Why Sunday School Worries Me

I teach Old Testament at a university. My kids are now old enough to be in Sunday School on Sunday mornings. Add those two things to my own years of experience being a kid in Sunday School and I have noticed a few things about the Sunday School system that worry me (as I have experienced it in my own evangelical tradition). Specifically, there are three common themes I see in many Sunday Schools that seem to give kids a distorted view of the Bible and the Christian faith, a view they carry with them through college and into life. I will call these The Noah’s Ark Problem, The Goody Two-Shoes Problem, and The Disney Problem. Now, perhaps I am overreacting (it’s my job as a parent and perennial over-analyzer). Or perhaps I am just reading things wrongly. But perhaps I am not doing either.

The Noah’s Ark Problem

One of the more disturbing things about Sunday School is that it teaches kids to view Bible stories in a way they were never intended. If left to many Sunday Schools, my kids are going to grow up thinking Noah’s Ark is about cute animals getting on a boat made by Fisher Price. We always seem to leave out the whole ” torturous death by drowning to all living things as a judgment for humanity’s utter wickedness” punchline. In fact, we just change the punchline to be about a rainbow and how God keeps his promises. Considering much of the Old Testament is filled with sex, violence, and concepts difficult for kids to grasp, I am not sure how much of it is suitable for teaching to kids in a group setting. But we do anyway. And in our attempts, we inevitably water it down to the point where our kids leave thinking the Bible is like a fairy tale or Aesop’s Fables. And when we do, not only do our kids grow up missing out on what’s really going on in the story, but we teach them to read the Bible as an edited collection of stand-alone moral stories, looking for that story’s “valuable lesson” to me, rather than teaching them the entire story so that they find themselves in its ebb and flow, context and all.

The Goody Two-Shoes Problem

When I was a kid, the point of Sunday School seemed to be to teach me how to be a polite American citizen who doesn’t cause trouble. The lessons were all geared toward my behavior: “Jesus wants you to be happy. And to be happy you need to be nice to your sister, clean your room for your parents, and register to vote (<–that’s hyperbole for dramatic effect).” There was no emphasis on how strange the Bible can be or how counter-cultural it shows Israel and God to be. We never focused on Israel or how Jesus was related to that story. And no mention that sometimes God wants us to be troublemakers by standing up to authority and our culture. No, the lessons were all about me. And more specifically, they were about me being good. Well, I don’t want my kids to just be polite. I want them to be wise and courageous. I want them to learn to think for themselves and be confrontational when such is called for. I don’t want them to be good. I want them to be faithful. And I don’t think those are at all the same thing.

The Disney Problem

This is probably the thing that makes me cringe most when I hear Sunday School lessons. They often focus on external cultural influences rather than how culture is internally influencing my kid’s identity, goals, dreams, and expectations. How many Sunday School teachers advise their children not to watch certain Disney movies because they objectify women and portray the object of life as finding your soul-mate? I have never heard of it. But I have often heard that my kids need to steer clear of listening to lyrics with bad words or watching movies that portray violence. Now, perhaps both aren’t advisable for impressionable young kids. But for our family, Sarah and I have decided that we will screen our movies based primarily on how it presents what we should aspire for and how it presents the roles of women and men.

I am much more concerned that my boys learn that love does not end after 10 minutes of emotionally charged music when the credits roll, that there is more to life than women, and that their princess doesn’t need to look like a Barbie doll than I am that they hear a few shit’s or damn it’s. Those aren’t shaping my kids identity, just their vocabulary.

I see this in my college students all the time. They strive so hard to be non-confrontational, to behave in the right Christian ways, to not say curse words. But it’s not until we discuss cultural influences that they begin to see how much the movies they watch and the music they listen to influences something much deeper than silly curse words. They shape the overall trajectory of their life, the things they desire and believe will lead to a happy life, the things they strive for and the things they try to avoid. I recommend Rated R Braveheart over Rated PG-13 “Insert Almost Every Romantic Comedy Here” any day.

What would I do differently? I have no idea. And I do not blame Sunday School teachers. I was blessed by many wonderful teachers as a kid. They have inherited it from others. And others before them. I have volunteered in the past to teach large group at my son’s Wednesday night church group and recently volunteered to teach my son’s Sunday School class. Did I or will I do things differently? I hope so. My only hint for how to move forward is that perhaps Pete Enns is right, we need to spend our time focusing on the life of Jesus so that when they are older, they are anchored in the person and work of Jesus rather than a list of moral stories. Sounds like a good first step to me.

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19 responses to “Why Sunday School Worries Me

  1. This is outstanding Jared…and much needed. My Sunday School teachers (American Baptist) shaped me a great deal more by what they did NOT say rather than what they DID say. I’m sure I heard all the stories when younger, but my 4th/5th grade S.S. teacher focused on building real relationships with us. He took us skiing, rollerskating, to the beach, to special shows down in Philly, etc. I don’t remember a word of what he said, but I remember his life, his generosity, and his example. I am deeply indebted to him and was sad when he passed away a few years ago.

    My 6th grade S.S. teacher said something that I carry with me to this very day. He said, “When you read the bible, you will come away with more questions than answers. Still, it will change your life.” How true I have found this to be! Thank you Mr. Paregian!! Love you!

    • Jared, what age category are we talking about?

      In your Noahs Ark example, I agree that it does not usually paint a full representation of the whole story. However, I think the point of Sunday school is to prepare children so that they may start the journey of understanding God at an age when they wont become overwhelmed. If we were to teach four year olds that Noah needed an ark because God decided to kill everyone, I dont think that would really set them up to have a succesful relationship with God. The last thing we want at such a young age is for them to be driven away out of fear.

      I think that in almost every parable, their is a meaning that is unique based off of where that persons life is at that moment. Based off of my current life circumstances, one passage may speak to me in a different way than it speaks to you, because we are mature enough to translate given passages to fit the situation we are in, in order to gain the greatest wisdom given the conditions. Children dont share that ability. The message has to be tailored so that they understand it as it is applicable to them.

      So, I guess the question is what is the suitable message for children? What is our goal? I would be tempted to say that at that age, the full truth isnt what matters, their interpretation and understanding does. If they cant understand the full truth, are we setting them up for failure by overwhelming them?

      • I agree Steven, there is a fine balance between accommodating truth in ways that kids will understand and giving them impressions of the Bible that will lead to a distorted view of the Bible. I don’t know what that looks like right now. That’s why I think we should spend more time in the New Testament than the Old Testament with our kids, centering them and anchoring them in the person and work of Jesus so that when they are older they can read the Old Testament Christo-centrically. And as Christy says, spend less time telling stories and more time modeling our Christ-likeness.

  2. Jared, I think by your post here you are already doing things differently. Sadly, the problem with Sunday School is not only what you suggested but also the fact that parents are not actively involved in their children’s lives. They will leave it up to the Sunday School teachers, to teach them God’s Word. The fact that you are thinking about it, praying about it, and actively trying to instill proper Christ-like values in your children is one way to be different and deal with the problem head on. Church unfortunately has become a babysitting service instead of a tool to help families be able to grow and teach themselves the truths of God’s Word.

    As far as how Sunday school can do things differently, that is a whole different ballgame. I am with you on the fact that there isn’t necessarily an answer. I would love to find one though.

    • Well said Josh and I agree. My children’s spiritual lives will be predominately shaped by my wife and my influence, whether we step up to that challenge or not. Thanks!

  3. This problem goes way past Sunday School. There is so much rank moralism that it’s hard not to feed it to your kid… from Sunday School (our children’s ministry actually does a pretty good job with this) to Bible storybooks to Veggietales.

    • I agree — the same methodology usually continues through most church programs. But I have to mention that it’s at least a little amusing that you just used the term “rank moralism” – don’t hear those two together too often.

      • Heh. I suppose it is unusual. I think I said it that way because I view moralism as more dangerous than most anything else to the rooting of the Gospel in my children’s lives.

  4. These are great thoughts; hopefully deacons and elders at individual churches are seeking to address these issues.

    We are privileged to have John Kwasny as our Christian Education Director, and he has written a Sunday School curriculum called Investigating God’s Word that is gospel-centered for K-6th grade. Over the 7 years, the children will cover every verse in the Bible. The lessons are fairly scripted, which helps to utilize untrained, non-professional parents as teachers. You read a few verses, then ask the kids some questions. You also introduce one major vocabulary word a week and have a memory verse.

    We also use the Jesus Storybook Bible for our 3 and 4 year old church time. Yes, they still mostly play and color pictures, but if you want to tell a Bible story, let it be ultimately about Jesus.

  5. I agree with your premise: Sunday School provides a place that is relatively benign to park the kids for an hour or so while the grownups get together. The assumption is that the elders are being fed while the kids have a snack.
    Maybe what is needed is a sit down feast on the Word together and then some time for all to digest the Word according to ability and inclination. At one time I had hoped that small group settings would provide this adjunct to Sunday Services but we all had football,etc. running interference. It makes for a long day with the Word and if you are responsible for part of the service it is a lot to expect.
    At both Calvary Church of Souderton and for a while at BranchCreek, for my wife and I, there was a long day that had this kind of intense engagement with community and Bible study.
    Our grown children gained from this as they are all born again and committed Christians who are modelling Christ’s love to their children.
    However, unless this intense day-long experience is offered and made part of the culture of worship most people go for the fast food. So, Sunday School is the compromise for the kiddies and Jonah, Noah and David get watered down with the grape juice, better that than nothing.

  6. When I was in college (secular university), we would meet regularly with our campus pastor. He was not a “Sunday School answer” kind of guy- something that resonated with me then, and I have found invaluable since. But many of us had grown up in the church, so we knew the “right answers”.

    This became something of a joke. When Pastor John would ask us a genuinely difficult question- one that did not fit into the Sunday School cookie cutter, after sitting and squirming awhile, someone would invariably raise a hand and say in the most child-like voice, “Jesus died on the cross for our sins…” Not to make light of the death of Jesus, of course, but to make light of just how shallow some of our church upbringing might have been, especially in light of the particularly challenging question or topic we were facing at the time.

    It was a very good environment to do real spiritual formation. He was able to challenge us (and we him) on the very core of our beliefs- to separate our God from our cultural framework, and to show His relevance to that culture’s ills and issues. It was fairly distressing at times.

    Perhaps the greatest measure of John & Ruth’s influence is that, in the 35+ years they worked in that small campus church, they never had big crowds (50 was considered large), but there are probably 100 or more pastors, missionaries, aid workers, and other ministry workers in the world today because of their influence. And many more who are in other vocations who have a much deeper appreciation for God, His Word, and how that applies (and should apply) to every facet of our lives.

    I had decent enough Sunday School teachers, but they didn’t shape me in the same way. I try to give the Biblical narrative to my own children in a bit broader way and even leave open-ended some of the questions that this narrative invariably raises.

    • Craig, i find your remark about “Sunday School answers” particularly amusing. My friends and I had a similar joke in high school; we were privileged to study literature and philosophy with Dr. Fred Putnam and whenever he addressed a challenging question that nobody could answer, we would jokingly list the Sunday School answers: “Jesus, God, the Bible!”

      I teach Sunday School at my current church (4-5 year olds) and it is an ongoing challenge to present material in such a way that it is both honest and Scripturally based, and yet understandable and palatable for very young children. I’m blessed to have been handed an excellent curriculum, which keeps in mind the broad story of man’s fallenness and our need for God’s grace and redemption. Every few “stories” I am able to bring that big picture back into focus and it helps keep us on track and away from triteness.

  7. Childhood is a cognitively confusing experience of coming out the fog into the reality of adulthood. Some, of course, never do come out.

    I think the idea of a great emphasis upon Jesus, his life, his words and commands is an effective tonic.

  8. I tell you what Jared, we have had the same kind of problems with many children focused messages. They tend to skip over the heavy stuff and make these stories seem like fairy tales. When they are teenagers and on into their adult years, they look back at those fairy tale renditions of these passages as fond memories of childhood.

    Austin works hard at teaching the scripture to all ages and not watering down what God is trying to tell us. He works very hard at putting these concepts into language that is appropriate and understandable for whichever age group he is talking to.

    When I am teaching children, I teach the truth. I give details they may not understand. One day, when they are teenagers, they will remember those details, and it will make sense to them then. When we leave that stuff out, then they remember it wrong.

    I agree about the movies and tv thing. It isn’t about the cussing or the way everyone dresses, it is how people in the show or movie are treating each other. There are many shows we don’t let our kids watch because it shows kids being disrespectful to parents or whatever else.

    • Thanks for sharing how you are working against the inherited system. It’s hard work but I am excited people are out there trying.

  9. Pingback: Blog Rewind | Jared Byas

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