BY JESSICA EWING-CHOW
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mark 10:14)
“Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.”
Watching the latest videos of Hillsong Kids and Bethel Music Kids, it is amazing to see how Sunday School or children’s church has evolved through the generations. In the pre-COVID days, bright lights, EDM (electronic dance music)-inspired praise and worship songs and multimedia were used in high energy worship services conducted for children at some churches, locally and abroad.
In the midst of the pandemic, many churches are adapting through the use of digital platforms such as original videos and Zoom worship services for the children. COR has likewise hopped onto the digital bandwagon to reach the next generation with the message of Jesus in a time when we are unable to meet face to face. This is the latest stage in the history of Sunday School. But how have we gotten here?
The modern context of Sunday School started out literally as a school for illiterate children during the Industrial Revolution. Education was not universal nor compulsory then. It remained in the domains of the middle class and the rich who could afford private tuition by governesses in the comfort of home. The Industrial Revolution resulted in many children spending all week-long working in factories. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist comes to mind when one thinks of children enduring the appalling conditions of the workhouses, working in excess of 12 hours a day, with Sunday being their only free day. Petty crimes and fights were commonly started by these children during their free time. The trap of poverty was ever before them.
In the 1780s, the Sunday School movement began in Britain, with the Anglican evangelical Robert Raikes (1725-1811) being a key figure in reaching out to these working children in the Gloucester slums. Other evangelical reformers—including several who are better known now for their abolition (anti-slavery) efforts—began to join the Sunday School movement. Hannah More started Sunday Schools around her home with the financial support of William Wilberforce and the encouragement of John Newton, the former slave trader turned minister and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” What began as a small group with Raikes in 1780 grew to more than 200,000 students across England in only 20 years. By 1850, the number had climbed to 2 million. This does not even include the number of parents and siblings who were taught by children bringing their lessons home from Sunday School. The Bible itself was often the only book used to teach on reading and the children learnt to write by copying out passages from Scriptures. Catechism and basic arithmetic were also taught to the children with lessons lasting 4 to 5 hours a week.
The Sunday School movement was not without its detractors even from the churches, as it seemed to contravene the Sabbath by teaching on Sundays. The greater resistance, however, was politically motivated, as there was a fear that there would be social upheaval if the working class got educated and mobilised.
Notwithstanding the resistance, the Sunday School movement swiftly spread to America and was adopted by various denominations as well as non-denominational organisations. The American Sunday School system was begun by Samuel Slater in his textile mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in the 1790s.
By the mid-19th century, Sunday School attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood. Even parents who did not regularly attend church themselves generally insisted that their children go to Sunday School. The working class were grateful for the educational opportunities rendered through Sunday School. Many Sunday School pupils in turn became Sunday School teachers. With education came gainful employment. “Some historians have posited that the Sunday School movement did more to empower the lower class than any other thing in the early 19th century,” says John Mark Yeats, associate professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
As universal elementary education became established in Britain and America in the late 19th century, Sunday School became focused on religious teaching. However, attending Sunday School was still considered an essential part of childhood till the 1960s, when religious attendance began to decline.
Singapore’s Mission Schools - Reaching the Locals
Closer to home, many of Singapore’s early schools for local children were established by missionaries. They met the social needs of the community with the provision of education. This was not unlike what Robert Raikes and other pioneers of the early Sunday School movement tried to do.
In 1827, newlyweds Maria Dyer and Samuel Dyer, both missionaries of the London Missionary Society, came to work in the Straits Settlements. They picked up the Hokkien dialect to communicate with the locals. Samuel started a printing press to distribute Chinese Christian literature and Maria started a small school for girls in Penang.
With her experience in setting up schools for girls in Penang and Malacca, albeit with little success, Maria founded the first girl's school in Singapore in 1842 known as the Chinese Girls’ School; the school was later renamed St Margaret's School. Many of the girls were destined to be mui tsai (“little sisters” in Cantonese) or bonded domestic servants, sold out in the markets not unlike ordinary livestock. Without the school, they would not have been able to escape from bonded servitude and to learn how to read and write.
Photo: Mothership article “St Margaret's School was started to help
In a world where girls’ education was considered frivolous, unimportant or reserved for the rich, Maria and many other missionaries like Sophia Blackmore (Methodist Girls’ School) and the Infant Jesus Sisters (Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, CHIJ) gave an opportunity for disadvantaged girls to rise above their circumstances. Most importantly, they brought the message of hope to the girls, that they mattered to God.
In the 1850s, two local Anglican men, Sim Quee and Tye Kim, established a small private school, known as Sim Quee’s School, at 29 Chin Chew Street. A sermon delivered by Reverend William T. Humphreys – then resident chaplain of the Anglican Church – on Pentecost Sunday in 1856 inspired a group of laymen to establish the St Andrew’s Church Mission with the goal of reaching out to the locals. Missionary Reverend Edward Sherman Venn, an Anglican priest from England, was recruited in 1861 to further the work of the mission. Through Venn’s efforts, Sim Quee’s School came under the aegis of St Andrew’s Church Mission and was officially established on 8 September 1862 as the St Andrew’s Church Mission School, with Sim Quee as its first headmaster. This would be the beginning of St Andrew’s School, where local laymen together with foreign missionaries worked to reach the young for Christ.
Several mission schools established in the early days of Singapore continue to thrive today, producing many of our leaders in the government, commercial and social arenas.
Early Days of Sunday School
Sunday School classes were established in many of Singapore's early churches to meet the needs of the congregants. Sometimes they even met on weekdays in open-air locations including five-foot walkways. The classes were conducted by missionary ladies, their helpers and other lay people. There would be Bible study, the singing of hymns and the teaching of prayers.
It is now less about making social change but about discipling the young in the word of God. There has also been an explosion of resources available for churches, no matter the age and profiles of the congregants’ children.
“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
COR Children’s Ministry circa late 1980s–1990s
Photo courtesy of Chua Suat Ngoh
COR Sunday School / Children’s Ministry
Our children’s ministry or Sunday School was also started by lay people, not long after the founding of COR in 1979. Today, in both Saturday Praise Service (SPS) and Sunday Worship Service (SWS), the children’s ministry is still anchored by lay people and the children are taught by mostly mothers. However, we are blessed by the service of many church members who are not parents but loving teachers and helpers to the generations of children who have stepped through the doors of room 02-11 and the classrooms of St Andrew’s Junior College back in Malan Road.
Objectives of COR Kingdom Children's Church
To teach the Word of God to the children. (Proverbs 22:6 “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”)
To evangelize the children no matter how young they are. (Hebrew 4:12 “For the Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”)
In COR, our children’s ministry, Kingdom Children's Church, is divided into Preschool (Joyful Preschooler, 3-4 years old), Kindergarten (Caring Kindees, 5-6 years old) and Primary Levels (Explorer Kidz, Praise Kidz and Faithful Kidz, 7-12 years old). Since the 1980s, we have had a series of children’s pastors leading the ministry and they were David ECD, Loke Chi Shyan, John Sim, Dewi and Jerome Foo.
The classes are conducted concurrently with the main church services in separate rooms. The usual programme consists of prayers, worship, teaching of Bible stories, art and craft, refreshment, collection of offerings and play time. Through the years, we have seen children from various backgrounds and from our outreach ministries of Sonshine Childcare, Tanglin Halt ministry and Boys’ and Girls’ Brigade attending Sunday School with our congregants’ children. There were also special events such as Children’s Day Celebrations and Children’s camps where our children, spurred on by their evangelistic fervour, invited their friends and relatives to come to church.
Aunty Suat Ngoh
Chua Suat Ngoh, or affectionately known by many of us as Aunty Suat Ngoh, is a COR Church Worker (Pastoral Administration), wife, mother and grandmother to cute 3 year old Joseph. She has been with COR since the founding years and was an early pioneer of COR’s children’s ministry. Like many of her peers and teachers after her, she started serving in Sunday School because of the need for teachers and the desire to impart the word of God to the young. She recalls fondly and proudly moments which showed how God works in the lives of the children in her care:
"I taught in Sunday School's Toddlers’ classes from 1986 to 1998. I have seen many of them coming to know the Lord personally and some of them are now serving in the church. During my time in the ministry, besides having children of COR’s members, we had children from non-Christian homes and the Sonshine Childcare Centre. I could remember a boy from a non-Christian family who came to Sunday School to learn English. Later he brought his sister along. His grandmother was very impressed with his improvement in behaviour that she allowed the boy’s two other cousins to come to Sunday School as well.”
“Jesus Loves Me”
Aunty Suat Ngoh, Robert Raikes, Maria Dyers, Sim Quee and many others, whether they are notable names or individuals serving quietly in the background through the years, heard the call of Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mark 10:14) They recognised that God loves the little children and they have a special place in His kingdom.
From starting as a movement of social change and outreach to the marginalised, Sunday School today is in danger of simply being a “childcare” service for the adults attending church services. It takes a pandemic and the shutdown of physical church services for many Christian families to realise that the teaching of the Word of God and godly values needs to start in the home.
At the core of Sunday School education is evangelism and discipleship of children through the word of God. It is never about programmes or how “entertaining” our teachers have to be or what “rewards” the children will have when they memorise Bible verses. Our children today are bombarded by many things, which can distract them from hearing God’s voice. However, I believe that the simple message of “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so” needs to be told and shown over and over again to every child whom God has entrusted to us within and outside the church walls.
Jessica worships at SPS with her husband and 2 daughters. Besides writing for CHORUS, she also serves as a teacher in the children’s ministry with the SPS Caring Kindees. Further Readings:
St Margaret’s Secondary School, 2014, The school’s history; Lee, Y. M. (2002). Great is thy faithfulness: The story of St Margaret's School in Singapore; Singapore: St. Margaret's School. Call no.: RSEA 373.5957 SAI.
Tan, Fiona St Margaret's School | Infopedia
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