As a Sunday school coordinator, and as our session is ending, I’ve been thinking a lot about what our students have learned this year.
We studied parables, Old Testament prophecies, the significance of the Passover, and The Great Commission. I expected them to learn these things, and I’m glad they did. But as I observed, taught, and listened, I realize they also learned some lessons that we didn’t plan, lessons that might end up hurting them – and the church – in the end…
1. Church is where having the right answer is the right answer. “Boys and girls, can anyone tell me what Jesus meant by the phrase “The Kingdom of God”? One boy was chosen among the many hand-raisers. “Heaven?” he asked. And before the teacher could respond, other hands shot up, this time with cries of “Ooo!” “Ooo-Ooo!” announcing his missed mark. The boy’s shoulders slouched and his face blushed. “No, not exactly,” the teacher sing-songed while scanning for another contestant. The game went on, the teacher posing the questions, and the kids clamoring to be the chosen one, the right one, the smart one… And after several months of this game, they learned that church is way better for people with all the answers.
Notes for next year: Find a way for the kids to be motivated to ask more questions than they answer. Structure the time so that Scripture is the expert, not the hand-raiser or even the teacher. Reward kids who trust God in the midst of unanswered questions and doubt. Plan for less “school” and more Sunday sabbath… training them to rest in the One who’s the answer to every question.
2. How I look matters… a lot. It’s the most over-used ice-breaker in Sunday schools everywhere: “Hi Suzie! Oh… I love your hair!” “Molly! What pretty earrings!” Oh, Ethan, nice tie!” We teach this with so much consistency, that by the time kids, especially girls, are in fourth grade, they’d rather skip church than wear something unattractive. We made it quite clear that looking good is a sure-fire way to get noticed and praised.
Notes for next year: Start paying more attention to character traits than outfits. Compliment students for their acts of bravery, kindness, thoughtfulness, and self-control. Make sure each kid knows that we are paying close attention to what’s inside them – and we are a safe place for whatever is found there.
3. The church keeps score just like the rest of the world. How many Bible verses did you memorize? How fast can you find the books of the Bible? Who can say the Ten Commandments? Who prays before meals? Who reads their Bible every day? We’ve trained generations of church-goers to find their identity in how they compare to others. We teach them to rank themselves -and each other- high or low, and we wonder why the hardest lesson of the year is the one where we are to teach of God’s Grace.
Notes for next year: It’s our job to transfer information, and it’s motivating to be challenged and set goals, but why the public comparison? I’m all for healthy competition, but let’s strive to teach the kids that their identity is found in the gospel. And let’s teach them to develop spiritual disciplines as a means to a healthy life, not the way to their identity, fulfillment, or praise.
4. Praying is for when I’m in trouble. A few Sundays ago, a student saw another praying quietly with a teacher. “Is he in trouble?” she asked. I first scoffed at her question, but then realized it was a logical one. We’ve trained generations to think that such serious prayer is a source of shame. No wonder we adults must hit rock bottom before we stumble into the prayer rooms at church.
Notes for next year: Pray more often and for more reasons. Pull small groups aside to praise God and intercede for others in need. Model prayers of humility and confession so kids learn that prayer is not to change people or circumstances, but to enter into a relationship with God.
5. Just smile and wave… and everything will be fine. We, as Sunday school teachers, bought into the lie that “loving the kids” means tolerating all behavior. Bad Boy Billy learns that the church is a place with no accountability or boundaries. He learns that the church is a place without negative consequences and where people turn their heads away from awkward, though obvious, problems. We hesitate to talk to parents about behavior issues because we’re afraid Billy and his parents will think we don’t love them.
Notes for next year: Jesus Himself spoke hard truth and allowed unpleasant consequences. We need to train teachers to effectively and graciously partner with parents for the sake of the child. Billy and his parents need the truth wrapped in love… only then can they really understand the gospel.
It’s been a big year of learning… just like the many previous years. We didn’t mean to teach these things to our students, we just followed curriculum and/or tradition. We simply taught them what we know best.
But if we invest in today’s generation, things can change for tomorrow. One Sunday school lesson at a time.
May they learn that the church is a sanctuary for the doubting, broken, and weak.
May they learn that the church is a place where high truth meets high grace.
May they learn in a church that truly reflects the character of God.
Praise God that His mercies are new each morning, and each Sunday school session.