The Christian church, that beacon of light and faith, has been in existence for some 2,000 years. The 9:30 a.m. Sunday School class has been around less than two hundred years. So guess which is more powerful?
People in Dallas are fiercely loyal to Sunday School. They refuse to miss. These are adults we’re talking aboutf not the kids who go to Sunday School to make crayon drawings of the “Flight into Egypt.” In Dallas, adult Sunday Schools have caught up with the church services in size and power. You go to Sunday School to make business contacts and to find a husband or wife. You go to church so you have a place to sit and quietly think about everything that just happened in Sunday School.
It’s a weird business, Christianity. Pastors here know to leave the Sunday Schools well enough alone. The minute they begin tampering with them, they are generally ousted from the pulpit, their effigies burned in front of the Sunday School building. Most ministers, on Education Sunday (the day when little kids who are moving on to a new class get New Testaments and the teachers are introduced to the congregation) give a sermon calling Sunday School the most important thing to Christian life since the Reformation.
Each Sunday School in Dallas is its own little fiefdom. A Sunday School elects an enormously long slate of officers (“Do we have any more nominations for vice president of audio-visual operations?”). It has its own budget, its own offerings, its own minister of music. Each Sunday someone reads the “calendar of upcoming events” (“We’ll all be meeting this Friday night for Christian fellowship and country-western dancing at Belle Starr”). There is someone to introduce the visitors, and someone to discuss the Sunday School’s “social concerns” (“Part of the offering this week will go to the poor who are starving somewhere in the world”). Then someone introduces the president of the Sunday School class, who introduces the class teacher.
The teachers of the Sunday School class, for better or worse, consider themselves direct competitors with the preachers: their main goal is to outdraw the preacher on Sunday morning, and they often do.
But you should not necessarily equate Sunday School with education. Inexperienced churchgoers do this all the time. They think the “school” part of Sunday School is important. Actually, those days are gone. There are no longer any Sunday School pins for good attendance. There are no lesson books like the old days; it’s strictly BYOB (bring your own Bible). And no Sunday School requires homework. They do require a covered dish for the Wednesday evening Sunday School Supper Club.
Few adult classes are divided by, say, periods of Biblical history. You won’t find a class on the “Letters of St. Paul.” Instead, you’ll find classes divided by age groups. At the big churches, for instance, you’ll invariably find a Sunday School class for singles in their early twenties, another class for singles in their thirties, and a third class for old, divorced singles. No matter what they start out saying in these singles classes, the speakers all end up talking about the same thing every Sunday (“How to Be Christian and Still Be Single”)-but the apparent satisfaction is you get to hear that message with just your peer group.
Of course, you can still find an old-fashioned Sunday School class in Dallas. There’s always the Men’s Class, composed of older coots who don’t understand why most Sunday School classes have turned into Broadway productions. They’ll still take roll, sing a quick hymn, have a quick prayer, and then get down to business with a straight-talking Bible study.
But if the Sunday School life doesn’t exactly capture your fancy-a statement that amounts to heresy in this city-you can do something radical. After Sunday School is dismissed, you could always try the 11 a.m. worship service. Now isn’t that a thought?