Last month, we looked at why Zion’s leadership believes it is the right time to reexamine the Christian formation practices of our adults and children so that we might improve and strengthen faith development and education in our congregation. Practically, that means looking at a more comprehensive model of family education than traditional Sunday School.
This month, I’d like to look at a broad overview of how the church in America got to where it is today regarding education practices, and in particular the regular segregating of the congregation according to age. As we look at the Scriptures, we see that the early church didn’t have any education or fellowship programs that were segregated by age, but “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). In Titus 2, Paul articulates God’s order that “older women must train the younger women” (Titus 2:4). In the whole context, it’s pretty clear that he isn’t imagining one older woman teaching a class of young moms, but an organic, integrated discipleship process that comes from older and younger women spending time together. And in Acts 20, Luke relates the story of the boy Eutychus, who fell out of a window and died while listening to Paul teach late into the night. Though an
adolescent, he was together with the adults members of the congregation and receiving the same teaching as them.
It would be too much to describe every stage of education in the church, but for most of the church’s history, the predominate model of education was parents teaching their children in the home, and children attending worship and hearing preaching along with their parents and grandparents. In the Small Catechism, Luther begins each section with the heading, “As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.” The church supported and equipped families, and taught the
Scriptures publicly from the pulpit, but basic education of the young was entrusted especially to parents. After the Reformation, Christian day schools were also encouraged and developed in many places which assisted the parents in teaching the Bible and the tenets of the Christian faith.
The Sunday School began in the late 1700s in England. Living conditions among the poor were very bleak. School was not yet compulsory and the majority of urban children did not know how to read or write and were often without parental influence and oversight at home. A man named Robert Raikes, who had some experience in working with men in prison decided “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and decided to open schools for the poor children that would meet on Sunday. The goal of these schools was not to teach the Bible, nor were they targeted towards children of Christian parents. The goal was to teach these unchurched kids to read and to form them in better habits and morals, so that perhaps they would stay out of prison and be more productive members of society.
Because the goal was to teach morals, the Bible was used, and rewards were given for greater Bible memorization. Because these schools were largely successful, more and more churches opened them. As the movement spread to America, they gradually shifted in focus to become a program for teaching the Bible to the church’s children.
It’s interesting to note that in the LCMS, churches first resisted the development of Sunday Schools, worried they would supplant the Christian day school as the primary method of education. It was also stressed that an hour of Bible education per week was woefully insufficient to truly educate a young person in the faith.
At first the Sunday School was integrated with children of all ages. Several additional factors led to the more age-based class model that we have today. After World War II, church participation boomed and led to the expansion of institutions and programs of all kinds. The modern-day youth group began around this time through the work of parachurch organizations like Young Life and Intervarsity. As these programs became more popular, more and more emphasis was placed on developing age-specific
programs and groups for adolescents, distinct from adult and children’s groups.
At the same time, educational development theory flourished as a discipline. Secular schools as well as Sunday Schools began to put these theories into practice by dividing up classrooms according to age-based developmental needs. Research demonstrated the pedagogical advantages of dividing children by age. This, combined with the success of the youth group, led to further division of the church according
That is a very brief summary of how we got to where we are today. The purpose of this article is not to cast judgment on these developments. Indeed, some of what has been learned and implemented in the church is good. Children do benefit from having time with their peers and the church should continue to seek ways to teach children in an age-appropriate way.
At the same time, the dominance of age-segregated education has had its drawbacks, and next month we’ll look at some of the benefits of seeking greater balance in separate and integrated education opportunities.