Commentary by W. Thomas Smith Jr.
SUNDAY SCHOOL. For some people, those two words (talking primarily now about adult Sunday school) evoke images of stiff-suited, cinch-tied churchgoers sitting in straight-backed chairs in a drab room while listening to an hour-long lesson delivered each week by a faceless layperson. Perhaps some who attend do so to check the “I’m a good person” box. Others because their wives dragged them there.
Sounds dull, right? It doesn’t have to be. I’ll explain momentarily.
My own adult Sunday school experience began in 2013 after a 20-year hiatus following a divorce and dropping out of the ARP Presbyterian church my ex-wife and I attended together. Even then, it was only a three-year experience and sporadic attendance at best, though we regularly attended worship services for about four years.
Prior to that, my only Sunday School frame-of-reference was that which I had experienced as a boy growing up in a big Southern Baptist church. One of those years’ classes as I recall always began with the boys and girls gathered in a big room where Mrs. Sharpe, the ever-smiling director of Sunday School and a wonderfully refined lady who has long-since gone to be with the Lord, talked to us about God.
Standing at the podium with a large framed picture of Jesus behind her, Mrs. Sharpe would tell us about how much God loved us. Then she would move over to a big white piano from which she would play two or three songs and we would all sing before we broke up into about four sub-groups – two boys’ groups and two girls’ groups – and ventured off into smaller private rooms to discuss the lesson for that week.
In my group, I remember a young college-age teacher – a former ballplayer – who was almost as interested in getting to the end of the hour as we were, so the actual lessons usually took a back seat to discussions of the previous day’s Carolina football or basketball game (depending on the season) which suited us. When the bell rang, we dashed out of the room almost as fast as we did on any weekday afternoon at regular school.
Then as an older teenager and a college student, I’d occasionally darken the doors of Sunday School – particularly on the Sundays when, after a bit of rebellious hedonism, Mom and Dad forced me to go to church – but I went grudgingly and only in hopes of seeing and talking to girls. After all, the prettiest girls would always be found in Sunday School.
Beyond the Baptist Sunday School experience and the few short married years in the ARP church, I began concluding that Sunday School might never be a fit for me. That is until I began attending Sunday School at my present PCA Presbyterian church a little more than four years ago. Even then I resisted as it was two years after I’d joined the church.
Today, Sunday School is the absolute best hour of my week. I don’t say that lightly. And my weeks are full and occasionally considered exciting by many standards and perceptions.
It’s not that I’m now a better Christian, though I do strive to walk more closely with God these days after a lifetime of Him tugging at my heart and me resisting.
It’s the people; some of the best friends I’ve ever had – most married, a few single – all different, all adult ages (some as young as high school and college, one or two in their 70’s, though most between 40 and 60), all dealing with crazy evolutions in their lives. All of whom I believe benefit from the lessons and shared knowledge; and all of whom derive as much trust, energy, and comfort from the class as I do. Maybe it’s because we’re all looking for the same thing: That is seeking to better understand God and to walk more closely with Him (that’s been my quest all along) and the classroom friendships have simply become a wonderful collateral benefit.
For privacy’s sake, I won’t mention the names of anyone in my Sunday School class. If they read this, they’ll likely recognize themselves and others anyway.
The teachers in my Sunday School class are as good or better than any you’d find in any university’s religious studies department. Perhaps I’m biased, but having taken a few Bible classes in college as a history major, I find my teaching buddies in this class are as well-versed in the Holy Scriptures as any professor. Perhaps that’s why we jokingly refer to them as “professor” on the Sundays they teach.
We all rotate as teachers. Usually guys, because we’re largely a conservative church (adhering strictly to Scripture as the inerrant Word of God); and for us PCA Presbyterians, the goal is to have all teachers first completing the Westminster Confession of Faith class for church officers, though the women have occasionally conducted special programs in the class.
Let me add, the women in my Sunday School class are always proffering the best theological questions and comments. They are key leaders in Sunday School projects that extend beyond our class throughout the church and the broader community. And they certainly seem to know the Bible – book, chapter, and verse – better than I.
So who are the teachers? Accomplished attorneys, business leaders and business consultants, CPAs, retired senior field-grade military officers, professional missionaries, Bible college grads, deacons, elders, and others.
Even I have taught a few times, but I take a backseat to the regulars who have taught me more about God’s Word in four years of Sundays than I’ve learned in 50-plus years of reading and studying the Bible on my own (including the aforementioned religious studies classes in college, and having read-through the Old Testament three times, and the New Testament four).
Then there is a couple – Jim and Dawn (last name omitted for privacy) – who have literally transformed our classroom into a beautiful mini-museum as we study the great Reformation fathers, this summer, in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, which kicked off the Protestant Reformation.
Beyond all this, several years ago, my Sunday School class started a class-only hot chocolate, hot dogs, and Christmas caroling event that has since blossomed into a huge church-wide mini-festival with a bounce house and face-painting for kids. Members of my class regularly serve dinner at an area-homeless shelter. We support missions. One couple is regularly “on mission” overseas and usually to one or more of the world’s most dangerous places.
A few members even attended several Columbia Fireflies baseball games during Tim Tebow’s short stint here, cheering on the famous evangelizing mixed-sports ballplayer as he hit enough homeruns and RBIs to advance himself in the minors.
I could go on-and-on.
Then there are the prayers we lift up weekly for so many in our class, our families, our church, the Midlands community, our nation and the world, with each person we pray for written by name on our classroom board. Real substantive heartfelt prayers – a strangely powerful dynamic impossible to adequately describe – breathing life into Christ’s own words, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
Point being, there’s Sunday School, and then there’s Sunday School. If you’re not attending a good one, you’re missing out on one of life’s richest one-hour, weekly experiences. If your church doesn’t offer a good Sunday School, start one yourself with the blessing of your church. Make friends, and stick to it.
After all, Sunday School is the original “safe space.”
– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a New York Times bestselling editor and military technical advisor. Visit him online at uswriter.com.