Worship or Sunday School… or Both? By Rev. Denise Bender

Children receiving school supplies at Bethany UMC

Children receiving school supplies at Bethany UMC

There has been much discussion lately on social media lately regarding maintaining Sunday morning Christian education for children to the exclusion of children in worship. Being the good United Methodist clergy that I am, I can see both sides.

One argument goes that when children are in Sunday school classes instead of worship, they don’t learn how to participate in worship as part of an inter-generational community. The flip side is that the children are learning about Jesus in a comfortable, age-appropriate environment with their peers, much like in any typical classroom.

I have four children, all grown up now. When my husband and I married, we made the decision to find a church that we could call “home.” So several weeks after our wedding, my two small daughters and my husband and I visited a United Methodist Church on the campus of the University of Illinois. We only left when we moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and there we immediately found a new church.

But as our sons were born and we would prepare to attend church each week, we realized that the amount of time it took to get four children and ourselves ready for church was longer than the hour of worship we spent there. So we started staying for worship AND Sunday school! The children learned to read by reading the hymnal; they learned to speak in public by being liturgists; they learned patience by being acolytes; they were in plays and choir and service projects. The children knew that this was what our family did. The friends the children made during those years they are still friends with today.

I know it sounds very 1950’s, but the difference was at that particular church we were all encouraged to struggle with theology and to ask questions and to be satisfied when no definitive answer was given. We wore jeans, drank coffee in the pews, participated and were not told what to think. That’s how church worked for our family.

But that’s just my story. Each community faces particular gifts and challenges in welcoming families into worship and other ministries today. How are those of us in ministry helping others tell their story? Does worship have to be formal in the sanctuary of a church, or can it be handing out books to children or building homes or sharing meals with those who struggle financially? Does Sunday school need to be by age groups with prepackaged curriculum, or can it be inter-generational and drawing on the sidewalk with chalk and discussing stories of our faith on the front lawn of the church building?

Maybe we don’t have to settle on just one answer for whether children (and youth, and adults…) benefit more from being in worship or Sunday school. As the body of Christ we must find ways as a community to make the experience of time together meaningful, relevant, and an anchor to the teachings of Jesus.

If you’d like to learn more about customizing the Sunday school/Children’s Church/Education Hour at your church, we’re offering some workshops this fall and winter, sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Conference Board of Global Ministries. “Sharing the Stories of Our Faith – A Workshop for those in Ministry with Children” is being offered in several locations in the coming months. For the location nearest you go to our “Events” tab and register soon!

Grace and Peace,

Denise

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