Sunday School: From Memorizing to Asking Deep Questions
By Barbara Meachin
“Children were treated as smaller adults, little men and women who happened
to be dressed in bibs and pinafores.”
This sentence explains much of the difference between Christian education for children at our founding and today. There was no “Jesus Loves Me” or colorful illustrations of Bible stories. In fact, there was no Sunday School for members’ children at all.
Just like adults, children were expected to know and understand the foundation of the Presbyterian faith. They learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648, 107 questions and answers designed to educate children and others "of weaker capacity" (according to a preface written by the Church of Scotland). Even so, we must respect their capacity for memorization.
The Shorter Catechism has a lot to recommend: it is thought-provoking, fairly easy to understand, and gets right to the point.
You may have heard of question #1:
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
A question about prayer provides an eloquent definition:
Q: What is prayer?
A: Prayer is an offering up of our desire to God, for things agreeable to his will, in the Name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.
How did 18th and early 19th century Presbyterian children absorb all this? The family had the primary responsibility for teaching. There was also a weekday class for children on the shorter catechism, and they were quizzed during pastoral home visits. In addition, our first pastor Dr. John Rodgers held Thursday evening lectures which were intended for older children but usually drew an overflow crowd of all ages.
By the mid-1830s, members’ children were learning the faith at Sunday School. They took part in devotional exercises, studied a passage from the scriptures and on the fourth Sunday of the month, focused on the shorter catechism.
1837 was a watershed year for Christian education at Brick Church: for the first time the idea arose of adding a small amount of play to the Sunday School’s rigorous program of study. Unfortunately we don’t know what kind of play was allowed.
Today Brick Church hosts one of the largest urban Sunday School ministries in the country. We average between 275-300 children registered each year, 2 years old through 7th grade with 100 volunteer teachers.
For our younger children, play is an important part of learning. They dress in costume as Biblical figures and act out Bible stories. As tangible reminders of Bible stories, they make crafts—their own colorful coat for Joseph, listening ears for the story of Samuel, and Pentecost headbands—and biblical stories are taught through music and song as well.
Older children focus more on discussion—wondering about the events of the Bible and how God may be speaking to us today. They are encouraged to wonder and question as they seek to make their faith their own.