I learned some of life’s most valuable lessons in Sunday School. I know that best-selling author Robert Fulghum argued that all he really needed to know he learned in kindergarten.
Although Fulghum’s works are among my favorites, I cannot identify with him because I didn’t go to kindergarten. There was no kindergarten in our rural community. First grade was the official beginning of academic training, but Sunday School was the center of real education.
In kindergarten, Fulghum learned the basic traits of kindness, courtesy and hospitality. But in Sunday School, I learned those traits plus some of life’s most meaningful lessons.
Five of those lessons especially have formed my life and ministry.
First, I learned that the Bible gives us a special message from God. Later, I would learn that the 66 books were written by people inspired by God, and that scholars and translators had committed themselves to accurately translating the Bible into many different languages.
But in Sunday School I perceived that the Bible was from God simply because the stories themselves were full of life. These same stories gave definition to our lives as we tried to live by them.
Second, I learned that a church is really people, not just a place. Our teachers encouraged us to come to attend regularly, but then they reminded us that the church is not a place but a group of people, a special kind of family.
Even when we clasped and unclasped our hands to recite, “Here is the church; here is the steeple; open the doors and see all the people,” our teachers quickly reminded us that the most important part of the church is the people, not pews and pulpits.
Third, I learned to be prepared. The unofficial motto of our children’s class was, “Be there! Be on time! Be prepared!” We were challenged to bring our Bible, bring our offering and study our lesson.
As I progressed through elementary school and into high school, I learned about the rewards for doing homework (and the penalties for not doing it). Later, I appreciated the preparation required to play sports, to prepare for college exams, and to be a pastor. But my real boot camp for learning the true value of preparation was Sunday School.
Fourth, I learned to be faithful. Our teachers actually expected us to be there every Sunday. If we missed one Sunday, it was not unusual for the teacher to call and check on us to see if we were okay.
During my childhood, most veteran Sunday School teachers hung a white poster board—with every student’s name on it—on the front wall of the classroom. Beside each name was a row of columns with the dates of each Sunday for that quarter and students were awarded a star by their name for weekly attendance.
As I matured through the years, I learned that every club, organization or team I joined merited my faithful attendance and participation.
I learned that one of my most important appointments each week is to be in a worship service and in Sunday School. Now, as an adult, when I attend church and Sunday School, in my mind’s eye I see myself receiving a star. Every time I miss, my space is blank.
Fifth, I learned that a church is strengthened by the full participation of men and women, boys and girls. “Miss Sue,” one of my favorite Sunday School teachers, stressed reading the Bible every day, being present and on time and studying our lesson. She also reminded us, “Boys and girls, someday you will be the future leaders of our church.”
In fact, in her class we were schooled in leadership. Each year we elected class officers: a president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer. And according to Miss Sue, both boys and girls were eligible for any of our class positions.
Miss Sue called on both boys and girls to read a scripture or lead in prayer. She convinced us that boys and girls were equal members of God’s family, the church. Miss Sue said if our church was going to have a bright and promising future, it was because of the full participation of bright and promising boys and girls who become responsible Christian men and women.
My home church appreciated Miss Sue and other faithful teachers. But the church probably thought she was just teaching a Sunday School class.
Actually, one day a week Miss Sue taught us the core values of life, the things we really needed to know.
Isn’t that what a good Sunday School class is supposed to do?
Barry Howard is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.