Sunday School Observations*

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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7 responses to “Sunday School Observations*

  1. I could not agree with you more. And I help design and develop Sunday School curriculum. My goal is always to design something that does not have to be unlearned later but that can transcend and include itself as the individual grows and evolves.

    Sadly, no matter how well designed a curriculum is, it always rests on the teacher/pastor/leader to facilitate the experience. A good teacher can take Noah’s Ark, Goody Two-Shoes, or Disney and convey them in a more helpful way (though it is not always easy). And consequently a teacher can take a well designed curriculum and turn it into Noah’s Ark, Goody Two-Shoes, or Disney (though some curriculum makes this sort of hijacking more difficult than others).

    And when it comes to Sunday School, have you seen Holy Moly? Because it is setting out to do exactly what you describe: tell the stories and allow kids to experience them (rather than adding an array of moralistic interpretations).

    • I haven’t, where can I get a peek at it? I would love to find alternatives. But yes, I agree, the interpretive pedagogy of the teacher will always constitute the experience. Thanks for your thoughts Jim!

  2. You’re doing important work.

    A couple years ago, my husband was teaching the junior high/high school Sunday school class. He thought it was a shame that most kids do not get taught about the historical context of the Bible in Sunday school. So he decided to do just that, and did a whole series putting the Old Testament in its historical context. A year or so after that, our pastor retired and we needed someone to fill in for the sermons, so my husband revamped his series for the adults. It was well received in both age groups. 🙂

  3. Pingback: » <b>Sunday School</b> Observations* | Jared Byas

  4. I’m not sure from reading this whether your ‘Sunday Schools’ carry on through the teenage years, or whether you have just left a huge gap between Sunday School kids and college students.

    For me, the teenage years are when the more contextual and ‘difficult’ aspects of the Bible need to be explored. Younger kids like good stories well told, and the Bible can provide those as well – lots of the OT in particular looks very much like oral stories connected together anyway – but teenagers need challenges and controversy and opportunities to push the boundaries of what they believe and why they believe it. Not to mention discovering that the world won’t end if they disagree with an authority figure within the church.

    • Oh man, I totally agree. The “teens years” are often wasted on dating and self esteem talks over and over and over again. Yes, those are important things, but they rarely dive into Scripture. (Also, not all of us get involved with the dating scene until after high school.)

      My biggest disappointment with sunday school and youth group as a teen was being treated like I was not smart enough to get into the tough parts of the Bible and tackle difficult theology. I met very few people that would actually treat me a person worth dialoguing with a rather than an ignorant inferior.

      I am getting pushed now but in the context of the classroom. I craved this sort of challenge back in middle school and high school…better late than never, I suppose!

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