St. Mary's Church in Nottingham, England, may very well be the home of the world's first Sunday school in 1751. The Sunday school movement would pick up speed in the following decades, championed by Robert Raikes, editor of the Gloucester Journal. In those days, Sunday was the only day that poor children in the slums didn't have to work in the factories.
Raikes saw value in teaching these "street urchins" how to read and write, to keep them from falling into a life of crime. The Bible served as their primary textbook; a catechism provided extra material.
Samuel Slater, a wealthy American industrialist, is credited with bringing the Sunday school system to the states in the 1790s — to serve the children laboring in the textile mills he owned on the east coast.
Sunday schools have taken different forms over the years, depending on the needs and goals of students and teachers. These days, the emphasis is no longer on basic literacy. We have an established public school system for that. Some would say, then, that the chief remaining goal of Sunday School is to teach basic (Christian) morality — how the children might curb their natural sinful desires and lead decent lives full of compassion for their fellow man.
If a middle-schooler respects her superiors or shows mercy to his enemies, Sunday school is seen to have been a success, and the child is allowed to "graduate." Why submit them to further torture, some might ask, as long as they know how to be a good kid? In their eyes, the purpose of religious instruction is boiled down to merely pacifying the otherwise unruly.
We would never accept such an underachieving aim for our elementary or secondary school systems. Our teachers are paid to be neither babysitters nor lion-tamers, but to enable and equip our children for a lifetime of learning and personal growth. Why shouldn't our churches' educational programs have the same, lofty vision, but on a spiritual level? Christians are known as disciples of Christ, and a disciple is a lifelong learner.
Our Sunday school program at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church prepares children for a lifetime of sitting at the Master's feet and growing in his grace. It equips them with the training, the background and even the vocabulary that they will need to participate in the conversation of the church which has been going on for centuries before they (or their parents or grandparents, for that matter) were born.
But what we do with children at church on Sunday mornings is not just an investment in the future of our children. It is meant to be a real blessing to them even now. Their regular attendance in Sunday school will allow them to get more out of the pastor's sermon, the hymns and the prayers — not just because they learn how to listen, but because Sunday school, like every activity of the Christian church, is meant to bring the participants to a stronger faith in Christ.
The congregation I serve includes the word "evangelical" in its title. That is, we are first and foremost a gospel-centered church. The message we preach is a person: Christ Jesus, crucified in the place of sinners and raised from the dead to guarantee life to all who trust in his promises. That means that the Sunday school teacher's role is not to scare little ones into a holy obedience with a healthy dose of the Commandments, but to gently lead them to know Jesus as the Son of God and the friend of the hopeless.
It's interesting to note that one of the criticisms of Robert Raikes' "Ragged School" was that it might weaken home-based religious education. Perhaps today we'd have to admit that those fears, by and large, have been proved prophetic.
Rare are the modern Christian parents who acknowledge that their duty to the Lord is to "bring (their children) up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). The church gladly offers assistance to parents, but it cannot usurp the role and responsibility that God has given to Mom and Dad.
When some mothers tried bringing their little children to be blessed by Jesus, the 12 disciples turned them away. But our Lord, the Good Shepherd, said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16).
Do not hinder your children from receiving the blessing of their Savior. Let them come to Jesus.