Reimagining Sunday school

Let’s reimagine Sunday school for the mid-twenty-first century. What would a new vision of Sunday school look like?

Have fun and build community

Let’s reimagine Sunday school as a place where children and teens learn how to be in community. Let’s co-create Sunday schools that are laboratories where kids learn how to do community by doing community. In this vision of Sunday school, it’s not a program separate from the rest of a congregation, it’s central to the congregation. Children and teens learn leadership skills that allow them to move into leadership roles in the congregation. They learn caregiving skills that allow them to reach out in pastoral ways to other persons. They learn how to engage in social justice together, and with responsible adults, through social education, social service, and direct action that reaches out to policy makers. Sunday school begins to look more like John Dewey’s vision of school: school is not preparation for life, it is life.

A proven way to build community among children and teens — and among kids and adults — is to have fun together. So as we reimagine Sunday school, we’ll take fun seriously. Having fun and playing together will become central to Sunday school, and by extension to religious communities more broadly. This fun might include playing together, doing theatre and music and art together, eating meals together, and so on. While these might seem like activities that don’t need Sunday school to happen, the schooling framework can help us to be intentional about having fun, and can also help us to maintain structures that keep kids safe.

Learn skills associated with liberal religion

Let’s reimagine Sunday school as a place to learn skills. Some basic skills have long been associated with liberal religion. With our commitment to democracy, liberal religious congregations are natural places to teach and learn skills associated with non-profit leadership. This is true for both kids and adults. For example, a past president of the California League of Women Voters told me that she learned how to do nonprofit leadership in her Unitarian Universalist congregation. As we reimagine Sunday school, we’ll think about how to teach kids basic leadership skills so that beginning about eighth grade, they can start moving into congregational leadership roles — committee members, Sunday school teachers, members of the Board of Trustees, website co-managers, and so on (and these are all roles that I’ve seen teens successfully fill in my congregation).

One of my religious education mentors, Prof. Robert Pazmino, said that our goal should be to have a young person on every committee in the congregation — and that if we did so, we’d have to reimagine congregational governance. For example, moving a young person onto your congregation’s environmental action committee will be invigorating, since kids are the ones who are going see the worst effects of environmental disaster. When teens are on the board of trustees, it helps remind board members that ongoing board development is a necessity for all board members (adults, too); that we can’t assume that everyone knows how to read a balance sheet or how to navigate Robert’s Rules. Thus Sunday school should be a path to full participation in all the messy details of democracy.

Other skills are associated with liberal religion as well, including interpersonal skills (knowing how to relate with family, with peers, and with adults beyond the family), and intrapersonal skills (knowing how to reflect on oneself and on one’s actions).

Liberal religion also has a long history of educating kids in basic group singing — and when people sing together (even when we don’t sing particularly well!), something known as “entrainment” happens, where heart rates synchronize, which can positively affect human social interactions. Other lively arts have similar effects. So as we reimagine Sunday school, we’ll want to include plenty of opportunities for full participation in various lively arts.

Learn the religious literacy needed in a multicultural democracy

Let’s reimagine Sunday school as a place to build religious literacy. If we’re going to understand our neighbors in our multicultural democracy, we need to know more about them than the color of their skins, what languages they speak, and the foods they eat. Religious traditions and cultural traditions are intertwined, and religious identity is a key part of many people’s cultural identity. This includes those people who claim no religious identity at all — religion can even include such “secular” commitments as your job.

So understanding how religions shape us is an important part of understanding different cultures. It’s well known that most public schools in the U.S. do not adequately cover religion, in fear of violating the First Amendment injunction against state-supported religion. This means that Sunday schools are crucial in teaching our kids about the religions and religious identities of others. The American Academy of Religion has a set of excellent guidelines for religious literacy for gr. K-12 that can guide our teaching and learning in this area.

Prepare UU kids to become UU adults, if they decide to do so

Finally, let’s reimagine Sunday school as a place where UU kids can prepare to become UU adults, when they reach the age where they are capable of making their own decisions about their religious identity. Our religious tradition is quite clear that each person makes their own decision about whether to become a Unitarian Universalist. This means that no one is actually born into Unitarian Universalism — you might be born into a Unitarian Universalist family, but it’s up to you to decide whether you want to continue as a Unitarian Universalist.

Sometimes, we Unitarian Universalists misinterpret this part of our religious tradition. Too often, I’ve heard Unitarian Universalist adults tell kids, “Now that you’re a teenager, we expect you to go away, and not come back until much later.” (And I know teenagers who heard this as, “Go away, we don’t want you.”) A first step in retaining our kids is to make sure we provide a place for them in our congregations through their teen years.

But we also lose our kids because we often do a poor job of preparing kids to become full members of our congregations. (Actually, we often do a poor job of preparing adults to enter our congregations, which means that many Unitarian Universalist parents are poorly prepared to educate their children on how to become members of Unitarian Universalist congregations.) People are not born knowing how to participate in congregations like ours. We have to teach them.

Thus, our Sunday schools are places where we educate our kids in how to be part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. This includes teaching basic skills: how we govern and fund ourselves; how we manage our local religious communities; how we coordinate with other Unitarian Universalist congregations. This also includes exploring our shared values, our social justice commitments, and our hopes for how we will behave to one another.

Sunday school doesn’t look much like school

After you’ve read the above, you may say to yourself, “Gee, Sunday school doesn’t look much like the public schools.” And if you said that to yourself, you’d be correct.

When we reimagine Sunday school, it looks like a combination of many types of education. Sometimes Sunday school looks like summer camp. Sometimes it looks like a children’s museum. Sometimes it looks like the local children’s library. Sometimes it looks like a maker space. Sometimes it looks like an arts program. Sometimes it looks like scouting programs. Sometimes it looks like small group ministries. Sometimes it looks like racial justice and social justice. Sometimes it looks like a worship service. Sometimes Sunday school might even look like a class, as it tends to do with such key programs as Our Whole Lives sexuality education classes.

Sunday school doesn’t look like school because we don’t do testing (though we may do other kinds of assessment, often as a group), and we avoid the factory model of schooling. Sunday school does look like school because we have adult leaders, although we believe adults learn from children just as children learn from adults.

We also encourage Sunday school to spill over into the home, and the home to spill over into Sunday school. In fact, the whole world is part of Sunday school, and Sunday school is part of the whole world.

This may sound like Sunday school isn’t schooling at all. But Sunday school is like schooling, as envisioned by people like John Dewey (The School and Society), Maxine Grene (Diversity and Inclusion), bell hooks (Teaching To Trangress), and Maria Harris (Fashion Me a People). It’s just that it’s different from what we’re used to thinking of as schooling.

Using the curriculum on this website

The curriculum guides on this website are designed to help you fulfill this vision of Sunday school.

To help those new to teaching, the curriculum guides include fully scripted lesson plans. However, experienced teachers may prefer to create their own lesson plan. Experienced teachers will find useful teaching resources, along with stated educational goals and objectives to guide them in their creation of their own lesson plans.

If you’re a new teacher, a useful analogy might be thinking of curriculum guides as if they were musical scores. New teachers are like musicians who want a score with their part fully written out. Experienced teachers, on the other hand, are like musicians who only need a lead sheet that shows the basic melody and harmonic structure from which they can improvise.