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Is the Sunday School Name Too Old-Fashioned for Children’s Ministry?

Does the Sunday school name have negative connotations? Should you consider updating the name? Only if you update the program too.

Image is everything — at least in the business world. When its image needs repair, a company conducts a stylish PR blitz, complete with a celebrity spokesperson, slick ads, enticing giveaways, and maybe even a new name or slogan. Some Christian leaders now advocate a similar “corporate cure” for Sunday school’s ailing image.

But is that all there is to it? To find out, Children’s Ministry Magazine asked our readers: “Do you agree or disagree that the name ‘Sunday school’ needs to be changed?” By a 3-to-1 margin, children’s ministers said it’s time for this ministry moniker to go.

Playing the Sunday School Name Game

From a literal standpoint, the name “Sunday school” is obsolete because educational programs are no longer held just on Sundays, and most no longer resemble school-classroom settings.

Name Blame

From a practical standpoint, the name may turn kids away.

“The last thing kids want to hear on the weekend is ‘school,’ ” says Amy Sacha, a children’s ministry coordinator in Englewood, Ohio. Children’s ministers who voted for a name change agree that five days of school is enough and that children need a change from their weekly routines. They need a place where they can be actively involved.

Most children’s ministers who want to discard the “Sunday school” name cite its negative connotations, saying it “conjures up a picture of a long, boring session on your seat” and reminds people of textbooks, memorization, and lectures.

In addition, children who have negative experiences in school associate the word “school” with failure and frustration. Instead, says Martha Parris, a director of Christian education in Springfield, Missouri, “Children need to be encouraged that learning about God is a positive activity.” And a new name can do just that!

Name Fame

The minority of readers who favor keeping “Sunday school” say it’s a well-established, recognized name that denotes tradition and has a rich history. Others say it has pleasant associations and is familiar and appealing to non-Christians and Christians.

Jan Bunner, a children’s ministry coordinator in DeRidder, Louisiana, says, “The unchurched know that God can be found at ‘Sunday school’ and that a teacher there will accept them unconditionally. Churchgoers know that the biblical teaching at Sunday school is the same as always.” Robyn Clifford, a children’s minister in Pinson, Tennessee, values the word “school” because it gives an expectation that learning will occur.

Putting It In Perspective

Whatever the name, that alone doesn’t necessarily mean your program is meeting needs. Whether they favor chucking or keeping the Sunday school name, many children’s ministers say it’s what’s inside that counts.

Soozung Sa, a Christian education coordinator in Wautoma, Wisconsin, says that although a name change can renew leaders’ spirits and attitudes, “the program has to be as credible as the name; the name is not enough.”

“When there’s a change in name only, children can see right past it… and recognize immediately that the learning experience is still ‘Sunday school,’ ” says pastor John Bartz from Frewsburg, New York. He supports a name change “only if the learning atmosphere and Christian education program change as well.”

Bartz offers this analogy: To change the name only and not the content or atmosphere of the learning experience would be like a store changing its name on the marquee, but keeping the same shelves, aisles, and, most of all, product.

Moving Beyond the Sunday School Name

Making substantive changes within your program itself isn’t as overwhelming as it first sounds. To determine if genuine learning occurs in your program, answer the following questions.

What’s Your Goal?

First things first: If you can clearly state your program’s purpose, then meeting it will be much easier. Todd Crouch, a Sabbath school director in Washington, Pennsylvania, says his program’s goal — “teaching kids about God and their relationships with others” — is more important than its name. Kenn Gorman, a director of children’s ministries in Wenatchee, Washington, is clear about his goal. He says church education must “lead children to a relationship with Christ, show them how to lead a holy life, and get them into ministry to others.” Everything flows from the goal.

Do you emphasize teaching or learning? understanding or memorization? Just because you’re teaching doesn’t necessarily mean children are learning.

When is the last time you checked to see if kids were really learning? Jesus, the master teacher, used his learners’ world and provided learners opportunities to practice what they learned. Jesus wanted to be sure they “got it.” Jean Mass Pike, a ministry associate in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, teaches as Jesus taught by approaching learning as “a lifelong process of faith development, with active learning and service opportunities for children, youth, and adults.”

Focus on understanding. Contrary to the beliefs of many well-meaning Christian educators, requiring tons of memory work isn’t the way to make Scripture stick. Children who excel at memorization rarely retain the information long term, while those who struggle with memorizing view biblical literacy as beyond their reach. At Crouch’s church, children’s workers “are focusing kids’ minds on Christ as the key factor in all relationships — not just on memorizing facts.”

Does your curriculum promote lifelong learning?

When asked, “What other changes have you made in your Sunday morning educational program that have had positive results?” many children’s ministers cited new curriculum that’s more participation-oriented and active.

Some children’s ministers write their own lessons, making them age- and need-appropriate. But remember: Even the best curriculum can’t make a difference unless you trained teachers to use it.

Do you challenge kids to think? to work together?

Although it’s tempting to automatically provide the right answers, an important part of kids’ learning is arriving at the answers by themselves — or with their classmates.

Barbara Greenwald, a director of Christian education in Saginaw, Michigan, says changing her program’s name and focus to Disciples’ Enrichment Hour has had dramatic results. There’s “no more filling empty vessels with correct answers,” she says. Instead, the format “allows for more creativity and expression of faith.”

Children learn interpersonal skills and form relationships with other children and adults when we encourage them to work together. For example, Debbie Neufeld, a children’s ministry coordinator in Winnipeg, Manitoba, says her teachers, or “care-group leaders,” are responsible for the spiritual care of a small group of children. They get more involved in kids’ lives than just teaching lessons on Sundays.

Do you focus on quality rather than quantity?

Thoroughly covering a few main points is more learner-friendly than cramming tons of material into one lesson. Jesus himself — who knew everything and had loads to communicate to his disciples — understood this principle. In John 16:12, Jesus said, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” He might’ve just coined the phrase: “Less is more!”

Sa’s staff members also work on their “quality” by praying together regularly, which gives them a sense of community and ownership and deepens their commitment to the children.

Does your program promote active learning?

“The education time on Sundays needs to be a positive active learning experience-not a paper-and-pencil lecture time,” says Parris. “Just changing the name of something doesn’t do any good if you don’t improve the program and practice, too.”

Learning by doing involves direct, purposeful, and personal experiences. It’s fun, focused, inclusive, and acknowledges different learning styles. Active learning evokes emotions that are then focused through questions and tied to Scriptural truths.

At Judy Basye’s church in San Mateo, California, they revamped Sunday mornings to feature two-and-a-half-hour VBS-style programs. Deb Nafziger, coordinator of elementary grades, praises the changes at her Wheaton, Illinois church. The addition of activity stations, hands-on learning, creative Bible lessons, and small groups has led not only to positive responses from parents and children but to easier volunteer recruitment.

You can incorporate active learning through exciting Bible lessons with life applications. Kids can go deeper into hands-on learning with music, crafts, dramas, role-plays, puppets, videos, stories, games, computers, and service projects.

Sa says active learning is necessary because unlike school, children can choose not to come to church. “We don’t have the luxury of being able to snap our fingers and have everyone come running to us. Children will float away if we don’t keep their interest.”

Although change threatens some, Christian education urgently needs it. “We’re hung up on the name when we should be concentrating on developing programs that are radically different,” encourages Gorman. “Many are the same as when I was in them 20 years ago.

Stephanie Martin is a free-lance writer and editor in Colorado. 

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.

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