How Do We Teach Our Children in Church? Sunday School and Catechism Instruction
The usual structure for teaching children and youth in Free Reformed churches is by conducting Sunday school for young children beginning at ages 4 or 5 through ages 11 or 12 and then catechism instruction by the pastor and/or elders. Catechism is the usual pathway for our youth to be led by the church to make personal confession of faith. Some Reformed churches have never had a Sunday School in their church (e.g. Netherlands Reformed Congregations) and some Reformed and Presbyterian churches don’t have catechetical instruction by the church. Instead, it takes place in the home by the parents, under the headship of the father with the church ensuring that this does indeed take place (e.g. Scottish Presbyterians).
Perhaps that is why we hear some Free Reformed voices ask whether Sunday school is really necessary. It is said: we have good Christian day schools where the children learn Bible knowledge and we have family devotions at home. Conducting Sunday school, especially after a worship service, is just overdoing things and causing overload.
So, do we still need Sunday school? After reading this article, I hope everyone will say emphatically, yes! From Scripture, church history and experience, we know that children not only need teaching, nurturing and bonding with their parents, but also from the church.
In early Bible times heads of families instructed their households, which consisted of all the members of the extended family and the servants in their “household” (Gen. 18:19) and “the strangers” in the “gates” (Ex. 20:10). The teaching of the law was basic and prominent (Deut. 6). Over time, as public worship extended beyond the head of the family and tribe, the tabernacle and the temple became centres of instruction where God’s people were taught by the priests, the prophets and the kings. Ezra and Nehemiah were crucial in a reformation that emphasized the teaching of God’s laws and precepts to adults and children alike (Ezra 10; Neh. 8, 9, 10).
Christ, our Saviour and great Teacher sent by God, publicly and clearly demonstrated to His disciples that children, even babies, are included in the kingdom of God as heirs to eternal life and must have their attention (Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14, etc.). Shortly before Jesus’ departure to heaven He gave His disciples the Great Commission to establish His church throughout the world (Matt. 28:19, 20): “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations...” It is by faithful teaching and preaching to everyone they encountered that the New Testament church was founded and established.
Significantly, it is at a pivotal time in the establishment of the New Testament church that the apostolic instructions include children. Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2) is addressed to all ages (vv.17, 18). “I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy...” etc.). Parents are reminded that their children are members of the covenant, for “the promise is to you and to your children” (v.39; cf. 2 Tim. 2:3:15). As the church became established, not only individuals, but also households (including children and servants) were baptized and came under the preaching and teaching of the apostles and the government of the church (John 4:53; Acts 10:2; 11:14; 16:34; Acts 21:5; Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 1:16; 2 Tim. 4:19).
The Unity of the Covenant
In both the Old Testament and the New, “his house” or “household” are terms often mentioned, indicating the unity and corporate character of the covenant family and the church. The church established by the apostles, by way of the office of elders as well as the office of all believers has a corporate task to teach all age groups (Titus 2, 3). Parental responsibility and authority continue (Eph. 6:1-4), including the responsibility to ensure children are included in the church’s public worship and teaching. Jesus exhorted Peter to “feed my sheep” and “feed my lambs.” Office bearers are to “watch for your souls” (2 Tim. 4:5; etc.). By means of faithful teaching, oversight and discipline, all its members may be involved in the extension of God’s kingdom from generation to generation, for His glory.
Early Church to Reformation
The term catechesis is derived from the Greek and describes the teaching and instruction given to those who were being prepared for adult baptism. After the sixth century, catechesis denoted the instruction given to young children after baptism. The Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer formed the basis for instruction. Teaching on the sacraments was added to the catechisms produced during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
As the church became Reformed, Scripture became the standard and its practices were incorporated into church government and found its description into the Form of Ordination of Elder and Deacons used in Reformed churches. Office bearers are watchmen to ensure that “all come into the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). The church, through its office bearers, has the responsibility to ensure that its members (including its youth) learn the doctrines and are warned against false doctrine:
That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive
Ephesians 4:14, etc.
Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans
Catechetical instruction by questions and answers dates from the early church and was revived during the Protestant Reformation as a teaching method that became an entrenched tradition in Reformed churches. Its implementation varied as is evident in the church order and church government of churches that have their roots in the Reformation: Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican and Congregational. Ministers (Scottish) or bishops (Anglican) visited homes and examined whether parents taught their children the Catechism (Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Anglican Catechism included in the Book of Common Prayer).
As the various denominations colonized America, they took with them the tradition of the fathers as heads of the household being responsible for catechizing their families. When religion was influential, these duties were taken seriously. But when spiritual declension set in, these duties slackened and instruction of covenant children suffered. While much instruction was given as to how family worship or devotions ought to be conducted, catechism instruction was mainly seen as a duty of the parents.
The Sunday School Movement
Help came by way of the Sunday school, a movement that began in England in the 18th century. It started by teaching poverty-stricken and neglected children in the slums who worked all week and who could neither read nor write. Sunday was the day they had off and as they were taught reading and writing, they also received Bible instruction. Robert Raikes (1735-1811) was a devoted promoter of the Sunday school so that by 1786 in England some 200,000 children were taught basic academic skills and also received Bible instruction.
Due largely to a vacuum in Bible education to children by the church, American churches adopted the Sunday school method for teaching children and also adults so that it is still the primary method of Bible instruction in non-reformed churches today. Sadly, as mainline churches emptied and there were few children to teach in church, Sunday schools morphed into Vacation Bible Schools, now often play groups with a Bible lesson in a community park.
Calvin wrote in a foreword to a Catechism: “It has always been a matter of special concern for the Church that little children should be instructed in Christian doctrine.”
By order of the Synod of Dort (1618-19), in example of the Reformers, under the supervision of the consistory, Catechism teaching became part of the teaching ministry of the church, beginning with teaching and preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism on Sundays. Later on, classes for children and youth were also conducted during the week in day schools by ministers or others appointed by the local Reformed church.
By the adoption of the Church Order of Dort (Article 21), it became the accepted task of the consistories of the Dutch Reformed churches to ensure children were educated in the “liberal arts, but also to instruct them in godliness and in the Catechism.” This method of instruction is still practiced in conservative Reformed churches so that usually the second worship service focuses on Catechism preaching and teaching, while its youth and children have the Catechism or other biblical truths taught in separate classes geared to their age and understanding.
Free Reformed Practices
In Free Reformed churches as well as in other faithful Reformed churches, a minister’s letter of call states that he has to preach from the Heidelberg Catechism and instruct its youth. Some Reformed churches give catechetical instruction to children as young as ages 5 or 6 (still practiced in Netherlands Reformed Congregations). Other Reformed churches, realizing that children need to know Bible history and there are other methods of teaching than by questions and answers, have incorporated and adapted the Sunday school method of instruction as a preparatory method for catechetical teaching, which usually does not start until about the age of 11 or 12.
Such is the case in most Free Reformed churches, which from its first existence in Canada in the 1950s, implemented Sunday school instruction as practiced in the Reformed churches from which they originated in the Netherlands. On the whole, Free Reformed children receive very thorough Bible and doctrinal instruction by being present in the worship services at an early age (rather than children’s church), attending Sunday school and catechism classes and for the most part, attending Christian day schools, where possible.
Belonging and Relationships
A case is made by some that Bible instruction at the Christian day school makes Sunday School for elementary age children superfluous. True, good Christian day schools are a great blessing, but it is not the church. Sunday school instruction ought not duplicate the teaching of the Christian day school. Whereas by its very nature, at the Christian day school Bible teaching emphasizes the cognitive (the mind and measuring such knowledge), in the church setting the focus is on salvation, personal faith and building a relationship with the church – the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5) and its members.
In a small group and informal setting, the Sunday school or catechism teacher, a believing member of the church, teaches from the Scriptures to exemplify the faith that is taught in the church and which the believing church wishes to pass on to its young members. It is also a place where children get to know other children in their church, where they memorize Scripture and where they learn the songs of the church (a good song leader is a gift). This is where children come to know and experience that they have a special place in God’s church. Here is where God, through His church, shows that He has a special interest in them. Here is where they are shown the love of God for young sinners, where they may learn more about how to love and serve Him, to show love to others, even to children far away through special mission or other projects.
Whether this special instruction by the church directed to children is called Sunday school or catechism doesn’t matter much, but children need to know and experience that there is a special relationship of faith to the Lord and His people that is offered uniquely by the church. Through the Sunday school, catechism classes, and in a more casual way through youth groups, children and youth are connected and bound to the fellowship of the church and to each other.
The Lord is sovereign. He adds to His church through mission, outreach and evangelism, but especially through the fellowship and education, which the local church provides for its children and youth. Moreover, a godly Sunday school teacher, elder or church member has often been a special instrument in the Redeemer’s hands. Let us not abandon good traditions and make changes only if they are for the better.
- For a comprehensive and documented history of Catechism instruction and preaching see The Church’s Book of Comfort (Reformation Heritage Books, 2965 Leonard St., NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49525, 2009), edited by Willem Van’t Spijker).
- Prof. W.M. Heyns in Handbook for Catechetics (p.106) states: “Catechizing belongs to the special grace of the Covenant. The Christian pedagogy should regard and deal with the children as subjects of the common kingdom of God and the Catechetics should reg
- W.G.T. Shedd in Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, 1867 (p.12), writes: “The catechising of the children and youth in a congregation, is a theme that deserves to be discussed with the comprehensiveness, and precision of a systematic treatise. In the whole
- Prof. J.J. Van Oosterzee in Practical Theology, II, (p.142) states: “The Lord gave His Covenant of Grace in such a way that it continues in the generations, so that from her seed the Church is built. This would not happen if that seed were not instructed