Start children off on the way they should go—
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
In the early spring of 2002, an American friend and I biked to a local church in Jinan where I was attending graduate school. My friend was invited to teach English to the Sunday school children and I would translate for her. As a foreigner, she was not allowed to teach any Sunday school lessons, but teaching English was approved by the authorities.
We parked our bikes in a narrow alley and entered the church through a metal gate. A pathway led between the church sanctuary on the right and offices in a bungalow on the left. Since we arrived in the middle of a service, we had to cut through people sitting on little stools on both sides of the pathway. We were headed to a two-story building at the end of the pathway.
Climbing up the winding staircase, trying not to bump into boxes piled up on the side, we arrived at our destination, the Sunday school room on the top floor.
Opening the squeaking door, we saw a group of about ten children crouched on short stools, around two tables, listening to a teacher while taking notes. The teacher was speaking with a loud voice, making sure each student was able to summarize the lesson she had just given. She then led them in a long prayer in which each student was required to pray, in his or her own words, expressing sorrow for their sins and their love for God.
At that time, I was not yet a believer and had never set foot in a church before. This was my first experience of a Sunday school in China, and it left a lasting impact on me. Not long after I accepted the Lord as my personal Savior, I felt the calling to do something for these sincere, little ones. Later, I was admitted to Calvin Theological Seminary and majored in educational ministry.
When I returned to China after my seminary studies, God gradually opened doors for me to teach and train seminary students and church lay workers nationwide. As the churches in China were growing at an unprecedented rate, proper teaching and training of pastors and lay workers became an urgent need. Sunday school teachers were among those who were constantly seeking training materials and personnel. From 2009 to 2013, I had the privilege of offering Sunday school training to teachers in Three-Self churches in different parts of the country. Some of these were home churches of my seminary students and some were connections made through our work and through fellow brothers and sisters. These connections were made in the Three-Self setting where all of my training and teaching has taken place.
Just like everything else in China, it is hard to generalize and give a universal picture of what Sunday schools look like. The Sunday school classrooms I mentioned above had not changed much over the years I had been gone. However, because of my training classes, I also had the privilege of experiencing many other Sunday school settings in different parts of the country. Other than the fact that as TSPM churches they are all state-sanctioned, these churches were very different. Some were in large cities, like the capital city Beijing; some were in remote villages. Some had nearly 100 students over a wide age range that met in several classrooms; others had only a handful of kids confined in a dim tiny room. Some welcomed foreign teachers; others shunned any Western influence. Some had modern equipment, like computers and over-head projectors; others were barely sufficiently lit. Some had a teaching crew of college students, graduates, and young professionals; others had only a few grannies to look after the kids. Some churches assigned a pastor to have Bible studies and teaching sessions with these teachers on a regular basis; other churches only expected the kids to be kept quiet in a separate space during worship. Some churches were very creative in offering free singing and dancing lessons for children in the neighborhood as a way to evangelize; others were instructed to refer to the Sunday school as the nursery.
According to government policy, children under the age of 18 should not be evangelized. They are considered not mature enough to make their own decisions like adults do. Therefore, the size and format of Sunday schools depend largely on the local church leaders’ interpretation of the government policy and their own preference as to how to react to demands of parents in their congregation.
Despite the wide differences they present, these churches and teachers do have a lot in common: they all share a deep love for Jesus and the children. Like what happened with me several years earlier, many new believers were zealous to serve the church right after their conversion—and Sunday school seemed to be a top choice for many, especially female believers. Despite the scarcity of available training as well as materials, they searched different venues, like the internet, to find resources. That was also part of the reason I was invited to many churches. Word of mouth spread when training was available.
Most of these teachers do not have much previous teaching experience, so they rely on their own experience of growing up as a student. Much of the teaching still follows the traditional Chinese method with a heavy focus on memorization, lecturing instead of discussion, and moral lessons. One church had a room for middle school students. The room was set up like a typical Chinese classroom with four rows of tables, five tables in each row with two students, sitting on a long bench, sharing each table. The teacher lectured a good twenty-five minutes while the students buried their heads in their notebooks taking notes. Each student was required to keep a spiritual journal that was turned in weekly and “graded” by the teacher.
Besides classroom teaching, these teachers often shoulder heavy parenting responsibilities. As most of the parents are first generation Christians in their families, they have no experience of having grown up with Christian upbringing; thus, they have no clue how to bring up their children in a biblical way. On top of the many challenges of parenting in a changing world, learning about Christian parenting no doubt adds to their burden, one that they cannot carry alone. These parents often turn to pastors and Sunday school teachers for help. Many of them rely on Sunday school as the only place where their kids can be kept on a straight path.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a message from a friend in Beijing. “How do you think we could help kids at our church understand video games from a biblical perspective?” As a Sunday school teacher, she has constantly heard complaints and concerns from parents that their children are spending too much time on video games. While the kids see it as an entertainment to help them relax, the parents worry about the danger of addiction. Over my years of teaching and training in China, I have been asked many questions like this one.
It is these needs that have led to the structural design that my training has taken. I usually divide my training according to these questions: What is Sunday school? Why do we have Sunday school? How do we teach Sunday school? Besides child developmental psychology and teaching techniques, like class schedule and classroom management, I encourage them to think deeply about the meaning and goal of Sunday school. I challenge them to come up with their own philosophy of teaching after studying the biblical principles and assessing their unique setting. As a philosophy major and a critic of the traditional Chinese teaching system, I hope these questions and discussions will help them think outside the box and develop critical thinking that involves asking good questions instead of always expecting the correct answer from an “expert.” As the Chinese saying goes, I hope to teach them how to fish instead of handing them the fish.
I also modeled the Montessori-based curriculum Young Children and Worship. Based on her experience in the Chinese Sunday school, the American friend I mentioned earlier, who is a life-long Christian educator, revised the curriculum and wrote her version for the Chinese church. I translated the curriculum into Chinese and an artist friend produced the illustrations. We made free copies of this curriculum to hand out at my training sessions. The teachers were often intrigued by this new way of teaching while also feeling challenged by the open-ended questions. Often times, they felt they were not really “teaching” the lesson if they did not provide the students with a moral summary at the end.
I would like to ask for your prayers for these Sunday schools and teachers. Some of them continue to serve in creative ways, and some are facing challenges as the political environment tightens. I have learned of churches where children are no longer welcome. Despite all the challenges and difficulties, I believe their love for Jesus and for the children will carry them a long way.
Image credit: A friend of ChinaSource.
Lorraine Li holds a MA in Educational Ministry from Calvin Theological Seminary. She is currently the Coordinator of Christian Formation and Missions at First United Presbyterian Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior to her current position, she worked in China for nine years, teaching and training seminarians, church staff, and lay …View Full Bio