Sunday School's Sun Sets

USA Today reports on the decline of Sunday school as an institution. The reporter finds that parents are suspicious and busy:

Parents, especially middle-class ones, have become ever more concerned about the welfare of their children, whether it’s demanding chemical-free playgrounds or ensuring they get into the best preschool. At the same time, Christian churches have been rocked by a series of sex-abuse scandals that are the worst nightmare for any parent, from youth groups being coerced into sex acts to priests’ confessions of molesting boys. Even if the revelations have subsided somewhat in recent years, “people know the reality has been exposed,” says Robert Orsi, a professor of religion at Northwestern University. “I’m sure parents are thinking of this.”

LeeAnn MacNeil, a homemaker in McLean, Virginia, is a devout Catholic with four kids, but she has serious qualms about teacher selection at her church’s Sunday school. “They’re not vetted properly. That’s a valid concern in my book,” she says. And she can speak from experience: As a Sunday school teacher for several years, she says the sign-up process “was done very quickly. It’s like, ‘Have you been in jail before?’ — the generic questions, like on a job application. They don’t really check your background as much as they should when you’re dealing with young children.”

Yet it’s worth noting that the reason MacNeil’s kids don’t attend Sunday school is lack of time. Instead of a day of rest, Sunday has become just another day for over-scheduled kids to be chauffeured from sports practice to music lessons or SAT tutoring. It doesn’t help that parents themselves, so overwhelmed by life, are skipping church. “You would go to church, and then an hour or hour 15 minutes of Sunday school. It takes up all your morning. It felt like more of a chore for them to go, when you’re giving up some of your weekend and attending school during the week,” says MacNeil. “By the time they come home, it’s 12 noon, and when you have a weekend, you want to play with your friends outside and be a kid.”

Would a return to the Ten Commandments help? If Christians really worried about God’s law, and if Sunday were actually a day of rest and worship, would Sunday school be more popular?

Would grades help? Term papers?

What Does It Profit a Lineman if He Preserves His ACL and Loses His Soul?

If you want to know what it was like living under King Manasseh, consider the following: evangelical Protestants are more worried about football’s effects on breaking bones than they are about football players breaking God’s law.

One of the amazing accounts of Israel’s sorry history is the reform effort of King Josiah. Don’t get me wrong, oh you sons of the obedient boys. Josiah’s reforms were terrific. What’s amazing is how far God’s people had descended:

And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the keepers of the threshold to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron and carried their ashes to Bethel. And he deposed the priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and the moon and the constellations and all the host of the heavens. And he brought out the Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people. And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah. (2 Kings 23:4-7 ESV)

That’s just for starters.

But how different is the state of U.S. evangelical Protestantism when you consider the priorities included in this piece about the dangers of football?

The inherent dangers of the sport should not and cannot be taken lightly—but all athletic endeavors come with risk, and thankfully every level from the NFL to peewee football leagues are taking large strides toward improving safety. They are developing better equipment, technology, and practices. They are ushering a better, safer football game onto fields across the country.

And yet, American kids are more likely to be watching the game on the couch or playing Madden on the Xbox than running around playing pickup games. With many schools reducing physical education requirements, only one in four young teenagers (between ages 12 and 15) get the recommended one hour of exercise a day, according to federal health statistics. In a culture that is rapidly becoming more sedentary, we can be grateful for athletic heroes who encourage kids to get out there and play. The NFL’s Play 60 program promotes daily physical activity to young fans. Such campaigns are immensely valuable and something we as Christians should consider promoting as well.

All parents—Christians or not—have to figure out if we’ll encourage our own children to play football, and we know that each year more of us hesitate to put our kids in youth leagues. It makes sense to proceed with caution. But especially given how few kids will end up going pro, we can weigh the decision with the positive impacts of playing team sports: learning how to win and lose with grace, respecting coaches, teamwork, good sportsmanship, and the benefits of exercise. We can also take practical steps, such as ensuring that our kids know the warning signs of injury, and that their coaches are certified through USA Football’s Heads Up program.

I have hope in the experts shaping the next generation of players for an even better football experience for them and for the fans. I believe in the power of this sport, and I believe that it has a valuable place in our culture. We can see its impact pulsing through American stadiums, sports bars, and living rooms.

I can’t think of another institution that provides the instant camaraderie (or fierce rivalry) as football loyalties. I also just enjoy watching it—it’s fun! The pageantry, tradition, and on-field drama give us unique entertainment in a way that only unscripted and live sports can.

I’m sorry, but if evangelicals are going to fret publicly and select officials on the basis of their concerns about upholding the sixth commandment (the sanctity of human life), or the seventh commandment (marriage), or the second great commandment — love of neighbor (immigration reform) and not worry about the fourth commandment (worship and rest from secular activities), why in heaven or on earth should I take them seriously?

Why Not Simply Cite God's Law?

Our Virginia correspondent sent word of a reminder from the deities of the NFL to churches about legal and illegal Super Bowl festivities:

(1) Churches may only show the game on equipment that they regularly use for worship. They may not bring in additional rented audio-visual equipment.
(2) Churches may not charge admission. They are, however, allowed to take donations to defray party expenses.
(3) Churches may not record or further retransmit the broadcast of the game.

Apparently the separation of church and state does not extend to football and church.

If the NFL had simply reminded Christians of the need to keep the Lord’s Day holy, they could have cut through the fine print. But this way, the footballers get the best of both kingdoms (which is not a good thing if you are certain church in Laodicia).