Interview: Christian formation, No longer your grandmother’s Sunday school

Interview: Christian formation, No longer your grandmother’s Sunday school

By Peter Menkin

Readers will note that this interview with Sharon Ely Pearson is the result of several questions, answers, and responses over a period of separate days. The title for this piece on “Sunday School,” suggested by Sharon, says a great deal about where 2009 brings us in formation of members of The Episcopal Church in the United States, part of the worldwide Anglican communion of 77 million. Her title for the interview is contained in this email response by her:


As far as title (suggested by me), “Sunday School with Sharon” (you reply that it) is rather demeaning to the ministry of Christian formation and I prefer you not use it. A title such as “Christian Formation: No Longer Your Grandmother’s Sunday school” if you need to use the term Sunday school (which is not used in the Episcopal Church very often anymore). It is LIFE LONG formation and education into living out one’s baptismal promises.


Tell us then, is Christian Formation or what was called Sunday school, for children only?

Christian formation is life long, so it includes all ages. This is occurring across denominational lines, and is not new to Christianity. It is reclaiming the understanding of how Christians were “formed” in the early Church.

Sunday school is no longer seen as a separate component of education just for children. We like to use the term, “Christian formation” to describe the continual lifelong process of deepening one’s understanding of his or her faith.

In the Episcopal Church it involves all aspects of our life together – worship, service to others, mission, pastoral care, evangelism, fellowship, AND education. Education is comprised of learning and reflecting, integrating holistically all of our experiences with God’s Word, connecting faith and daily life.


Where did the term “Sunday school” originate?

The term “Sunday school” originated with Robert Raikes, a devout Anglican layman, (1736-1811) who started a movement of prison reform and education of offenders and poor children. The purpose of the school was to teach poor children (in “Soot Alley”) the rudiments of learning on Sunday, their free day. Of course the Bible was their textbook, and from the movement the idea of Sunday schools spread to the Baptist, Congregational, and Methodist churches throughout England. In 1803 the London Sunday School Union was created. It was also brought to America, and in 1824 the American Sunday School Union was formed in Philadelphia. It was, and is still today, characterized by strong missionary and evangelistic zeal. There continues to be a Unified Lessons Series curriculum, though this is not usually used in Episcopal Churches. 


So, what is the official curriculum used for Christian Formation for Episcopalians?

The Episcopal Church does not have a “mandatory” or endorsed curriculum for all to use. Holy Scripture (The Old and New Testaments) and “The Book of Common Prayer” ground us in study. We are the curriculum – individually and our congregations together in all that we say and do as well as what is implicitly stated in how we shape our environment and provide hospitality.

And remember, Christian Formation is not just about memorizing doctrine, Bible verses, a Catechism, and certain prayers. It is about developing a relationship with God, and living out Jesus’ commandments in the world, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, and with all your mind, and all your strength …You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12: 30-31)

 Episcopalians are called to live out The Baptismal Covenant and, what many consider the foundation of our lives together and which guides us to live out our ministry in the world.

All churches are called to use this as a foundation for our life together, including our educational programs.


How do you offer teachings on Baptism as part of Christian formation?

This Covenant takes seriously our call to be Christ’s ministers in the world at the moment of our Baptism. We understand that we are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, but are known by God and already have a relationship with God, no matter what age.

By virtue of our Baptism, in the Episcopal Church, we believe we are full members of the Body of Christ. God was present with us at birth, and at Baptism we are filled with the Holy Spirit, that continues to remain with us, being “marked as Christ’s own forever” with the sign of the Cross on our forehead, one of the outward and visible signs, with water that is exhibited at Baptism – no matter what age we are.


Will you give an example?

An excellent example of how this is experienced in a church setting with children is through a program called Godly Play (

This Montessori-approach to children’s formation was developed by The Rev. Dr. Jerome Berryman, understanding that children have a desire to learn liturgical language while exploring their relationship with God and Jesus on their own terms. While learning the lessons of the Old and New Testaments, children learn to fall in love with God all over again and again.

The program is child-centered and is story-based, using beautiful materials and open-ended wondering questions to allow the child to place themselves in the various stories of God’s people. It is a program used in a growing number of churches of many denominations.


So Christian formation is just for children? It seems so many parents come to a church for the moral, spiritual, and religious education of their children. They want their child to have a firm sense of right and wrong:

But Christian formation is not just for children. It is a lifelong process in which all of us are continually learning and growing in our relationship with God.

At the Episcopal Church’s triennial gathering this July in Anaheim, one of the pieces of legislation will include a Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation. Patterned after The Children’s Charter for the Church passed in 1998,  this document will highlight the importance of education and formation for all ages.

There is a hunger in Episcopal Churches to better understand how to read scripture and apply it to today’s world. There is a hunger to learn spiritual practices to keep one grounded in the midst of a busy lifestyle. There is a desire for intergenerational methods of engaging each other, understanding that elders have much wisdom to share, children are often prophets calling us to see God in the world, and all ages in between make up the whole people of God.

Many adults in our society today were not brought up in a religious tradition, or had a bad experience as a child with the institutional church. So when their own children start asking existential questions about God, Jesus, and the meaning of life, they turn back to the Church for assistance.

While many are looking for “education” for their children, they too are hungry for a deeper spiritual life and connection to the holy.

Our world today is very fragmented, and our lives are like a gerbil running on a wheel. The Church provides a community of faith in which one can slow down, be renewed, and fed.

And the Episcopal Church is open to all people. Our doors are open to any seeker. As many would say, you do not need to leave your questions at the door before you enter. We embrace Scripture, the Traditions of the past, as well as Reason—our ability to make up our own minds and personal decisions as to where we believe God is calling us.


As we end this part of our article-interview, tell us something of your title and who you work for, as well as something about what published materials are offered by Church Publishing on Christian formation:

My title is as the Christian Formation Specialist for Church Publishing Incorporated (CPI) (, the publisher for the Episcopal Church.

CPI publishes books on prayer, faith in the world, and other topics of interest to those lay and ordained. We publish “The Book of Common Prayer,” various Episcopal hymnals, and many resources.

(I) also work closely with one of its divisions, Morehouse Education Resources, which publishes curricula and educational materials for The Episcopal Church and other denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church.

These include the original lectionary-based curriculum, Living the Good News, as well as Godly Play books and materials, All Things New, and many more. Confirm not Conform a groundbreaking confirmation program for youth that was developed by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Oakland, CA is also part of their resources. 

Some basic questions of Sharon:

Morehouse Education Resources  is a division of Church Publishing Incorporated, located in Denver. Church Publishing’s main office is in New York City, along with its parent company the Church Pension Fund, which serves all (7,500) Episcopal congregations in the United States and beyond (many countries in the Caribbean and Latin America): and  Church Publishing publishes all liturgical materials as stipulated by General Convention.


We also are partners with The Godly Play Foundation  and the founders of Confirm not Conform -– both are used in the San Francisco Bay area.

These two programs exemplify the ‘cutting edge’ in the area of Christian formation and education in the Episcopal Church (and beyond).


Are all the people you help Episcopalians? If others, give