If Robert Raikes could see the dependence today’s families place on religious institutions for the spiritual development of their children, he’d be appalled.
Raikes is credited with having founded the traditional Sunday schools. He lived at a time when the population in England was rapidly expanding, with many people from the country moving into the cities in order to find work. A large segment of this working population was made up of children. These children worked six days a week, usually twelve hours a day, and Sunday was their day off.
And a great day off it would seem to be, for the children anyway. Many communities struggled with the behavior of these children. They were mischievous and created mayhem, they disturbed the peace, and Raikes, for one, could see that they would ultimately land in prison. And so he undertook to educate them. He employed four women to teach the children to read on a Sunday morning. They then had an hour off for lunch, after which they were taught the catechism until 5:30 p.m.
The crime rate dropped sharply in Raikes’s city and county after the establishment of the schools. At the Easter Quarter Sessions of 1786, the magistrates passed a unanimous vote of thanks for the benefits of Sunday schools to the morals of the young. In 1792, not one criminal defendant appeared before the judge; ten years earlier, there would have been anywhere between ten and one hundred cases.
Of course, Sunday schools had been established before this time, but with the promotion provided through Raikes’s publishing business, the concept took off, and it wasn’t long before many more schools were in operation.
The purpose of Sunday schools was to educate children who otherwise would not have had any education, be it the three R’s or moral and spiritual upbringing. Sunday school was not intended to exempt parents from teaching their own children. Raikes did not envisage whole cities giving up spiritual education in the home because of the existence of Sunday school. He was simply trying to improve the lot of children who had no one at home who could help them learn to live an honest life.
In a study recently released by The Barna Group (TBG), parents describe how they raise their children. The survey offers some surprising insights into the outcomes parents are most eager to achieve in their children, the qualities they believe are most important for parents to have in order to be effective, and some of the critical choices and trade-offs they make in their child-rearing efforts.
The study found that believers do not train their children with faith in mind. The faith commitment of born-again parents made surprisingly little difference in how their children were raised.
“Only three out of ten born-again parents included the salvation of their child in the list of critical parental emphases,” TBG president George Barna noted. “For that emphasis to not be on the radar screen of most Christian parents is a significant reason why most Americans never embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior. The fact that most Christian parents overlook this critical responsibility is one of the biggest challenges to the Christian church.”
How do parents today determine whether they have been successful in raising their children? According to TBG, by more than a two-to-one margin, they define success as having done the best they could, regardless of the outcomes. Less than three out of ten parents say the fruit of their efforts is the defining factor.
Which perhaps makes it a little frightening to discover what parents were required to do in Bible times should they produce a rebellious son. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death” (Deuteronomy 21:18–21).
Today, such training schools shouldn’t be used as the primary form of spiritual education for our children. Instead, they should be treated as an extension to the spiritual training that is received in the home.
In Bible times, families were responsible for teaching their children of God. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4–9).
In the book of Psalms, we are reminded again of the importance placed on teaching our children of God. “He decreed statutes for Jacob / and established the law in Israel, / which he commanded our forefathers / to teach their children, / so that the next generation would know them, / even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children” (Psalm 78:5–7).
Paul implored the early Christians in Ephesus “not [to] exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
And perhaps the greatest example of how simple it should be to train our children in the Lord is given by Jesus Himself. After He had healed the demon-possessed man, Jesus’ one instruction was, “ ‘Return home and tell how much God has done for you’ ” (Luke 8:39).