Gelsinger on Sunday Schools, Part 4: Children and the Church


Fr. Michael Gelsinger

Editor’s note: In 1938, Fr. Michael Gelsinger, with his wife Mary, published a Handbook for Orthodox Sunday Schools. Gelsinger was one of the most influential convert clergymen in American Orthodox history. He served in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and this book was published with the blessing of Metropolitan Antony Bashir. We’ve serialized the book’s introduction, and have been running it in a four-part series. Today, we’re publishing the final section of the essay, in which Gelsinger discusses Sunday School students and how to keep children in the Orthodox Church. (Click here for Part 1, click here for Part 2, and click here for Part 3.)

This book contains Bible Stories, Memory Passages, and a Catechism. The Bible Stories are first in importance, and the other materials are to be regarded as supplementary.

Every Lesson in every class must be a Bible Story until all the stories have been thoroughly learned. With every Story something should be learned from the collection of Memory Passages. When a class has thoroughly learned all the Memory Passages, then — and not until then — it may give the whole of its time to a thorough and systematic study of the Catechism alone.

It is often advantageous to offer prizes to pupils for work conspicuously well done. A small prize may be given for each Memory Passage learned; or a token for each Passage memorized may be given, with an attractive prize for the completion of the whole collection. Public oral examinations may be given by the Priest or the Superintendent at a Sunday School Rally, and the best pupils may be given prizes. It is also well to reward both Teachers and pupils who complete a year without absence or tardiness. A copy of the Bible is an admirable prize for pupils who have none already, and suggestions for other prizes are to be found in the catalogue of the David C. Cook Publishing Company, Elgin, Illinois.

The youngest members of the Sunday School should be the babies of the Cradle Roll; and for them, of course, no formal instruction needs to be provided. Every Sunday School should have a Cradle Roll, and should designate someone to be Superintendent of the Cradle Roll Department. On the very day a child is born in the Parish its name should be entered on the Cradle Department Roll; when the child is baptized, the fact should be entered on the Roll, together with the names of the Sponsors; and the Superintendent of the Department should see to it that the child begins attending the Kindergarten class at the age of four.

Pupils above the age of four should be assigned to classes before the year’s work begins. Kindergarten classes may be quite large without being burdensome, for several Teachers may work together in conducting them; but all other classes should be limited to eight or ten pupils at most, and each class should be made up of pupils of about the same age.

Planning for instruction should be guided first of all by the fact that the pupils fall into two main groups: those who cannot yet read well enough to study the lesson book for themselves, and those who can work with the book more or less independently.

Pupils who cannot read a Lesson Story for themselves must have it told to them. Teachers should never read the Story to their pupils, but should tell it to them in simple language with the repetition and expansion that children love. When they have heard the Story, the children should be given a chance to tell it in their own words.

Some children may begin to learn Memory Passages before they enter the Kindergarten class; but in any case some part of every lesson period must be given to memorizing. Passages can be learned from the lips of the Teacher. A group of children easily learns to repeat a Memory Passage in unison, and constant repetition led by those who learn fastest will teach the Passage to those who learn slowly.

Moral training must also have attention in the Kindergarten as in all the years of training that follow. Until pupils are old enough to receive systematic instruction in Christian Ethics, moral training must be managed incidentally; but that does not mean “accidentally” or “occasionally”. Moral training is one of our chief aims, and we must always be on the watch for opportunities to promote it. With never wearied perisistence every Teacher should impress indelibly upon his pupils these fundamentals at least:

  1. We can be happy only if we love God and obey all His Laws.
  2. It is wicked to stay away from Liturgy.
  3. It is wicked to have a dirty body, or a dirty mind, or a dirty heart.
  4. It is wicked to hate anyone, or to provoke anyone to anger.
  5. It is wicked to swear, to lie, and to steal.
  6. It is wicked to harm another’s reputation or to bring him to shame.

These matters must be brought up at every opportunity, and the children must be made to repeat the substance of them to the Teacher so that they will surely learn. If a child says often, “I must never tell a lie, for it is wicked and sinful and evil to lie”, the words will take root in his heart as well as in his mind to make him a man known and respected for truth and honesty.

A book specially prepared for use in the Kindergarten is ready for publication and should be available before long. Meantime, Kindergarten Teachers should use the Lesson Stories given here and teach Memory Passages. Instruction should be varied with instructive games and play so that the children may learn how to get along with each other. They should never be allowed to be boisterous or rowdy, but neither should they be subdued to a rigid and unchildish order. The Kindergarten will be a failure if the children do not thoroughly enjoy being there. The chief business of the Kindergarten, of course, is to teach; but a devoted Teacher who loves children will teach them without making them unhappy.

For pupils who study the Stories a second time the Teacher should provide additional details from the fuller version of the Bible. Work on the Memory Passages must continue, of course, until all are learned; and in the Catechism the Ten Commandments may be begun.

Pupils who can read the Stories will show a considerable range of maturity. Instruction may be planned for two groups of them: for those who are mature enough to use the Bible in developing the Stories further, and for those who are so young that they cannot be expected to do more than to study the Story in the Lesson Book.

The younger group will, of course, be almost as dependent on the Teachers as though they could not read. But since they can study an assigned Story at home, more of the lesson period can be spent on the Memory Passages and the Catechism can be begun sooner.

The older group should be required to read with each Story the chapters in the Bible which contain it or which bear upon it; and they should keep note books to record their reading and to show all they can find out about each Story they study. The Teacher should bring in background material so that the pupils may come to realize that all the Stories they have learned are only chapters in a greater Story which explains God’s Plan for mankind.

It is difficult at present to provide effective instruction for pupils above the age of twelve or thirteen who have completed the Lesson Stories and the Memory Passages, for in America youngsters of that age have access to many attractive substitutes for the pleasures offered by Church and Sunday School. If some way can be found to interest them in continuing their attendance, their restlessness will pass; they will at last be gripped by habit, and thereafter will participate as junior adults in the life and activities of the Parish.

For the present we have no books prepared especially for adolescents. Each Parish will have to study the problem for itself and do the best it can. In another part of this discussion of Sunday School work it is suggested that the Priest may use adolescent boys in considerable number as Altar boys, the idea being not only to teach them Religion but also to accustom them to work collectively in a group which is founded on a connection with the Church. If the boys were bound together by merely social ties their interest in recreations would surely continue, but their organization would as surly disintegrate when one after another would be drawn into association with some other group of friends. But organized activity founded upon the Church has real promise of continuing vitality, inasmuch as the Church is always at hand and is always the same. And if the boys continue their association with each other by entering the Orthodox Frontier, the Church will still be their common concern; and by so much their permanent attachment to the Parish may be regarded as reasonably certain.

Adolescent girls and young women, of course, must be managed somewhat differently; but they too must be encouraged to form organizations based on a common devotion to the Church. Some of them may prepare to become Teachers, and in that way develop a lasting connection with the Parish. Others of them may form Societies which will undertake responsibility for various kinds of necessary work. One group may devote itself to providing flowers or needed comforts for the sick; another group may take a special interest in the children of the poorer families of the Parish, remembering them particularly at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter; another group may be interested in sewing, and could take charge of the making and repair of vestments for the Choir and the Altar boys; and still another group may undertake to provide incense and oil, and any other things that may be required in the Sanctuary. All of these groups might well come to Communion in a body at stated intervals, to remind themselves that Religion rather than some worldly interest unites them.

Scattered all over America are groups of Orthodox people who either have lost their Priest or have always been so weak in numbers that they have never been able to organize a Parish. The youth and the children of these Orthodox families have in many cases taken up foreign Religions. Instead of being Orthodox they are Methodist Episcopalians, Protestant Episcopalians (sometimes called Anglicans), Baptist, or something else; and their parents are heavy hearted because it has been impossible to keep them in the Orthodox Church.

The Sunday School Lesson Books are intended as much for these people as for those fortunate enough to be living in an active Parish. If in any community there is only one Orthodox family, let the head of that household teach the Lessons to the children. In any community where there are as many as two Orthodox families, let them join together to found a Sunday School. If in some community the few Orthodox families are of different origins, — some of them Syrian, others of them Greek or Russian or of some other language, — let them join together to found a Sunday School and, if possible, a Parish. To belong to the Orthodox Church is the greatest blessing anyone can have in this world, and to share this blessing with our children is worth any sacrifice. Before long a complete graded series of Lesson Books will be available, so that those who begin with the present book may continue with the others as they appear. Isolated families who have long felt the need of English books for teaching their children can have them now; and they should begin to use them without delay.


The preceding discussion is intended not only to offer practical suggestions for conducting Sunday Schools in the English language, but also to show that a program for Religious Education cannot be limited to plans for instruction. The leading idea is this: Although the chief purpose of a program for Religious Education in any Parish is the Salvation of our children, the immediate purpose is to insure the survival of the Parish. Accordingly, as our children grow older they must be brought by gradual stages into ever closer connection with the active life of the Parish, until at last as adults they share equally with their elders the responsibilities of adult membership.

For we must prepare our children to take our places. Some of these children must be Priests some day; some of them must be Presidents and Wardens of Parishes; and the least that we expect of any of them — to put it bluntly — is that they shall grow up to be dues-paying members and the parents of still another generation of children.

Accordingly, no Parish can safely limit its program for Religious Education to the instruction offered in Sunday School. It must employ every resource it can devise to awaken personal loyalty to our Religion, and must provide opportunities to express that loyalty in appropriate activities which demand cooperative effort.

The only kind of cooperative effort that can serve either the Parish or the young people themselves is effort that intends to serve the Church directly. We must never forget this fundamental fact: The Orthodox Religion which unites our children as Orthodox Christians is the only interest which they all share unreservedly with us and with one another; and on their enlightened common concern for the prospering of our Religion every Parish must found its hope for continued existence.