Patricia E. Clawson
Sunday schools have changed in the eighty-four years since the OPC began, yet their goal has remained the same: to foster belief by teaching Reformed theology. The OPC’s Second General Assembly in 1936 confirmed the importance of Sunday school by directing congregations to use whatever evangelical and Reformed materials were available. Not satisfied with existing curriculums, the fledgling OPC soon mimeographed its own materials that reflected its theology. By 1975 the OPC and the new Presbyterian Church in America jointly formed Great Commission Publications for the purpose of producing Sunday school materials that were solidly Reformed and biblically based.
Today OPC sessions have several Reformed and biblically-based curricula to choose from as they develop Sunday schools best suited to the needs of their flocks. Nearly forty percent of OPC members attend Sunday school, according to OPC statistician Luke Brown’s 2019 report. Six OP churches with higher-than-average Sunday school attendance share how they educate their flocks, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Organized nine years ago, Redemption OPC in Gainesville, Florida, sees about half of their 110 morning worshipers attend Sunday school. They offer a non-traditional, two-pronged approach to Christian education, which might include sanitizing and social distancing when it reconvenes this fall. The first, Evening Instruction, is their best-attended program. Even at the height of the COVID-19 restrictions, it continued through Zoom. It is held on the first three Sunday evenings of the month, with the last Sunday night reserved for a worship service. As a united assembly, they meet for prayer, a psalm or hymn, a Sunday school lesson, and Scripture and catechism memory time, which involves learning one verse of a longer passage each week. The meeting concludes with Missions Moment, which updates the church on news from the OPC’s missionaries, a church in their presbytery, or a chaplain.
The second component involves Bible studies on various weekdays for various ages. Toddlers and elementary-age kids are taught using GCP materials on Sunday mornings, while teens are taught with GCP curriculum weekly in various homes. Throughout the month, the men’s and women’s studies also meet in different homes.
“Our format is non-traditional with traditional elements,” said Pastor Joel Fick. “We have to work within the constraints of our rental agreement.”
As the congregation grows, new classes have been added, including one for toddlers, said Fick. But “our joint Evening Instruction time has been the backbone of our program and has been a wonderful way to sanctify the whole day.”
On a typical Sunday, around half of the 117 people worshiping at Providence Presbyterian Church in Pflugerville, Texas, also attend Sunday school. Due to COVID-19, Sunday school was suspended until fall 2020. Usually, their Sunday school program uses GCP materials for five age-appropriate classes for preschoolers through teenagers, although the eighth–tenth graders also have Bible studies. Pastor Glen Clary leads the adult class in studies.
“The joint efforts of the OPC and PCA in producing a Reformed Sunday school curriculum guard against doctrinal error,” said Vince Lam, a ruling elder and Sunday school coordinator. “[Sunday school] provides an additional medium to edify the church more thoroughly.”
Teachers are seasoned members of the church well versed in the Reformed faith. New teachers watch experienced teachers lead classes before taking their turn. The impact of these volunteers has been lasting. “Our witness as caring, godly adults has eternal consequences,” said Greg Eddings, an elder and Sunday school teacher. “I have very fond memories of Sunday school teachers from my childhood. They made an impression because they were kind and genuinely interested in me and my well-being. They took the time to get to know me and made it clear I had value in their eyes.”
Covenant Presbyterian in Vandalia, Ohio, is so serious about Sunday school that they commissioned a committee to evaluate how to reform their curriculum. The survey showed the importance of applying the Sunday school lessons to their lives, making certain the material is age appropriate, incorporating Scripture memory and catechism for all ages, providing periodic breaks for teachers, improving parental communication, adding more group singing, and finding ways to practically serve, such as making cards for the elderly.
Pastors Matthew Patton and Jeremiah Montgomery cast a vision for how important Sunday school is through announcements, emails, and a rally day every September—a practice they hope to resume this fall. Their efforts typically draw about 79 percent of their 120 worshipers to Sunday school.
During the pandemic, pre-recorded videos of instruction with handouts were provided for the congregation, but the pandemic taught them a key lesson: “Being in person is so much more engaging for both teachers and students,” said Patton. “We feel that our video approach is a suitable stop-gap measure but a considerable impoverishment of our previous teaching ministry, and we are greatly looking forward to being back together again.”
The children learn through GCP curriculums, although an elder writes his own Old Testament material for the middle schoolers. Teens join the adults in classes, which focus on such topics as the doctrine of man, OT prophets, a biblical worldview of marriage and sexuality, church history, and evangelism. “[Teens participating with adults] is a purposeful decision in that we want them to start dealing with adult issues,” said Patton. “I am regularly telling them that this is their Sunday school class too, and that they should feel free to participate (which they do).”
Sometimes Patton asks students for anonymous input on the material. “I am always wanting to answer the question: ‘So what? Why is this important and why should I want to know this?’”
Sunday school is so important to New Hope OPC in Frederick, Maryland, that they knocked down a wall between rooms and moved their offices to make space for growing classes. About 54 percent of the 241 members attend Sunday school. To find space for their regular 130 attendees, they added an elementary and an adult class, which meant finding nine rooms, fifteen teachers, and two nursery volunteers. The schedule typically runs for two thirteen-week semesters, and a mini January–February term, with summers off.
The elementary-aged children and middle schoolers are taught the Bible using GCP materials. The high school class focuses on systematic theology, worldviews, apologetics, and preparation for college and the world. They met via Zoom for five weeks while the church building was closed. “We desire to have all the elementary-aged children receive teaching on all of the Bible before they reach high school,” said Ginny Socash, New Hope’s Sunday school coordinator. “The benefits to the class divisions are that we are able to teach to the level of learning for the children and have fewer students in each class.”
The adults choose from three classes, such as a Ligonier video series, a book study on Renovation of the Heart, and lessons on the joy of suffering with Christ. Topical classes, such as sexual ethics, baptism, parenting, and the Westminster Confession, have drawn the most interest, said Socash. “It appears people are struggling with a lot of questions on how to live in a fallen world as a Christian and so these classes help to bring a biblical approach to living in our culture.”
At Reformation Fellowship in Roseville, California, 72 percent of the 211 people attending worship also go to Sunday school, which resumes this fall after their traditional summer hiatus. “Sunday school is a format for presenting biblical truth topically, incrementally, and age appropriately,” said Pastor Kevin Van Der Linden. “The reason we do this is to fulfill Scripture’s requirement to teach sound doctrine.”
The high school/adult class of one hundred studies doctrinal and practical topics while the ten-student junior high class alternates between two yearlong courses. The fifty-five younger children are divided into four classes, with most using Children’s Ministry International curriculum, which emphasizes Scripture memory and Children’s Catechism memory. Associate pastor Adrian Crum has written supplemental notes to help teachers improve the curriculum, said Van Der Linden, who teaches an eight-week membership class each fall and spring.
Crum also helps to train the teachers, who have been identified as those who are mature in the faith, have the respect of the congregation, appear to do reasonably well in training their own children, and have been approved by the session. When it is difficult to find an adult teacher, Reformation Fellowship sometimes provides video instruction with an elder leading a discussion.
The pastor periodically shares with the congregation the session’s belief that Sunday school is an important aspect of the discipleship ministry of the church and urges members to attend. Pastors, elders, deacons, and their families seek to set the example by attending themselves. Teachers are urged to put reasonable effort into preparing to teach in a way that is insightful, helpful, clear, and engaging, said Van Der Linden.
Sunday school is held after worship. “First we focus on the worship of God while everyone is fresh and fed,” said Van Der Linden. Then Sunday school instruction is offered as a secondary means “that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). “It must become the culture of the church—this is just what we do.”
One might think providing Sunday school at Harvest OPC in Wyoming, Michigan, would be a breeze with its weekly attendance of 725 morning worshipers. Yet accommodating so many students is not easy, says Congregational Life Coordinator Nikki Veurink. “Our rooms are not large enough for large class sizes. We need multiple teachers and assistants per grade, and sometimes have trouble finding volunteers.”
During COVID-19’s stay-at-home orders, Sunday school went on hiatus for most classes, although some teachers recorded Zoom videos for their students. This summer, Harvest planned a church-wide memorization program to keep their kids in the Word. They hope that Sunday school will return to normal this fall but understand they may still need a remote option for their largest class if size limitations continue.
Their congregation prefers a traditional approach to Sunday school, but they also offer small group meetings in homes. Following the morning service, children as young as two years old attend a singing time prior to classes for all ages. Most of the children’s classes use GCP material, although the fifth- and sixth-graders study the catechism. Adults age eighteen and older choose between several classes, on topics such as parenting, officer training, church membership, help for those dealing with or ministering to those with sexual addiction, and knowing Christ. “We place a high value on education for all ages,” said Veurink.
Teachers receive training under the direction of the Sunday School Committee, which is overseen by the session. Team teaching is implemented for youth classes. “It makes the classes run smoother and also has increased our volunteer base,” said Veurink. “More people are willing to volunteer knowing that they aren’t solely responsible and that they have a built-in partner to teach when they are unable to attend.”
Even before COVID-19 restrictions, Sunday schools have changed over the years. In OP churches, however, the goal remains the same: to teach the congregation using God-centered materials that are solidly Reformed and biblically based so that the sheep will not stray.
“If you pour tons of effort into your Sunday school program to make it the highest quality possible, you will see the people responding with hunger and interest,” reflected Patton. “It also has been instrumental in bringing new members and helping people who have just joined to learn about Reformed theology.”