Sunday school has been a fixture of American Christianity for many years. Since its birth during Great Britain’s industrial revolution, Sunday School has become about as sacred as pews and stained glass. In spite of its importance and high regard, we would do well to rethink the importance and place of Sunday School in today’s church.
Is Sunday School Teaching Our Kids Real Faith?
Where We’re Going in This Article
My purpose in this article is not to bash Sunday School. There’s no good in haranguing against something, especially something as undeniably positive as Sunday School! Sunday School is a practice of the Christian church that has been around for a long time, and has been used of God for immeasurable good. Millions of children have been exposed to the truth, memorized verses, sung praises, and learned to love Jesus — all in Sunday school.
Sunday school doesn’t need to be bashed.
My purpose, rather, is to help us think carefully about some of the institutions and practices that we hold so dear. Oftentimes, the things we do on in our churches are just a matter of convention — it’s the way they’ve always been done. In order to stay fresh and maintain forward momentum, we need to look carefully at our ministries to see if they align with our purpose and mission in the world today. Doing so will lead to improvement.
Where we’re going in this article is to Sunday school. We’re going to see how we can improve.
Let’s Visit Sunday School
A typical Sunday school class in one of America’s 250,000 Christian churches would look something like this.
On Sunday morning, a group of kids comes into a classroom. With child-sized chairs or desks, the kids find their place. A cheerful teacher, usually a lady, greets the children as they come in. Other adults may include an assistant or two. Class begins with a word of prayer, and then a few songs. Motion songs are best!
After a few songs, it’s lesson time. Many teachers use flannelgraph or other colorful visuals to help maintain attention and to illustrate the story. Usually, the story is from the Bible — an action-packed story, applied to young lives. Themes of obedience to parents and good behavior in school are often emphasized, as is the plan of salvation.
Many Sunday school classes then have a craft time, snack time, and/or game time. Usually, the kids have been waiting eagerly for these events, and they provide a great opportunity to get the wiggles out. When Sunday school is over, it’s candy time. Kids line up at the door, crafts in hand, and receive a dum-dum sucker or tootsie roll as they rejoin their parents.That’s typical, traditional, and pretty customary for thousands of churches today. Perhaps I’ve just described your church, or maybe your childhood experience. Sunday school classes just like these are contributing to the growth of God’s kingdom. Children are learning valuable truths and growing in important ways.
Where We’re Falling Short
But in some cases, our Sunday School classes aren’t accomplishing our purposes. There are some areas in which, perhaps from ignorance, we aren’t achieving what we want to. Here are some of the common areas where Sunday school can go awry.
- Sunday school teaches bits and snatches of the Bible, with no broad understanding of the Bible. To truly understand the Bible, we need more than just a few select stories. Most curriculum’s teach sequential outtakes from the Bible rather than conveying the broad sweep of the biblical narrative. The Bible is a story, not just a collection of stories. Situating these individual stories within a theological framework is important if children are to really get the meaning of the Bible as a whole.
- Sunday school teaches moralism. Oftentimes, we tell kids stories, then tell them what to do about it. Unfortunately, the application is sometimes disconnected from the story. That’s not the real problem, though. The real problem is that the application is disconnected from God’s saving grace. We cannot be good apart from God. We cannot be right apart from Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. Thus, to teach good behavior without teaching about redemption is to teach moralism. Moralism is a false and empty gospel. Moralism does not lead to regeneration. It leads to disappointment and failure. Think before you apply. Instead of driving to a “be good” application, emphasize the fact of God’s grace, man’s inability to do good, and the need for forgiveness of sins in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- Sunday school doesn’t teach the Bible at all. Most Sunday School programs are to be applauded because they at least teach the Bible in some semblance. Some Sunday school classes, however, make no effort to teach the Bible. These programs are little more than a sanctified childcare — keeping the kids happy, entertained, and fed while the grownups go to church. Admittedly, most two year-old children have a hard time focusing on a theological discourse. But any six-year old is able to understand and absorb biblical truths. Regardless of the format it takes, children should sustain some biblical intake during their time in Sunday school.
- Sunday school is too much like school. Because of the unfortunate verbiage, “school,” we sometimes turn the Sunday event into a strict educational environment. In effect, Sunday school turns into another weekday rerun of school, but with a spiritual twist. We don’t need more of the same in method or in content. Modeling “church for kids” on the modes and methods of traditional education is a skewed approach. If children are receiving more of the same it can desensitize them to the radically different content of the teaching that they are supposed to be receiving.
- Sunday school doesn’t respect the fact that kids are kids. Children have energy. They need to run around. They learn things differently. Our Sunday school activities should respect this fact. Yes, children are to be obedient, to learn to sit still, and to adhere to a set of expectations. This doesn’t discount the fact that they are children, and they are wired like children. As such, our Sunday school methods should adapt to these needs.
- Sunday school is disconnected from real life. Part of the shortcoming of many educational models is that they are very different from the real world. Sunday school, unfortunately, succumbs to this problem. Perhaps the most glaring disconnect is the age-graded approach of most Sunday school programs. Most scenarios separate children from their parents for a certain period of time. With this model, we run the risk of cultivating the idea of worship divided according to age and lifestyle. It encourages a segregation mindset in all areas of life. Leaving aside the fact that most of our churches have a pretty narrow racial, demographic makeup, we further subdivide our churches into age groups and even gender groups. Rather than adhering to New Testament principles, such practices fly in the fact of what Paul was pleading for when he wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
How to Change Sunday School
There are a few things we should do in response:
- Analyze our current Sunday school practices. Determine how your current program meets your goals, or fails to do so. Be brutal in your analysis, but respectful in your approach. Your goal is to glorify God through obedience and right worship.
- Decide what needs to change. Based on your foregoing analysis, draft a list of things that need to change. Perhaps you need to shorten class time, replace teachers, eliminate Sunday school altogether, have a “sunday school” that includes parents, incorporate a children’s service time into the main service, etc. There’s a wide variety of solutions that you could brainstorm here. But be careful. Your goal isn’t to kill sacred cows, but to carefully determine what (if anything) needs to change
- Implement your change. With the support of your leadership and church, make these changes in a careful and prayerful way.
What Not to Change
Though Sunday school may need an overhaul, there are several non-negotiables within the life of the church. Here’s what not to change…
- Teaching our children. Although “Sunday school” in its contemporary form is a somewhat modern innovation in church history, there is nothing new about teaching children. That’s what true parenting and a biblical lifestyle is all about (Deuteronomy 6:7). The church, as the God-formed community of faithful, should have a key role in this process of teaching and nurturing our children. Though it sounds cliche, our children are our future.
- Placing the Bible first. If we neglect the Bible, we lose everything. That’s the entire focus and point of teaching our children. If we don’t have the Bible, we have nothing!
- Modeling godly living. Children need to see what Christians look like . They need examples. They need to see Christ in context, lived out in the walking and talking of the people who attend church. Make sure that you are setting the example in your life and church community.
Sunday school isn’t going away, but it just might need to change. As we pursue biblical excellence in our ministry, let’s not leave Sunday school out of the equation.