My Kids Aren’t in Sunday School

My Kids Aren’t in Sunday School July 25, 2012

In thinking about Michael’s post yesterday, I was imagining what a difference it makes to my own children that they don’t go to Sunday school. They really never have. And I wonder, is that helping them or hurting them?

Growing up, I went to Sunday school, just about every week. I have some good memories of that, and I was raised in a moderate, centrist, thoughtful church. Nevertheless, it’s the very theology that I was taught in Sunday school from which I’ve had to disabuse myself for years now. At HBC, Bo offhandedly mentions this in a post,

There seems to be a recurring problem that is inherent to the traditional view – it is tough to get around the fact that the short story is a violent one.

What I call the “Short Story” goes like this: A short time ago (say 10,000 years) God created the world in a short period of time (6 days) and He (always ‘he’) will come back shortly (any day now) and set things right.

The short story comes from an elementary reading of both the first book and last book of the Bible that is unaware of the two different genres they were written in. It is a violent reading because (in English) it makes it look like God does what ever God wants – or shall we say – whatever God wills. God acts both unilaterally and coercively to bring about what God desires.

As a process theologian, Bo goes some places I don’t, but he makes a good point. The overarching story in which the entire biblical narrative is couched in even the most moderate Sunday school curricula is one that I find irrational and even dangerous.

For my own kids, they go to Solomon’s Porch one week (with Courtney and me) and Catholic mass the next (with their mom). In both cases, they sit in the adult worship environment — while there are Sunday school options at both churches, my children choose not to go. And in neither congregation is Sunday school the de facto choice that it was in my youth.

At Solomon’s Porch, Doug is wont to say that the Bible isn’t developmentally appropriate for children, and I tend to agree. On the other hand, I can imagine the Israelites sitting around campfires and telling their children the stories of their ancestors. I don’t want to shield my children from the raw honesty and humanity of these stories.

But neither do I want someone else — i.e., a Sunday school teacher — interpreting the stories of the Bible for my children. I want to do that myself. Sadly, I don’t do it enough.

Do your kids go to Sunday school? Has that been good or bad?

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  • Joshua

    So you would rather be the one teaching your children hegelianism?

  • Have you considered volunteering to teach your children and the children of others? I am sure your church would be delighted for you to serve.

  • Our kids have maybe gone to sunday school classes a handful of times – sometimes I have to deal with weird questions after too. It is only when we visit other churches really. I have them in a VBS this week where my oldest, the troublemaker, is quite a handful: Her response to God loves you was Cthulhu loves you too, in a sandwich. (A bumper sticker we saw one day and had a good laugh about). She also decided not to bring a bible but a sci-fi eco-disaster novel The Swarm (she’s 11 and reading that, I’m pretty proud). She has gotten in trouble for not singing and dancing to songs – to which I told her she should only sing worship songs she means. But she gave the facilitators a hard time for using styrofoam and giving them sugary treats instead a healthy snacks. Did I say I was proud yet?

    There are lots of times we feel bad that we have not provided a traditional Christian environment for our kids. I can relate to not telling the stories enough. But we are open about our faith lives (we are on the charismatic end of the spectrum) and we do read scripture together during advent and lent.

    Some of this comes from being forced to go to Sunday school as a kid (I was the kid who drew pentagrams on the chalk board before everyone else arrived, just to see what would happen) and for many years I wanted nothing to do with Christians or Christianity. But I do think that there was good in there too, after all I did return to the faith and have been in pastoral ministry for most of my 25+ years of adult Christianity.

    One of these years I’m bound to work in a more traditional church setting and I’ll struggle with whether or not my kids will ‘have’ to go to Sunday School. They are more used to adult worship settings anyway.

  • jc

    I can see your argument, and i think it’s fine for the kids to sit in the adult services (at a certain age).

    But I think if you knew and trusted the Sunday School teacher, and was aware of what they were being taught, it would solve some of the concerns you express.

  • Tom

    This is a tough subject for me. My wife is the FT children’s ministry program at our church. We have taught Sunday School together. I don’t remember ever teaching a literal interpretation of Genesis. Or going anywhere near Revelation. Most of the teaching was telling the stories in the Bible with little theological explanation if any. Which does trouble me when the Bible is reduced to a storybook. I think that Sunday school provides the opportunity to children to socialize within the life of the church. And I doubt that years later children retain much of what they are taught. I agree that the curriculum needs changed, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

  • Will

    My kids do go to our Sunday School; however, it is different in that it is an instructional liturgy. One of the priests is vested and walks the children through the same Book of Common Prayer liturgy that the adults use. We just explain why things are done the way they are and help children to understand so that they can partipate intentionally in the adult service when their parents want them to (which mine do on occasion).

  • Dave Burkum

    I have three adult children who attended Sunday School classes and children’s programs for years. As pastor’s kids, they got in way more than their fair share of “Bible lessons.” I don’t think the violence or the developmentally inappropriateness of biblical literature hurt them at all. It was the dumbing down, over-simplification, and irrational pat answers that came back to bite them as adults.

    Turning biblical narrative into children’s stories and bible people into heroes is a big problem. When something is violent, or a person is something much less than admirable, it would be much better for kids to hear us say, “I’m not sure you’re old enough to hear that story yet.” Or maybe, “That person or that story is really to understand. Even the grown-ups in our church don’t know what that’s about.”

    Have you ever heard the Christopher Hitchens account of how it was in a Sunday School class as a child that he decided to reject the bible and Christianity because of the silly things his teacher was saying?

    I don’t think the Bible or Sunday School are the problem, but rather the weakness and failings of Sunday School teachers. Enculturation and indoctrination seem to be the “Christian Education” norm, rather than fostering discovery, nurtuing questions, and helping kids develop a seeker’s heart. At Sunday School, we tend to give them pat answers to questions they aren’t asking instead of helping them become ready to ask and grapple with the questions whenever they actually and naturally arise.

  • Dave Burkum

    Paragraph 2 – “really hard to understand”

  • Charles

    I’ve been in the church my whole life, 68-years. It’s been in the last 5 or 6 years that I’ve finally identified the angst I’ve carried with me all these years. Here it is: Most Christian churches base their theology, and therefore their stories they tell the children, on some form of atonement theology. In my view that is a huge FAIL. I’ve had to restructure my beliefs completely to rid myself of what the church wanted me to believe about Jesus and his message to humanity. Independent study of other points of view and church history points to a very different message than sacrificial/substitutional atonement. Many (most?) seminary grads will tell you how the church spins the message of scripture. The result is, if you want to earn a living in the church you push their message.

    So, good on ya, Tony! Smart move! I wish I had done the same with my kids.

  • Sunday School is near and dear to my heart. However, I think I understand what you are saying, Tony. I’m a baby boomer and was fortunate to have grown up in a main line Methodist Church. We really didn’t hear much about the atonement doctrine. Religion seemed all about love and kindness. We lacked the strong sense of worship that is present in the evangelical churches. It would be wonderful to find a church that ardently worships God, yet allows people to question scripture and doctrine.

  • Ivy Beckwith

    In the large scope of things I totally agree with Tony. However, as I am wont to do I disagree with Doug. While I don’t think the Bible was put together with children in mind – I don’t think we should shy away from ( and I’ll couch my language a little here) telling most Bible stories to children. Tell them the stories (don’t theologize about them), simply tell them and let the kids figure out what the stories mean for them in their particular contexts and developmental levels. Since I’ve started doing this with children – I’ve been amazed at the insights I’ve gained from them about Bible stories. Personally (and those of you reading this who know me will not be surprised) I would do away with age graded, age specific Sunday School as we know it today and figure out something that was more pan-generational and worship and story based. Thanks, Tony, for keeping this conversation alive.

  • It sounds like the home-school argument. If you’ve got the time, talent, and motivation to give your kids a good education, probably you can give them a better one than the existing institution will. But: hardly any parents do, including many who try. And: your kids are going to miss the social interactions, including chewing on the material as well as heathy peer-group formation. And: the community is going to miss the energy you as a concerned adult would be putting into the program.

    As I was saying yesterday, if the kids are not being treated as full-value members of the Congregation, with a need for faith development and the capacity to wrestle with real problems, that should be a problem for anybody who thinks the church deserves a future. Are you saying that Solomon’s Porch, for God’s sake, can’t be trusted to find/supervise qualified, energetic, engaged youth ministers, professional or otherwise?

  • Curtis

    I think the issue shifts as children get older. Sure, a lot of what passes for “theology” in traditional, elementary school Sunday School is questionable, at best. Many parents, and churches, seem to view elementary-school-age Sunday School as a time to keep kids busy and teach them how to play nice with others, while their parents do other things. The fact that they are introduced to bad, maybe even harmful theology, seems to be an unfortunate side-effect at times, and maybe just avoiding elementary-school-age Sunday School solves that whole issue.

    But there comes a point, that my family is now faces, when the kids are approaching adolescence, and are both mentally and emotionally capable of “big kid” theology. They are at an age where they need to start forming their own personal faith, as well as develop healthy relationships with pre-teens, teens, and adults outside of their core family. This is an age when many Christian traditions do Confirmation.

    Even for a child that skipped elementary Sunday School, I think a healthy Confirmation experience, in some form, even if it is not called that, is essential in growing into a healthy young adult. It is something more than just going to Sunday adult worship with the family.

    If you skip Sunday School for your kids, what are your plans for a healthy Confirmation or other coming-of-age experience for them.

    • Curtis, what worries me is the theological framework that’s given to even the youngest kids. That, it seems to me, is the most difficult to get rid of as one gets older.

      • Dan Hauge

        Would you say this is even true at Solomon’s Porch? You say above that your kids simply choose not to go, which is fine–I don’t think there’s anything ‘sacred’ or required about having kids in Sunday School. But everything I’ve gathered about Doug and Solomon’s Porch gave me the impression that they wouldn’t be stuck in the particular framework you object to–so it kind of surprises me that you seem just as concerned there.

        • Yeah, I think that at SP, the little kids primarily play. The older kids do have teaching, but I’m not tuned in to what it is.

          • Carla

            If I may, that’s not entirely accurate. There’s actually a well-thought-out plan for the kids at SP. Several years ago, a group of folks got together and created what amounts to an 8-year plan to take kids through the Bible during their time in the SP kids’ “program.” That group chose stories from the Bible that they felt were the touchpoints for faith development and built the structure around that. It starts with the preschoolers and ends with the 5th graders. In fact, this spring, they reached the end of the 8-year-cycle and will start over again with Genesis in the fall. That means my 11-year-old has heard almost 100 Bible stories in his time there.

            There’s a story for each month and the kids explore that story in four different ways (one each week of the month)–through narrative (reading the story and talking about its significance), through some kind of service learning, through art and music, and, (I think) through some sort of physical/play experience. It’s very Beckwithian 🙂

            The whole thing is still a work in progress, like most of what happens at SP. Some weeks my kids are all in and some weeks they aren’t. But I appreciate the efforts to break away from the issues Tony’s concerned about. It’s not perfect and it’s not for everyone, but it fits with who we are and who we hope our kids are becoming.

  • Jodi

    I was the kid who was forced to go to Sunday School but starting in 3rd grade, started getting kicked out of Sunday School on a regular basis because I asked “inappropriate” questions. I clearly remember that the fist such question was why creation & evolution couldn’t both be true. I explained that I saw things evolving on our farm & in our small town (like the trees kept growing), so why assume that only 1 or the other could be true? Let’s just say that I spent a lot of time in trouble & found my “time outs” being supervised by the older ladies making snacks in the kitchen to be much more formative & life-giving.

  • Jenni

    As a Children’s Ministry professional I personally dislike the concept of traditional Sunday School. An antiquated program that separates children from the worshiping community and waters down the biblical narrative into bit size pieces. So much of the curriculum that is published for young children whitewashes the Gospel message or gives it a happily ever after spin. Not much is readily available that helps nurture children in their faith formation.

    I believe faith formation (that is religious/biblical/theological education) is experienced in the home, daily life with the family, worshiping together as the family of God. It is not a responsibility that a parent can assign to anyone else. Children learn best from what they see and experience – if you want your child to have a strong faith, an understanding of the biblical narrative, a relationship with Jesus…show them how!

  • Ircel Harrison

    One of my greatest memories is being in a hotel room with my Dad when I was 3 or 4 years old. He entertained a restless preschooler by telling Bible stories–Joseph, Moses, etc. The thing was he made it interesting and I felt like these were real people. My Dad was not highly educated, but he knew the stories and they meant a lot to him, so he communicated them with love and enthusiasm.

  • Paul D.

    I feel like it has taken me a lifetime to undo the terrible theology that was drummed into me in Sunday school.

  • Erin

    How old are your children?

  • Brady B.

    Thanks for the insight and thoughts. I often wonder what I will have to undo from Sunday School for my kids. I wonder if what is being caught, another significant adult (my church is around 250) that they see each week, that knows their name, is excited to see them when they come, and loves the Lord, is the critical issue.

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  • Maggie

    I wonder what terrible theology everyone is getting taught in Sunday School? My goodness. We certainly don’t wash things over in our curriculum. The kids learn that life is hard, there is choices to be made, we all make mistakes, but God is good. He helps us, loves us through it, supports us, and we support each other.

    If there is no atonement theology, there is no need for church at all or the Bible, so the conversation would be a mute point.

    Evolution takes as much faith if not more than Christianity. I can’t believe how much time I wasted in college learning names groups of evolved things that supposedly evolved from each other. There are so many gaps it’s pathetic. It’s not science, it’s conjecture. It’s a bunch of hogwash. It would be different if it actually made sense or was provable, but it isn’t any more than Christianity.

    At least Christianity also offers hope for mankind, purpose for living, and how to deal with hurt, pain, loss, and death. Science does not help with the answers to the big question.

    Our Sunday School does not replace worship or preaching time with adults (Children’s church is offered every other week for those who want to utilize it). Good questions. I just can’t imagine suffering harm from Sunday School.

    It was about people who loves me, believed in me, saw good in me, and helped me realize the Bible was something to be investigated, treasured, and God was to be honored. It added great value to my life. It’s just something we do as a family, like eating, cleaning house, and taking care of the yard. You could also say those activities are “forced”, but they are just what our family does for health. I don’t hear any adult saying, “Well, my family forced me eat. I’m still scarred to this day.” LOL Same with any of the other activities. There are things we do as a family. They can learn, think, critique, and explore…but, they need to learn to also be respectful, add meaningfully to discussions, and value the time and opinion of others.