We’ve had a Sunday-school ever since we began. Right at the beginning, it was organised just for the children of the church. But for many years, we’ve made it our goal to draw in children from unchurched families. And until recently, we have always had such youngsters coming in. The numbers have gone up and down. Sometimes we’ve had a regular fifteen or so. Sometimes it’s been down to two or three.
But in the last few months, we’ve not had any unchurched children coming in regularly.
That’s a real sadness. The Sunday-school is well-organised, led by hard-working, caring teachers and a dedicated ‘superintendent’. It meets in a community centre surrounded by homes. (Did you know that members of Bethshan Tabernacle in Longsight ran a Sunday-school in that building for many years?) The Bonar Road and Swythamley estates are both within five minutes walk. Geoff and others have been out spending Sunday afternoon knocking on doors in the streets around the hall, inviting parents to send their children and giving out invitations. And yet we’re still waiting to see the children coming in…
How do we account for the fall-off in numbers? To be honest, I don’t know. Yes of course, we can see the growing contempt in society for religion in general and the active hostility towards what the media dub ‘fundamentalist religion’. So maybe it’s not surprising that relatively few parents want to send their children to Sunday-school. And yes it’s true, most modern children have never been asked to sit still and pay attention to anything serious. So if they do find their way into Sunday-school, they may well say it’s boring and walk away. And yes, it’s harder to persuade people in our society, old or young, to commit themselves to anything regularly. Brownie leaders and charity organisers know that just as well as we do.
All those things are true. Yet it’s also true that there are churches around the UK which do still see large numbers of children coming into Sunday-school. More than that, some churches have seen many children coming to faith through the work of the Sunday-school, and then going on to become useful members of the church.
We may suspect that it would be easier to draw children in, if we had a recognised church building. Or if the social and ethnic mix of the area were different. Or if we picked up the children in marked minibuses rather than private cars. Or if we were able to run a children’s club during the week as well as the Sunday-school. Again, all these things may be relevant. And if opportunity arises maybe we should address some of them.
But in the end I don’t believe that changing any of these things really would make a great difference. In the end, we have to acknowledge that God is sovereign. He has never guaranteed that any particular attempt we make to ‘sow the seed’ will be successful. ‘In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be successful’ (Ecclesiastes 11:6). If all our efforts have failed to bring children into Sunday-school, it is because he has chosen not to work in that way. If he had intended to bring in a crowd of children, the lack of a church building would not have prevented it!
So where does that leave us? How should we react as we consider the situation?
Firstly, we should rejoice in the fact that God is being glorified still by our attempts to reach out to children from the area. Sunday-school teachers bring him glory as they press on with the work in the face of discouragement. Those who go out door-knocking bring him glory as they confront the godlessness of our society. The whole church brings him glory as it continues to pray. Angels and demons look on and see these things, and recognise the love and devotion which God has won from his people. The ultimate reason we do any work is not in order to be ‘successful’ but to bring God glory. Thus far, God has reckoned that it will bring him more glory if we work without visible success than if he were to grant us the success we long for. That is his will and we rejoice in it.
Secondly, we should be very thankful for the fact that our own children are in Sunday-school week by week. Though we long to see ‘outside’ children coming in, we should never underestimate the value of the work that is being accomplished. Our children are being taught each week by teachers who love them and pray for them. They are hearing God’s word preached to them in clear, direct words by a man set apart for that work. They are learning hymns and simple songs which will stay with them for the rest of their life. They are memorising Scripture. They have the opportunity to mix with children from other church families, so they feel less isolated and odd in our society.
God has used these things. We have seen children from church families saved over the years. And in many cases, the Sunday-school has played a crucial part in their awakening. One of the Sunday-school children telephoned me a few weeks ago, having been deeply affected by Geoff’s words in Sunday-school earlier that day. I know of others too who have been touched by all they hear.
The very fact that we see so few outside children drawn in should make us more aware of what a privilege it is for our children to be there. But for God’s kindness towards them, they would be growing up as hopeless as other children in the area, like the people of Nineveh ‘not knowing their right hand from their left’. How blessed our children are, that God has placed them not only in Christian homes, and in a Bible-preaching church, but in a Sunday-school where they are lovingly pointed to Christ.
Thirdly, we should do all we can to encourage Geoff and the other teachers. From time to time Geoff calls a Sunday-school prayer-meeting. It’s not only for parents and teachers – it’s for the whole church. Be there and pray. There are other opportunities to pray too. Now that the Sunday-school meets at the Pavilion, a handful of folk stay at the St John Ambulance HQ while it’s happening. Usually we pray together for the Sunday-school towards the end of our time together. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t make that our first priority. When you’ve had your coffee after the morning meeting, why not stay on another ten minutes and pray with us for the work of the Sunday-school? Wouldn’t that be an encouragement to the teachers – to know that other church members are praying for them as they preach the gospel to the children? And in our Wednesday evening meetings, if no-one prays aloud for the Sunday-school, then make sure you do.
What about joining Geoff and the others who have been knocking on doors? Many of us find the thought of cold-calling terrifying. But someone has to do it! And perhaps this is the easiest sort of door-knocking work we can do. All that’s needed is to ring a bell, wait for the door to be answered, explain who you are and hand over an invitation card. Yes I know, I’ve not gone out with Geoff myself yet (Anne has). Sunday afternoons aren’t a good time for me, but now that we’ve lighter evenings, maybe some of us can get out then.
Fourthly, we should be looking out for children to invite on a personal basis. Personal invitations are always the most effective way to get people along to any meeting. Your little Freddie is friends with Bernie down the street. Bernie’s parents know you and trust you. Ask them if you Bernie can come to Sunday-school with Freddie next week. They’re far more likely to send him if the invitation comes from someone they trust than from a stranger on the doorstep.
And fifthly, we should not give up hope. God often keeps his people waiting a long time, testing their faith and perseverance before he answers their prayers. We have good reason to expect God to honour work done to reach children. The Bible assures us that God does choose to save people whom others think of as insignificant or incapable – including children. Jesus prayed, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will..’ Jesus wanted children to come to him and be blessed. ‘They were bringing children to Jesus that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God..” ’. As long as there are verses like these in the Bible, we have a duty to invite children to come to Christ. And we have reason to expect God to draw them by his Spirit. ‘You shall reap in due time, if you faint not’.