As all the studies started coming out in the last decade on how at least two-thirds of young adults are turning away from Christianity, a lot of attention started turning toward high schoolers. That attention is rightly placed, given that high school-age kids need strong spiritual preparation for the college world they’re approaching.
Some attention has also been given to middle school-age kids. This is critical, as studies have also shown that much of a child’s spiritual formation is set by age 13 and these kids need a far more robust spiritual training than they’ve traditionally received.
Meanwhile, most elementary-age children are still coloring pictures of Noah’s ark. Over and over again.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. But not a big one. There seems to be a huge gulf between the level of spiritual training elementary-age kids are typically getting on Sunday mornings and the level they need for today’s world. It seems that either no one thinks they’re capable of more, or no one thinks more is necessary.
I firmly believe kids this age are capable of much more, and that much more is hugely necessary.
If I had the ear of every person in charge of a church’s elementary Sunday school, these are the five changes I would suggest most urgently need to be made.
1. Shift from a focus on teaching individual stories to teaching the significance of those stories in the big story.
After going to church for 18 years, my understanding of the Bible when I left home was basically a loosely-knit tapestry of popular stories. God created the world, Noah built an ark, Jonah was swallowed by a whale, Daniel was in a lion’s den, and Jesus was born, performed miracles, died for our sins, and came back to life.
After 18 years in church, this was pretty much all I had down.
I couldn’t have told you one thing about how it all fit together. The Bible as an overall story of salvation history? Covenants, Promised Land, divided kingdom, exile, promised Messiah, fulfilled prophecies? Huh?
I see this playing out exactly the same way in my kids’ Sunday school. They learn the individual stories in the Bible, but there is zero emphasis on how they all fit together as part of a big picture.
Why does it matter? In the same study that I referenced in last week’s post, researchers found this lack of connected understanding was one of the most significant reasons that college-age atheists had left Christianity. They “heard plenty of messages encouraging ‘social justice,’ community involvement, and ‘being good,’ but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.”
Sunday schools need to better connect the dots…starting at an early age.
2. Stop treating important topics like simple facts and start spending time on in-depth understanding.
“Jesus died for my sins.”
That was like a mantra I learned throughout childhood. It was repeated so many times that I never even questioned what it meant. I just knew that He did, like I knew that 5 + 5 = 10. It was a fact.
A fact I had no understanding of until I was an adult, even though I had heard it a million times.
Sunday schools need to dig much deeper to give kids the understanding they need. What would that look like for elementary-age kids? Here are some key points we’ve talked about with our 6-year-olds as one example:
- What is sin? This should go way beyond “bad things I do.” This should include a discussion of why sin only exists if God exists (God is the Law Giver whose moral laws we are breaking), how we know what those laws are (from our conscience and from the Bible), and how our moral conscience is actually a piece of evidence for God’s existence.
- Why would God need to punish people for sin? This should be a discussion of what it means for God to be both loving and just.
- What is God’s penalty for sin? This question should explore the meaning of Romans 6:23 (the “wages of sin” is death).
- Why was Jesus’ sacrifice necessary for us to be forgiven? This should be a discussion of how God was able to justly forgive us by paying our penalty Himself (which, as the offended party, He was uniquely able to do).
Some other important “facts” that need deeper discussion include the nature of miracles (their purpose and possibility) and that Jesus rose from the dead (why we should believe that when we don’t see anyone else coming back to life).
3. Encourage an active dialogue on the questions kids have.
Sunday school is almost always a passive learning experience—information being directed at the kids. Obviously, that’s a hugely critical component of learning (see the last two points). But what about addressing the questions kids already have?
The most spiritually productive times we have with our kids are the nights when we “open the floor” to their questions. Kids have tons of questions if you take the time to let them ask. Here are some recent ones our kids have raised:
- Why did God create the Garden of Eden if He knew Adam and Eve would disobey?
- Why doesn’t the Bible tell us more about what we want to know?
- If we can’t see or hear God, how are we supposed to have a “friendship” with him?
- How can God exist with no beginning or end?
- How do I know what to say to God when I pray?
- Why is free will so important to God?
- Why did Jesus pray to God if He was God?
- Why was Jesus baptized if He was without sin?
If these are the kinds of questions raised by 6-year-olds, the typical Sunday school experience comes nowhere near engaging on what they’re thinking about.
Every Sunday school should have a morning regularly set aside for kids’ questions, or allocate time each week to answer one question from the class.
4. Start directly addressing what nonbelievers believe.
With an increase in the number of atheist parents today, kids are encountering atheist peers earlier than ever. Nearly all of my friends’ elementary-age kids have had classmates comment to them that “there is no God” or that they “believe in science instead of God.” My kids go to a private Christian school, and a girl in the other Kindergarten class told them she doesn’t believe in God because her dad doesn’t (clearly the mom enrolled her in school)!
Sunday schools should actively acknowledge this and help kids understand why there is good reason to believe that God exists, that Jesus was God, and that Jesus rose from the dead. With more and more kids being surrounded by nonbelieving family members and classmates, it can’t be taken as a given anymore that all kids need is a good understanding of Bible stories.
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” is a beautiful song for young hearts, but those young hearts need so much more for the day when their 7-year-old atheist friend tells them the Bible is a stupid book and God doesn’t exist.
(Need help understanding the challenges nonbelievers pose to Christians today? Check out my new book, Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith.)
5. Simultaneously equip the parents.
I firmly believe that it is first and foremost the parents’ responsibility to provide the spiritual training for their kids. I don’t suggest any of this as a replacement for the home. But given that most parents don’t actively take on that role as they should, Sunday schools could make a giant impact by taking the lead on better equipping young hearts and minds for the specific pressures they will face today.
As part of that lead role, they should work to simultaneously equip the parents—to educate them on the most significant faith challenges today, answers to those challenges, and how to better develop their kids’ spiritual life at home. It’s my deepest desire and most earnest prayer that my book might be a starting point for some churches to do just that.
Clearly, not all Sunday schools are the same. I’d love to hear your experiences. What would you add here?