother, who has written himself, “The gratitude I feel for having had such a [teacher] in our confirmation class makes me write down these recollections”.

Is it really important — Sunday School, that is? How important was it for Richard Rother?


Victor A. Shepherd
1993 September 12