Let’s Talk About Sunday School

Dear Reader,
Thanks to the forums at Simply Charlotte Mason I ran across this article from the P.N.E.U. Parents’ Review Magazine. The P.N.E.U. for those who may be uninitiated was Charlotte Mason’s organization. The Parents’ Review was sent to parents and teachers using her methods. The article I am interested in today was not written by Miss Mason but by another woman, Helen Wix. The subject is Sunday schools and how they could be taught following Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. And I have to say when I read it I thought, “Wow. I wish my kids’ Sunday school classes were like this.”

I could try to sum up the article or quote a very long part of it. It would be better to just click over and read it for yourself. Sunday school in a Charlotte Mason world would look much like any other Charlotte Mason class–reading the text, in this case the Bible, and then having the children narrate what was read. If you are unfamiliar with how narration works, this article gives a good description of it in its own right.

Here’s what I like about the Charlotte Mason method for Sunday school: It focuses on a specific Bible text, taking it in context (the article is not explicit but seems to imply that they are working through one biblical book at a time, not jumping around or taking a topical approach which chops up the text). It doesn’t involve a lot of fiddly worksheets and crafts. It gets the children hearing (or reading) God’s Word and interacting with it. Most curricula we design for children provide them with lots of “fun” activities like puzzles to solve, blanks to fill in, and maybe crafts. All these things amount to us essentially chewing our kids’ food for them. They are morsels predigested by adults in a way that they think will be palatable to children (Miss Mason was not a fan of unit studies which relate everything together for the children). We sell children short when we do this. They are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for.  In contrast, narration forces them to listen and to interact with the  material. And as the children narrate, they have to form thoughts, put things in order, remember, and basically make the text their own. If those things are important in their history or science curricula, how much more so in their Bible study.

The idea behind Miss Mason’s approach to education is that children form relationships with their material. Ideas are transmitted from mind to mind, usually through the use of living books but also through other things like art and music. When it comes to religious education, it is even more important that the children form their own relationships with the material. And what book could be better for forming a relationship with than the living Word of God? The other things we grown-ups add, the tedious exercises and fill in the blank type questions, come between the child and the text and become a distraction from what is most important. This is a principle that applies to all areas of education, but none is more important than the area of their religious education.

Part of the problem we have in this area is, I think,  that we don’t know how to approach or deal with children in a religious context. We seem to be of two minds about it. I have actually blogged a lot on this in the past as I have tried to sort through the issues (see here, here, here, and here). On the one hand, we expect our children to behave like God’s people. This usually comes in the form of our moralizing to them a lot. On the other hand, we are constantly evangelizing to them as if they are not yet God’s people. But my view is that we need to disciple, not evangelize, our children.  They are just short believers (until and unless proven otherwise). They are short in stature, short in language skills perhaps, short on understanding in many ways, but no worse off than many adults truth be told. I particularly love this quote from the Parents’ review article:

“Now Mr. Fisher, the Minister for Education, said in a speech a few weeks ago, ‘It is as well in teaching to think of the children as cleverer than yourself, with less knowledge, but more imagination.’ The word ‘cleverer’ does not quite satisfy me, but we all know what Mr. Fisher means. Now the underlying idea of the P.N.E.U. method I am going to tell you about is just that. A child is a person; with mind, intellect and spirit,—all there, all clamouring for food and exercise, all ready to grow if only—such an important ‘if’—we do not hinder them.”

Children may not be ready to study Revelation or Romans or many other biblical books. But in some ways, they are better able to understand and accept God’s Word. They have an inherent belief in what they read and hear. They have a strong sense of justice and consciences that, while not fully honed, are also not yet so corrupted as those of many of their elders. And they have quick, imaginative minds.

The best spiritual food for us adults is God’s Word. It is the same for children. We do not need to predigest it into moralistic pellets and cute games for them. But we can walk alongside and guide them. The Parents’ Review article says:

“The main thing to be aimed at is, that the children should learn a new idea about God; it is unwise always to draw only a personal lesson from the day’s reading.”

So after the narration, there is gentle guiding towards some conclusion. And it is a point worth making that this should be mainly about God Himself. When we come to God’s Word, there is a lot we can learn about ourselves. But we humans spend too much time on ourselves. We should all, adults and children,  remember to look for what the text teaches us about our Creator. For older children studying harder books, there may also be some framework given that helps them understand the arguments being made. But as much as possible, we must step back and not hinder the children from coming to the Word of God.

I will admit when I first read the P.N.E.U. article I had some qualms. Part of my brain said, “But how will they learn about predestination and the 5 points of Calvinism?” But if they don’t get these things from the biblical text, then the are not going to be worth getting.  They need not even wait until they are old enough for Romans to understand the sovereignty of God. There is much to learn of His ways in Genesis.

Of course, all this need not take place only in Sunday school proper. We do family worship and Bible study during school time at home. In both of these I could probably do a better job of stepping back and letting the children interact with the material.

I guess the bottom line for me is that the best food for children is also the best food for adults. There are an awful lot of Christian books out there for sale that boil things down for us. And many probably make good points and have a lot of truth in them. But only one is infallible. Adults as well as children probably need to spend more time doing the hard intellectual chewing that is necessary to take in the life-giving morsels that are there for us (did I draw out that eating analogy a step too far??).

Probably the best verse that we adults can remember is Matthew 19:14:

“But Jesus said,  ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.'”  [ESV]

These children were already coming towards Jesus. They were pointed in the right direction. What they needed, just like what our children need, is for the adults to gently guide and generally get out of the way. This is really a good summary of Miss Mason’s overall philosophy (as I understand it): children have a natural appetite to grow in knowledge and understanding. We need to make sure that they are pointed in the right direction and that they are being fed quality intellectual and spiritual food, and then we just need to step back and to not hinder them.


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] and the text too much (for more on how a Charlotte Mason approach to Sunday school would look see here). I wonder about the second. Is she just referring to the practice of memory verses? Is there […]


  2. […] from CM on Religious Education,” “CM on the KNowledge of God,” and “Let’s Talk about Sunday School,”  among many […]


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