Sunday school lessons

Late last year, as I was finishing the manuscript for my new book, “Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans,” which is rooted in my hometown of Woodstock, Ill., I thought about how, as a kid, I learned what church is.

As you can read in the book, I figured it out in the basement of First Church of Woodstock, my family’s congregation. That’s where some of hid behind the furnace to talk, look at racy magazines and try cigarettes. As I write in the book:

“Church, at its core, is about relationship — vertically with the divine and horizontally with other humans. We boys were figuring out the horizontal part of that in a building where people prac- ticed the vertical part together. Together. That’s the key. We were comrades, plotters, secret-keep- ers. We were learning to trust one another, to rely on one another, to have one another’s back.”

Please know I’m not suggesting that youth leaders today encourage kids to hide in church basements, leer at spicy magazines and smoke. Heck, I knew even as a 13-year-old that such behavior was out of bounds. And yet the church building provided a formative place for some of us to get a visceral sense of what relationships are all about.

Did I not learn about church in Sunday school and in other approved church gatherings, such as youth group? Yes, but not in the deeply personal way that could hap- pen only when we boys were in charge, when we could push the limits of behavior, when we found, on our own, a welcoming space that gave us opportunities not just to look at magazines but also discuss some of the eternal questions.

To be sure, the church we created in the basement was distorted in that it was clubby, exclusivist, irregular .

But it affirmed for us the value of friendship, of com- mitment and — though the boys in the basement would been too embarrassed to use the term then — of love.

Since those 1950s days, many of the people who form the backbone of our country, people I call “Middle Americans” in my book, have drifted away from faith, becoming part of the growing segment of the population — now at least 20 percent — that is religiously unaffiliated. And many Middle Americans also contribute to the widespread biblical and theological illiteracy that plagues the church and society.

There are many reasons for these shifts, but I sometimes wonder whether the church is hurting itself by not making it clear to our chil- dren that we want them to explore, to try out ways of being in relation- ship with one another and with God — and to feel they have the freedom to do that within the walls of our church buildings.

Eventually, we Woodstock First Church boys quit meeting in our secret corner and got on with life. But the life we got on with was marinated in the idea that we are part of a larger community that, in turn, is called to respond to God out of gratitude.

And that’s a pretty good Sunday school lesson.

BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith
Matters” blog
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