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The history of Sunday Schools

Dr Naomi Thompson

Dr Phoebe Hill

01 May, 2018


What are Sunday Schools for? Historically, how did they emerge? Dr Naomi Thompson summarises her recent research, and Phoebe Hill offers a comment response.


My latest book (Young People and Church since 1900: Engagement and Exclusion (Routledge, 2018) brings together historical research into Sunday Schools in the twentieth century with contemporary research into youth work in churches today. Some key themes emerge across the time periods of my research. These include the inflexibility of church across time in how it engages young people, an obsession with ‘bums on seats’, and a persistent criticism of the Sunday School leaders and youth workers who have managed to successfully engage young people.

How Sunday schools started

Sunday Schools began in the late eighteenth century as a lay movement to teach young people to read and write in the homes of volunteer teachers on the young people’s only day off from work. These early Sunday Schools were not closely attached to churches. They were criticised from within churches for teaching young people on the Sabbath and criticised more widely for potentially giving too much power to the working classes.

These teachers also set up Sunday School Unions, created to support teachers in discussing and developing their work. In the twentieth century, these Unions were authoritarian and controlling in their communications to Sunday Schools and full of criticism for the teachers – focusing on their lack of training, a perceived declining quality of their work, and even their engagement in such dangerous vices as going to the cinema. By this time, Sunday Schools were solely focused on religious education.

Sunday Schools were also more closely attached to and located within their affiliated churches by the twentieth century and these churches were gravely concerned about the number of young people who outgrew Sunday School without becoming adult members of church (around 80% of children and young people in Sunday school were from non-church families up until the 1950s). This concern led to them, in the mid-twentieth century, moving Sunday Schools (the majority of which took place in the afternoon) to the morning to fit with church service times, a shift which ultimately marked the decline of the movement. The ‘family church’ vision was for Sunday Schools and churches to consider the best time for their joint provision and to provide mentors for the young people from within the church. It was simply not implemented in this way with established service times trumping the needs of the young people.

This obsession with ‘bums on seats’ has persisted into the present with youth workers today often deemed to be failing where the young adults they engage successfully at other times are not in church on Sunday morning. Again, there is in too many cases, little consideration among the wider church as to how it might adapt its provision to meet the needs of young people rather than forcing them to fit a rigid model. That is not to say there aren’t some great examples of innovation in movements like Messy Church, Café Church, even Pub Church, but these are the minority.

Whilst churches criticise youth workers for young people not being in church on Sunday, youth workers and young people are building church together on Tuesday evening, Friday night, Saturday day-time and many other times throughout the week. It’s time for the rest of the church to join them.

Dr Naomi ThompsonGoldsmith's, University of London

Youth workers in my research faced scrutiny, particularly as to the value of activities that do not lead directly to ‘bums on seats’. One youth worker explained how even her weeknight Bible study group ‘didn’t count’ if the young people weren’t at church on Sunday. They were also aware of how young people struggle with church traditions and often (though not in all cases) in building relationships with adults in the wider church. One youth worker stated: ‘I think it was very sad on the Sunday before last when the young people did a service… One of them said it was just like they were talking to dead people and another one said they didn’t seem like they were listening, and I have to say they’re probably right’. Many of the young people themselves recounted similar struggles.

Whilst churches criticise youth workers for young people not being in church on Sunday, youth workers and young people are building church together on Tuesday evening, Friday night, Saturday day-time and many other times throughout the week. It’s time for the rest of the church to join them.



The nature and purpose of Sunday Schools is of huge interest for those of us working in the area of church-based youth ministry. What is the purpose of these groups? Encouraging young people to attend church? ‘Bums on seats’? Faith formation? Something else? As Naomi’s research so interestingly reveals, Sunday Schools haven’t always been about ‘passing on faith’ to the next generation; they began as a response to a social need among working class teens, and were actually viewed with suspicion by the Church at the time for the questionable activities they participated in with young people (e.g. cinema-going). Only later did Sunday Schools become part of the Church’s mission to children and young people, with the explicit aim of passing on faith.

Sunday schools are now considered to be the bread and butter of church-based youth ministry. In light of this, it’s interesting that our Losing Heart research painted a challenging picture of the reality of the church Sunday School offering up and down the country.

Reimagining Sunday School

Firstly, many churches, particularly smaller ones, are struggling to provide something for young people on a Sunday morning; although many are able to offer children’s work of some kind, under half of small churches ran activities for young people. This may have been a motivating factor in many of those churches deeming their youth work ‘ineffective’ (over 40%). There is therefore an opportunity and perhaps a necessity for churches such as these to reimagine what church-based youth ministry might look like in the years to come, as Naomi encourages, and question whether or not the model we have come to rely on is any longer feasible.

What youth really want

Secondly, there was an apparent clash between what young people wanted from church youth sessions, and what the churches actually covered. The topics which featured highly on the list of what churches discussed with young people, such as the ‘basic beliefs of the Christian faith, ‘personal reading of the Bible’ and ‘personal prayer’ (with 50.2%, 41.6% and 38.7% of churches talking about these topics ‘often’) were low down on the list of what young people wanted to talk about most, and those which were rarely, if ever, discussed in church youth sessions, such as ‘mental health’, ‘sex and relationships’ and ‘same sex attraction (with 10.2%, 7.8% and 3.1% of churches talking about these topics ‘often’) were among the ones young people wanted to talk about most. There seems, therefore, to be a disconnect between what young people want and need, and what churches are actually offering in church youth provision. In light of the history of Sunday Schools, painted by Naomi above, it’s interesting to ponder how this shift occurred: from being a place where young people could be educated for the whole of life, to a place with the specific focus of passing on Christian faith.

Waiting for a miracle

Thirdly, many of the churches we spoke to felt profoundly anxious about their youth ministry, and out of ideas for what to do next. Common amongst the responses to our question, ‘What is the greatest need of your youth and children’s ministry?’, was ‘Everything’, ‘A miracle!’, ‘Unsure’ and ‘Too big a topic to tackle now’. Many of the churches had a desire to offer something to young people, but didn’t know where to begin. Taking heed of Naomi’s challenge to adapt the provision that churches offer, there is an important responsibility here for those of us who think deeply about youth ministry, and desire to innovate: we must help churches where we can, and share what we know. We cannot assume that churches will be able to take this bold step of innovation alone. We must help them re-evaluate what ‘effective’ or ‘successful’ work with young people looks like for a church, and challenge the historical framework of what church youth work is or could be. We must work with local churches to help them re-ignite youth ministries, which may look and feel like nothing they have ever seen before. We must dream up new possibilities together.

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