Why Your Kids Can Spend 600-Plus Hours in Church and Not Get Much Out of It

Why Your Kids Can Spend 600-Plus Hours in Church and Not Get Much Out of It

The other day I was reflecting on how much time I spent in Sunday school and youth groups growing up…and how little I understood about the Christian faith by the time I left home. For some reason, I decided to calculate roughly how much time that actually was.

I scratched out the following on a piece of paper:

  • Kindergarten through 12th grade = 13 years (I went to church from the time I was a baby, but I just wanted to include the core learning years in my calculation)
  • 52 Sundays per year
  • 90% attendance rate, to allow for illnesses or being out of town

13 years of Sunday school x 52 Sundays per year x .90 attendance rate = 608 hours

608 HOURS.

And that’s not even counting the corresponding worship services…that’s just the Christian education time!

I don’t know about you, but that number made my jaw drop.

I spent more than 600 hours in church growing up, but by the time I left home, here’s all I really understood about Christianity:

People go to heaven or hell depending on whether or not they believe in Jesus. Once you accept Jesus, you are saved. Christians need to be as good as possible and not sin just to be forgiven. It’s important to tell others about Jesus so they can be saved too.

The result is that I lived the next 12 years with an incredibly blah, shallow faith. I didn’t actually lose my faith—as do more than two-thirds of other kids who grow up going to church—but it was only hanging there by a thread.

Where did those 600+ hours of Christian education go? How can it be that so many kids spend this kind of time in church and don’t leave home with much more understanding of Christianity than could be taught in a week of church camp?

I think I know the answer.

 

The Problem of Unconnected Puzzle Pieces

This is a problem of unconnected puzzle pieces.

Over the years that a child attends Sunday school, teachers vary, curricula vary, and churches vary (as families move). Kids are handed various pieces of Christianity during that time, which they collect and store internally. But unless there is a consistent, focused, goal-oriented spiritual trainer in their life—a parent—those pieces will almost certainly lie around unconnected.

Here’s why.

 

1. Having a bunch of puzzle pieces doesn’t necessarily mean you know what the completed puzzle is supposed to look like.

Imagine that someone handed you all the pieces to complete a 5000-piece puzzle but didn’t give you the box top picture to see how they all fit together. You’d be able to connect a few pieces here and there, but you’d face a lot of difficulty because you wouldn’t know what picture you’re working toward.

Kids collect “puzzle pieces” of Christianity over the years in Sunday school, usually in the form of individual Bible stories. A piece might be the story of Moses at the burning bush, Joseph with his multi-colored coat, or any one of Jesus’ miracles. Most kids who have spent hundreds of hours at church can describe these individual puzzle pieces quite well.

That’s not the problem.

The problem is that they don’t know how those pieces fit together into a meaningful, complete picture of salvation history. In other words, why on Earth should they care to learn that God spoke to Moses in a burning bush? Could anything seem more disconnected from a kid’s reality in the 21st century? After my 600+ hours in Sunday school, I certainly couldn’t have explained the connection between this event and the Exodus, why the Exodus mattered, what that had to with Jesus, and why that’s relevant to my faith today.

It was just an isolated piece of the puzzle of Christianity.

And isolated pieces do not join themselves together to make a beautiful picture.

As parents, we can’t expect that the pieces our kids pick up at church will fall into obvious places, even after 600+ hours. It is our responsibility, and our responsibility only, to be the intentional hand that guides these pieces into place on a bigger picture over time.

 

2. Having a bunch of puzzle pieces doesn’t necessarily mean those pieces will create a picture with meaningful complexity.

When kids first start doing puzzles, those puzzles usually have just 12 giant pieces. They make a picture, but a very simple one–nothing like the artistic complexity of one with 1000 pieces or more.

In Sunday school, kids tend to be continually handed the same pieces over and over: individual Bible stories, help with building Godly character, and some basic life lessons.

If this is effectively the extent of a child’s spiritual training, skeptics will eventually point out that their faith is equivalent in complexity to a toddler’s 12-piece puzzle.  Sunday school tends to be focused on the basics, but kids need so much more than basics today given the challenges they are sure to encounter.

As parents, we are responsible for helping our kids develop a faith with a meaningful level of complexity. The 30 conversations in my book, Talking with Your Kids about God, are critical for kids to understand today, yet very few of those questions would even be touched on in a Sunday school class. The level of spiritual depth kids need to stand strong in a secular world simply won’t come from the typical Sunday school curriculum.

 

3. Having a bunch of puzzle pieces doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll know what to do with the puzzle even if you finish it.

When my kids finish puzzles, they want to leave them out for a while to display their work. Their puzzles linger in the corner of the room until I can’t stand it anymore and tell them they’ve enjoyed the puzzles “long enough.” We don’t know what else to do with them other than put them away.

Similarly, when I left home with 600+ hours of church tucked safely under my belt, I truly didn’t know what to do with my faith, other than continue to wear the Christian label and bide my time as a good person until I was zapped up to heaven someday. Those hundreds of hours hadn’t taught me what it means to actually see all of life differently than someone who didn’t believe in Jesus; I had no idea what it meant to have a Christian worldview.

As parents, we are responsible for placing the picture into a real-world context for our kids. 600+ hours of Sunday school may never directly answer questions like, “How does the fact we are created in the image of God impact our view of the sanctity of life?” “Why is it sometimes the most loving action to tell people truth they don’t want to hear?” or “How can we make career decisions that glorify God?” Parents must be proactive in helping kids know what to do with their puzzle of faith. Otherwise, it will likely be pushed to the corner of their life, where it will eventually be dismantled and put away for good.

 

Don’t leave your kids “puzzled” by outsourcing their faith to church. Whether they spend 600 or 6,000 hours in Sunday school, there’s simply no replacement for you.

10 Comments

  1. Janelle Knutson on February 10, 2016 at 9:53 AM

    I loved this article! It is easy for parents to pass off their responsibility to the “professionals” at church when parents are crucial in providing a complete Christian worldview through daily interaction with their kids. I pre-ordered your book and can’t wait to read it!



  2. Kathleen on February 10, 2016 at 11:03 AM

    Great article! We have like minds- exactly why I wrote “Teaching Kids Authentic Worship”! Keep preachin’ girl!!



  3. Lanny kilgore on February 10, 2016 at 2:25 PM

    Until recently the bible was not generally viewed or taught as a complete story to any church car young or old . Thankfully this is been corrected with new curriculum and insight into the importance of viewing the Bible as a complete narrative. Thanks for your article it makes a valid and well needed point .



  4. Barbara Pappad on February 11, 2016 at 11:32 AM

    Very good article. Christian preachers, parents, teachers, godparents: everything we teach about Holy Tradition (which includes the Bible) should point to salvation through Jesus Christ in its explanation, else we are just giving pieces rather than the whole picture of God’s Divine Plan for us.



  5. Sue Williams on March 26, 2016 at 5:43 PM

    Two of the best kids’ teaching series I have seen that put it all together are the MOPS (Moms of PreSchoolers) 4-5 year old curriculum and Scripture Union’s Big Picture curriculum. I taught the MOPS class and if it is done according to the book, these kids can follow the whole theme from Adam through Moses and beyond because of the built-in review. The Big Picture has great pictures that help them tie it all together, check it out http://www.scriptureunion.org. It is especially geared to non-churched kids as an initial exposure to the main stories and how they fit together.



  6. […] I wrote in my post, Why Your Kids Can Spend 600-Plus Hours in Church and Not Get Much Out of It, we have to remember that over the years a child attends Sunday school, teachers vary, curricula […]



  7. Thomas on April 14, 2017 at 2:18 PM

    I’ve preached very similar to this when I was a youth pastor. By comparison, using the same concept of 6 hours/day, 162 days per year (90% attendance) for 12 years is about 12,000 hours in the school system. This is staggering compared to the 600 spent in church. By comparison, a child spends as much time in their first 100 days of school as they will in church during their primary and secondary education years. Family discipleship is a must, and the majority of Christian parents have abandoned such practices. Praise God for those families who are holding the line.



  8. Ellen on June 18, 2017 at 9:31 AM

    The youth years that I have spent in a church were pretty much pushed on me. I never felt more discouraged in my life than when I was spending time in this particular church. People in the church would talk a lot, but in ways that I could not connect with, and a tone that made me uninterested. When I was at this church, I spend an hour at church, an hour or two at Sunday school, and one or two hours at confirmation class. There were times that I didn’t go to church on some weeks. When that would happen, I would get a lot of guff from people for not being there. But when I was there, I never felt invigorated, and I was not happy. Whenever people in the congregation would explain something, they would act like I am crazy for not knowing that in the first place. For me to learn and understand, I cannot have some shoving it in my face, rushing me, or shouting at me because I am not getting it at their pace or level.

    Another part that I felt was a problem is going to Youth Groups once or more every week with no relevance or benefit. Why would I go to a church youth group if they don’t carry the Christian real values that a church goer should have? Why would I spend every week with people of my peers who are not caring, friendly or show no interest me as a person. I felt that when I went to youth groups that I would have been better off spending my time doing something else that was more beneficial. I think that this is important to note because some parents have said that the purpose of youth group is to build relationships more than it is about living a faith or practicing stewardship. I guess many parents feel that if they push their children into gong to youth groups that everything will fall into place without monitoring it. A parent has a job not only to raise their children in a faith, but to also make sure that the church environment is not defeating it.

    The only thing that I got out of this church is if you are baptized and confirmed in the name of Jesus Christ, you are saved. Period. A lot of the people in the congregation have even said and acted like it doesn’t matter if you sin because you are automatically forgiven in Jesus’ name. This church also did not value work that much. I am sure that a lot of them have actual jobs, but when it comes to me or someone else having a job that does require working on Sundays, why would it be any less important or valuable. I do not believe that it is realistic for any church to judge or disapprove of someone who works on Sundays. The next time anyone goes somewhere on a Sunday, ask yourself how it is possible to be served as a patron on Sunday.



  9. […] I wrote in my post, Why Your Kids Can Spend 600-Plus Hours in Church and Not Get Much Out of It, we have to remember that over the years a child attends Sunday school, teachers vary, curricula […]



  10. […] We didn’t know the term for it at the time, but we had been attending a “progressive” Christian church (this is not to say that all Presbyterian churches are progressive in their teaching). I knew the pastor was preaching something unbiblical, but I couldn’t have begun to articulate why—even though I had grown up in a Christian home and had spent hundreds of hours in church. […]