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Short Stories: Sunday School Pins

sunday school pins

Do you remember Sunday school pins at the churches you attended as a child? They were given out as attendance awards. Attend Sunday school for one year, get a pin, and then get a pin for every year after that. I have seen older church members with pins adverting thirty, forty, and fifty years of Sunday school attendance.

These pins were meant to be badges of honor; a sign that the wearer had dutifully attended Sunday school year after year. They were also meant to remind people that they had endured years of Sunday school lessons taught by unqualified teachers who often read from quarterlies instead of actually teaching them.

I taught Sunday school for years. I knew how bad adult classes could be, so I wanted to make sure that class members actually learned something and interacted with the lessons. At one Southern Baptist church I pastored in Clare, Michigan, the church had an adult Sunday school class teacher. Polly and I decided to attend the class. OMG, it was awful. I mean awful. Bad theology and interpretation. For example, the teacher said election means “we choose God.” Yepper, the Calvinist in me wanted to strangle him. I tried to gently correct him, but he took the “whatever it means to me” interpretive approach. Week after week class members would share what the Bible meant to them. Many of them had Sunday School pins going back decades. So much time invested in Biblical “truth,” so little knowledge and understanding.

Did you receive Sunday school pins (or buttons)? Do you have a Sunday school experience you would like to share? Comment away!

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Benny S

    I grew up in a small town United Methodist Church. I had a Jr. High Sunday School teacher who I would classify more as a “fundagelical”. His brand of theology wouldn’t be a good match for a standard United Methodist Church congregation, so I’m guessing he attended our church because his wife preferred our church and she had a lot of personal friends who went there too. Anyway, he was my Sunday School teacher during my early teens. For several weeks in a row, he somehow felt the need to teach us about the future events in “The Book of Revelation”, which none of us knew anything about since 1) we were kids, and 2) we were in a United Methodist Church ;-). He didn’t leave out a single gory detail about the Battle of Armageddon. Jesus Christ! The blood!!! Looking back, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was getting a boner while telling us how the blood was going to flow as deep as a horse’s bridle. And that creepy excited smile on his face while he imagined all the unsaved sinners finally getting what they deserved. Ick.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Benny–Are you sure that guy wasn’t “Tee?”

    I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school. Some of my classmates actually took after-school catechism classes, which are sort of like Sunday school, because their parents forced them. And my younger brothers took such classes because, after we moved, we were in public school and they therefore hadn’t had as much religious instruction as I had.

    The classes, it seemed, were taught by the wives of the deacons or ushers, so I imagine the quality of instruction or soundness of the content wasn’t much, if at all, better than Sunday school as you describe it. I don’t recall attendance pins but, in retrospect, I think they–and my old schoolmates– deserve medals for enduring so much nonsense for so long.

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    when i was a kid, my parents attended a unitarian church, which had “sunday school”, but the topics were somewhat unusual… my favourite class was “Taking Things Apart”, where we (kids ages 8 to 13) were encouraged to bring in “stuff from home” — there was no limitation, and it didn’t have to be non-functioning — which we would then take apart in sunday school. the reason it was my favourite was because one of the kids (not me) brought in a toaster, which he proceeded to take apart. when it was completely disassembled, he took the cord, tied the two loose ends together, and plugged it in, which blew the circuit breaker for the entire church.

    good times! 👍😉

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    I remember the pins. I think I got one only one year. I agree, Sunday school quality varied from year to year, teachers had no qualifications. My parents weren’t all that concerned with Sunday school attendance. When you were in confirmation you’d end up spending the whole Sunday at church. Even if it was fun (it varied, but none of us were particularly enamored with it) doing something ALL DAY is absurd.

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    Sunday school when I was a kid was typically taught by parents who had kids that age. My mom taught Sunday school one year but was unusual in that she didn’t want to teach my grade- she taught the group one level younger. My mom wasn’t great with kids (meaning, not great with understandingor relating with kids), so she only lasted one year. My guess is that she was peer pressured into doing it. My grandma taught women’s Sunday school and weekday Women’s Missionary Union classes. My grandma spent hours researching and preparing for classes. I suspect she was unusual in that regard. When I was on my way out of evangelicalism (in my early 20s and still tethered to home but plotting my way to move far away) we had “college and career” age Sunday school class taught by a Vanderbilt graduate who eventually went to seminary and is now a preacher somewhere in the South. He was pretty decent as he had some divinity courses under his belt.

    I remember getting into trouble in Sunday school as a kid because I asked too many questions about the Bible stories that we are just supposed to accept as historically accurate. However, what I did like were the competitions – one year those of us who memorized all 66 books of the Bible in order and properly spelled won a gift. Another girl and I won a small gold cross necklace. We didn’t have the pins that you described, but some Sunday school teachers would offer small prizes for competitions – the necklace was the nicest. Usually the prizes were small games or puzzles from the Baptist Book Store which was headquartered in downtown Nashville a few miles away.

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    As a preachers kid I had quite a string going with pins before the pin popularity waned.

    The adult classes I attended just turned into mass group therapy sessions for christians who struggled with various challenges. The teacher would start the lesson from their teacher guide, read some scripture, start the lesson and within 5 minutes someone made a comment that started the group therapy struggle discussion.

    I am no theologian, all I have is the in home, 24/7, intense 18 year, preachers kid theology training. Let’s call it the PK degree. I suspect it’s a bit more education than your average church goer. I would sit in an adult Sunday school and hear the personal theological understanding that definitely did not fit the Nazarene theology and was generally suspect by most standards. But I remained silent and listened since none of them wanted to hear disagreement. It would spoil the feel good theology they were creating.

    All was fine until that one time I decided to speak up. The teacher told a story to trigger a discussion on morality. In his story, you live in a country where it is illegal to have a Bible, in fact, it is punishable by death. You are secretly Christian, and your neighbor is Christian too. Your neighbor has a stash of bibles that he hides and he gives them out to people because this is what god told him to do, so his neighbors can find god.

    The police come to your door and ask if you know anything about your neighbor dealing in bibles. What do you tell them? Do you rat out your neighbor and send him to his torture and death just for being a good, wholesome, god follower?

    They debated and, after quite a bit of debate, everyone agreed that the best answer is to lie, tell the cops he doesn’t deal in bibles, and therefor save your neighbor to do gods work.

    I, what happens when the cop executes you on the spot for lying and being a coconspirator, which means your last act before death is to lie, which is a sin, and now you have to face your judgement?

    The answer…oh well god would understand why you lied, so it would be ok. You were protecting one of his own.

    To which I said.. interesting, but when god asks why you didn’t have enough faith to trust Him to protect your neighbor, and chose instead to help god with a lie, thereby showing you actually did not have faith in god’s plan..then what do you say? Failing a final test of faith just before eternal judgement is not a good thing.

    That created an extended silence. That also caused them to avoid me more that usual.

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      @Sage, I love your scenario! I got into trouble for statements like that too! I think you and I would have gotten along well at church and been excommunicated together.

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Bruce Gerencser