I Wonder If Sunday School Is Destroying Our Kids

Several years ago I met with a woman distraught by her son’s rejection of Christianity.

She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”

She wondered why he rejected Christianity.

I wondered why it took him so long.

The regression of the gospel and the loss of Christianity

In Marks of the Messenger, Mack Stiles describes how the gospel is lost through generational teaching:

  1. The gospel is Accepted –>
  2. The gospel is Assumed –>
  3. The gospel is Confused –>
  4. The gospel is Lost

Stiles continues, “For any generation to lose the gospel is tragic. But the generation that assumes the gospel is … most responsible for the loss of the gospel” (emphasis added).

We are that generation. We assume—and therefore destroy—the gospel message.

Here is how we destroy the gospel message

Look at almost any Sunday school curriculum. You’ll find:

  • Abraham was faithful, and God made him the father of a nation. So be faithful like Abraham.
  • Joseph was a good little boy (unlike his “bad” brothers), and God made him Prime Minister of Egypt. So be good like Joseph.
  • David had a pure heart (unlike his brothers), and God made him King of Israel. So have a pure heart like David.
  • Esther was an obedient girl. God made her Queen of Persia and she saved God’s people. So be obedient like Esther.
  • Finally, if we fail to be good, Jesus will forgive us (a “P.S.” tacked onto the end).

What’s so bad about these Sunday school lessons?

Nothing really. Except that they lie about God, they lie about these “heroes of the faith,” they lie about the Bible, and they lie about the gospel. Apart from that, they are pretty good. Oh, they also create “younger brother” rebels and “older brother” Pharisees.

Is the gospel our central theme, or is it a “PS” tacked onto the end?

The gospel storyline

The message of the gospel—the entire storyline of scripture—is God’s loving pursuit of people who run from him as fast as they can and who live lives unworthy of his love.

That’s why it’s called grace.

But our Sunday school lessons teach us to be good little boys and girls, and God will love us and use us. It’s the total opposite of the gospel. It’s a counterfeit of the worse kind.

The inside out of the gospel

The wonder of the gospel is not the love of the beautiful; it’s when Beauty kisses the Beast.

The Beast isn’t loved because he has changed; the Beast is changed when he is loved. Joy doesn’t come when he’s loved for his beauty; joy overwhelms him when he is loved in his hideousness.

If the Beast were loved for his beauty, it would be an unbearable burden. Any day he might be scarred, and soon he will certainly be a wrinkled old man.

So why do we burden our children with the unbearable load of “being good little boys and girls like the heroes in the Bible”? We wouldn’t load a pack mule with the burdens we place on our children.

Let me show you a better way

Let’s teach the wonder of the gospel. Let’s show our kids that God loves us … simply because he loves us. In our beastliness. That he loves us before we are good.

That his love isn’t vague sentimentality, but it cost him his most precious treasure to turn us into his prized possession; that the storyline of the Bible is God’s Search and Rescue mission to find the dying Beast and kiss him into joyous life.

  • How Abraham was an idol worshiper and God loved him and pursued him;
  • How Joseph was a narcissistic boy and God loved him and pursued him;
  • How David was a murdering adulterer and God loved him and pursued him;
  • How Esther had sex outside of marriage with a non-believer and God loved her and pursued her.

Our heroes weren’t loved because they were good; they were good because they were loved.

We may believe in the innocence of youth, but our children know better. They see the children in the schoolyard (and they see us at home!). They don’t need the counterfeit gospel of pack-mule-moralism; they need the kiss of the Beauty.

Maybe we do too. Besides, it’s what the Bible in fact teaches.

Sam

So what do you think?

  • Are you offended at my depiction of Joseph and Esther?
  • Do you agree that our Sunday schools may be creating our worst nightmares?
  • Which do you think is the gospel, loved because we’re good or good because we’re loved?

Comment below under, What do you think?

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62 Responses to I Wonder If Sunday School Is Destroying Our Kids

  1. Hannah :) says:

    I am a children minister, and I agree with you for that the gospel is often mispresented in many curriculums. We are definitely not loved because of who we are or what we do but despite of who we are and what we do.
    The gospel is about God restoring what has gone wrong back to the right relationship with Him for His own pleasure.
    So, I would like to add something to your presentation of the heroes of faith. Although they were failures in the beginning, they were faithful people we can follow the example of their faith in God. They first had to encounter God, but they did their part of trusting God , humbling themselves before Him, and God used them for His glory. Thank you for sharing this post.

    • Hi Hannah,

      Thank you so much for you comments. I love your line, are are loved “despite of who we are and what we do.”

      I agree with what you add. They were failures but responded to God, and humbled themselves before him. Yes! Absolutely.

      Great comments. Thanks.

      Sam

  2. Hannah :) says:

    I agree with you that many children’s curriculum lessons do not present the gospel correctly, but I don’t think they always misrepresent and cause the nightmares. Some times they do present the gospel correctly but do not give the whole picture.
    Also, I see what you are trying to say about the heroes of faith and I completely agree with you that God loved us first and not because of who we are or what we do, but despite of who we are and what we do.
    However, despite of their failures, when they encountered God, they responded correctly by humbling themselves and trusting God. Their faith journey wasn’t perfect but was good example for us. Their lives show the restoration God desires and offers, in love, for us to experience in our own. Thanks for posting this! 🙂 good read

    • Hi Hannah,

      Again, I agree that the lessons don’t always give nightmares; as you know, my concern was the focus of God’s love. Do we get it because we deserve it? No. But, receiving it does create in us a more loving, humble heart.

      As you say, “Their lives show the restoration God desires and offers, in love, for us to experience in our own.” Great line.

      Sam

      • Hannah :) says:

        Sam, I’m sorry about this redundant comment. I was writing it on my ipod, and for some reason, it kept saying that the comment could not posted (the pages kept giving me an Error message, and finally I gave up). I wasn’t trying to write the same thing :/ Thank you for your patience & kind response!

        • Hi Hannah, Hey, I liked both of your comments.

          My iPad does the same thing, and I’ve commented twice (or three times !) before as well.

          By the way, I LOVE–really love–what you’ve written on your site. I’m subscribing.

          So, thanks back at you.

  3. Guy says:

    Thanks for writing that Sam.
    That is one of the best and simplest explanations I’ve heard for what happens to kids who have grown up in Christian homes where the gospel was “assumed”.
    It blew the covers off legalism too, which despite our Sunday schools teachers best motives, is exactly what kids become burdened with through the sequence for events you’re described.
    I also love your take on Beauty and the Beast. There is nothing more freeing than being loved “while we were yet still sinners” (Romans), that is to say while we are still in our “beastliness”.
    Your timing for this post was kairos for my heart, thanks so much,

    Guy

    • Hello Guy,

      Your comments are “kairos” for my heart! Thanks.

      The Beauty and the Beast metaphor came to me just as I was writing that paragraph. I wrote, “The wonder of the gospel is not love of the beautiful…” and then it hit me. The gospel is like when Beauty kisses the beast–in all his beastliness.

      Oh Lord, please move this truth from our heads into our hearts! We need to know you love us because you love us, before we are “good.”

      Thanks Guy,

      Sam

      • Guy says:

        Hi Sam, I posted this on my facebook page 🙂 and my pastor’s wife (who teaches sunday school at our church) replied with ‘I wonder?’ …and I realised she had gotten the idea from the title that you were saying ‘Sunday School’ is a problem, not THE WAY WE TEACH KIDS IN SUNDAY SCHOOL is a problem. Does that make sense? Just thought I’d mention the misinterpretation as you might be able to tweak the title and get less defensive responses? Just a thought.

  4. Damoln says:

    Thank Jesus it’s not “loved becaused we are good”. I would be out for sure.
    I really like this post Sam. Missy and I were just discussung how we want the kids to learn more about God and His love for us, and how conflicted we are about some of the messages delivered at Sunday school and Church.

    • Hey Damon, my blog instigator!

      Yes indeed, thank you Jesus.

      I understand the conflict we all have. We DO want our kids to be moral–we don’t want them to lie, cheat, and steal. Nobody does, believer or not.

      It’s just that we need to use another tool, other than twisting the gospel into a lie, and thereby corrupting the very thing that we all need most.

      We need to work out a system of teaching the gospel first, though, because in the end. the gospel is the only thing that will bring deep heart changed morality.

      Sam

  5. Christopher Coxe says:

    Sam
    What a great message this morning. As we receive this message and God’s love ourselves only then can we truly pass this on to our children. They know when you love them unconditionally and they know when you only love them when they do good.
    How many of us are messed up because we have tried to earn love rather than receive it?
    Thanks Sam

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks!

      Here is my thought (at 7:50 in the morning): If we teach and explain the gospel to our kids over and over, again and again, repeatedly, maybe we’ll begin to get it ourselves!

      That the gospel is when the Beauty kisses the Beast–us.

      Thanks.

      Sam

  6. Dana A says:

    Hi Sam! I love this post. It resonates with my heart. It’s all about grace. You say, “The message of the gospel…is God’s loving pursuit of people who run from him as fast as they can and who live lives unworthy of his love” and “The Beast isn’t loved because he has changed; the Beast is changed when he is loved. Joy doesn’t come when he’s loved for his beauty; joy overwhelms him when he is loved in his hideousness.”
    This is my story. I have been and still am to this day pursued by a relentless God who will not give up on me, who loves me in the midst of my unfinishedness and messiness. And beauty rises to the surface in me every time I encounter His presence and His acceptance of me.
    I have adult children who grew up with many of the sunday school lessons that you talk about (be good, faithful, kind…placing unrealistic burdens on them–setting them up to feel like failures and then become posers). Today they are not interested in that kind of religion, niether am I. Bringing the gospel to my kids today, is running after them as fast as I can in love; loving them in their hideousness (just as God has loved me in mine), being like the Father of the Prodigal who waits at the end of the road every day for the lost one to finally come home…and adorning him with a robe of righteousness and the family ring, and inviting the community to celebrate his home coming with a feast! This is the kind of love that changes things. It is costly, beautiful and very attractive.
    Thank you, Sam, for putting this out. This is Good News and the reminder I need today.
    Dana

    • Hi Dana, it is SO very good to hear from you.

      I love your line, “This is my story.” Yes, your story, my story, and everyone’s story. And our kid’s story. God pursuing us relentlessly and lovingly.

      And here is the other thing I love of what you say. You say that you can run after your kids in love. That is what the gospel does to us. We no longer have to run after then so we can be “good little boys and girls”–which means we run after them to feel good about ourselves. No! Now we can run after them just in love. We have been loved and that fills us with love so we can pour out love.

      Oh, I love it.

      Thank you so much for sharing this.

      Sam

  7. Nate says:

    I was reading through this and it reminded me of a book review I saw the other day of “The Antidote” by Oliver Burkeman. Although written from a secular perspective, and therefore missing the main point, it has some similarities: not trying to view the world (or, in our case, the flawed humans in the bible) as a set of positives but instead “bathe in insecurity” or we might say bathe in the saving grace of Christ. Obviously there are a lot of differences in perspective, but maybe there is something significant to being real about our humanity.

    But I think the most difficult part of this is making it accessible to children. In teaching these concepts to children we must balance the teaching/understanding of our sin and God’s grace. Although I have not yet had kids of my own, I can imagine that this is no easy task.

    • Nate,

      That’s a great perspective. Thanks for the book share.

      I agree, this is hard to share with kids. How do you share about David’s adultery with a five year old? You probably don’t. (I didn’t know what it WAS as a five year old.)

      But we can share the good news that we don’t have to be perfect FOR God; we are made perfect IN him.

      Thanks.

  8. Alyssa says:

    I agree with you. I think that we should teach our students how to live right and to make good choices, to be obedient and follow Gods word but I think we also teach them that God uses the willing not the able, that He loves us in spite of our flaws bad choices and disobedience. That were gonna mess up and do the wrong thing but when we do God helps us up He disciplined us and then He loves….He disciplines us because He loves us. No one can live well on their own it all comes with Gods help. If we teach them that God only loves good people they’ll prob stop trying. We are good because we are loved because we want to please God because as He shoes His love through grace and mercy we no longer want to disappoint Him so we do better or try to. I wasn’t sure what u wanted in the website box but I found this on Facebook.

    • Hi Alyssa,

      Thanks for sharing your comment.

      I’d say that we aren’t “loved because we want to please God” as much as “we want to please God because we are loved.” Our desire to please God comes in proportion to our understanding how much he leaves us even when we don’t want to please him.

      Thanks for taking the time to share and comment.

  9. Richard McAlister says:

    Amen and Amen! From the spirit of God to the mind of a man. Thanks Sam.

  10. Wow this is a really really good article! I’m going to link to it from my blog.

    I’ve noticed that in little-kid bibles or Sunday School lessons, it takes the bizarre, complex stories of the bible and reduces it down to one take-home lesson about how to be a good person. Esther is about courage. Hannah is about trusting God. Noah is about obeying God. David and Jonathan is about friendship. Etc. In reality, the bible is really weird, and the “bible heroes” were real people who had complex lives and strengths and weaknesses like we do. And some stories in the bible are just really weird and don’t have a simple lesson to be applied to one’s life.

  11. Pat O'Connell says:

    As one who has been reminding kids (gr. 1-4) for 30 years about what the curriculum doesn’t mention about our ‘heroes’ I totally enjoyed your exhortation to tell the whole truth and nothing but… So help us dear God!

    • Hi Pat,

      Thanks! I love it! I think God has been reminding ME (for 55 years) that it is up to him not up to me.

      Thanks for sharing … and thanks for those 30 years of reminding kids about the gospel.

      Sam

  12. katekettler says:

    I have been confused by how church people tend to make the assumption that everyone they interact with knows Jesus. Not just Sunday school kids, but adults too. Since I have been organizing the Sunday school at my fellowship, I have noticed that following a set curriculum seems to make us lazy. Its much easier to regurgitate a canned program than to take the risk of interacting with hearts. So it is with adults. We seem to have a set way of talking about faith that shields us from sharing our hearts.

    • Hi Kate,

      That’s a really good insight. It’s easier to regurgitate … “than to take the risk of interacting with hearts.”

      Exactly! The real gospel, Beauty kissing the Beast (us) engages the heart, but we don’t go there, we don’t take the risk.

      And not with adults either.

      Thank you SO much for sharing this great insight.

  13. Lyle Regan says:

    Altho sunday school does in fact present the bible via story telling to help younsgters comprehend, I do think that the part that is not made clear, for adults either for that matter, is that God wants a relationship with us. He made us, He loves us, He pursues us. As we grow older, I hope that all people will have a “wise sage” come along in their life to help them realize this,.. and begin a conscience “walk with God.” Thanks for being willing to put it out there. Lyle

    • Hi Lyle,

      Yes, stories are great; they are needed.

      But … let’s tell the REAL story not the made up story.

      The real story is so much more compelling, don’t you think?

      Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  14. Beth says:

    Gday. Love to read more. Your post drew my attention straight away. Now to go and find your book. Where do I find it??
    Beth.

    • Hi Beth,

      Gday back at you. Are you from down under? My brother married an Aussie and lives down there too.

      You are SO kind. Nope, no book yet. But I have some ideas….

      Read my other posts, and tell me what you think.

      Thanks for the kind comment.

      Sam

  15. The graceful boss says:

    I agree that often the gospel is missed in the sharing of the Law.
    The examples given in the article were set up as Law. You do this, God does this. The law works like the rain falls. Sometimes we like the way if falls and sometimes we are on an outing and wish God would do things differently. Some pray for rain and the crops die for lack of moisture. God does what He wants to do. Man makes plans and rules. God laughs a lot at this.
    If the stories given in the O.T. and the brief summaries found in Hebrews 11 were not shared to encourage us to follow their examples, I am missing something. The problem is our insistence on trying to set rules within the covenant that God has not agreed to. God’s laws are good. Legalism in not.
    God chose people to do certain things. Many who did what God called them to do were called faithful in Hebrews. If you read their accounts, their faithfulness was not perfect.
    The examples used in Heb. are good examples. In spite of their imperfection, God worked in their lives. This = Grace. Why were Joseph’s brothers not chosen? God must have seen something in those he choose. Otherwise the phrase, “your faith has made you well” makes little sense. “And Noah was found righteous by God. Why were pagan cities sited as having more faith than Jewish cities by Jesus? In spite of being less than perfect, some character traits seem to place some people in the work of God and others are not in that work place.
    Noah was not perfect. But he did not have to learn how to swim as his last task on earth. I doubt it would have helped.
    Does the law work all the time? Of course not. We and all in the kingdom, Old covenant and new, live by grace.
    Faith greases the wheels of grace. And genuine faith demands action. That action sometimes puts you in a place of great power. (Joseph) That faith sometimes gets you killed. (Peter, Paul, James, Stephen, the Prophets… well the list goes on. Jesus showed perfect faith. He died before taking on the task of ruling the universe.
    Yes, teach kids about those who have gone before in faith. Make sure they understand the foundation of life is grace.
    Without the law, they would not understand what Grace has done for them. But the imperfect law, with the main task of drawing people to grace, is still a factor.
    I doubt any of the kids reading well written and so so Sunday School lit. are going to rise to Joseph’s character. The article is taking liberties with the story to accuse Joseph in such a manner. His greatest fault was not trusting God enough as he complained about his circumstances. Even so, his complaint was the catalyst that brought him before Pharaoh.
    WE are told to instruct our children in the Law. I think it is a good thing to do. I don’t think that false promises are good. But false promises don’t keep children from growing up to trust the govt. to be god. Welcome the Tea Party and those who believed and still believe that Pres. Obama was the second coming. Most drop out of faith and church because of other reasons. Anyone who has not recognized that they receive shallow answers because they were kids has not grown up yet. To hold it against those trying to help them in life is immature. Are we to hold everyone to perfection in every calling of life? Some grace for the teachers. And… Please don’t try this with kids. They know better.

    • Hi Michael,

      I appreciate your responding to my article, and I appreciate your DISAGREEING as well. What’s the saying? “Iron sharpens iron.

      But here is the deal. In talking of various “heroes,” you say, “God must have seen something in those he choose.”

      I simply disagree. And i believe scripture does too.

      If God chooses us for something in us, then we have every reason to be proud, and it is the reason so many “believers” are proud. After all, it was something in them that paved the way for God’s love and choice.

      But when we see the gospel for the huge grace that it is, we have to say with Paul, “I am the greatest [or worst] or sinners.”

      And that brings humility. Even Joseph need the fires of God’s love to purify him (Ps. 105:19).

      Thanks for responding.

      Sam

  16. drp says:

    Your comments about Abraham, Joseph, David and Esther, imply a sinful nature converted to lovers of God, by God’s direct intervention. That got me thinking about Luke chapter, 8, the four seeds and the “noble and good heart”. I’ve often wondered, really, what was the difference between the 4 different hearts. My sense is the fourth heart, “noble and good heart” is produced through the refining process of God, it does not start out as being noble and good, but ends up that way through God’s discipline through love.

  17. Martha says:

    Having four grown children currently wandering in every quarter of the spiritual map (well, two or three of the quarters), this is kind of hard for me to take. The thing is, of course, their dad and I didn’t mean to do it. We KNEW the gospel. We were experiencing the gospel ourselves. Why didn’t we see that the moral emphasis was cutting the legs out from under it for our kids???

    I remember realizing about mid-way through the elementary school period that my children were coming to a works-based conclusion, but I couldn’t have imagined that the bible stories were contributing. I figured that ordinary discipline was the culprit, enabled by a child’s cognitive inability to interpret things in other than black and white terms. I concluded that they were unable to hang on to “Mommy is loving me” at the same time that Mommy was disapproving of their behavior. I surmised that everyone is probably hard-wired to make this mistake, and that we can’t help it until God helps us over it. Still, I knew I had told them the truth from the beginning, and when I realized what was going on I worked harder at it than ever.

    They each at some point became able to verbalize the gospel of grace, but accurate theology isn’t the same thing as a belief of the heart (to borrow a phrase). I remember a realization in my twenties that there was a serious gap between my perfectly good theology and my own thought-posture toward God. It was a bit of a shock, but I perceived in it an invitation from God to make a correction. (I also saw that I wasn’t exactly a hypocrite, because I evidently believed that the gospel was truer than my feelings.) I made an exercise of asking myself, “If I really believed God loved me, what would be different in my head right now?” Usually I could see something right away. And, usually, I could choose an action of some kind that was more in line with the truth.

    As heartbreaking as it is to see all my mistakes speed behind me on the water under the bridge, I trust that no matter why a child wanders, God intends to act for each one, like he did for me.

    • Martha,

      As always, I LOVE your thoughts. They are deep, delightful, reflective, and transparent. Thank you.

      Here is my hope for my kids (and yours!). Just as God’s pursuit of our children is not based on how good they are, his pursuit of our children is also not based on how good WE are!

      Isn’t that a relief? Isn’t that … so hopeful?

      As you closed, “I trust that no matter why a child wanders, God intends to act for each one, like he did for me.”

      That is perfect. Thanks.

      Sam

  18. Marcus says:

    So the better way to teach this generation in Sunday school is to tell them to go ahead and be an idol worshiper like Abraham, a narcissistic boy like Joseph, a murdering adulterer like David, or an immoral young lady like Esther. Just be sure you pray later. After all, God loves you anyway.

    • Hi Marcus,

      That’s great, you gave me a good laugh.

      I hope–sincerely I hope–you don’t think I wish that for anyone, child or adult.

      I recognize that we want our children (and ourselves!) to be moral. We don’t want ANYONE lying, cheating, stealing. I don’t think many non-believers want that for their kids either.

      I think I’ll have to post another blog on teaching how to be moral.

      My concern in this blog is confusing Moralism (i.e. Pharasaism) with the gospel. God wants our righteousness to EXCEED the Pharisees; and one way for that is to make sure we don’t base our lives on our actions, but we base it on his unmerited love.

      Thanks for your comment.

      You do have a way with words (even if they are a bit caustic).

      Sam

    • Kerry says:

      THank you Marcus. I think the writer should have been more clear on this. I was outraged at the beginning of this article and in fact it made me lose sleep. I teach the gospel to children and my own. I teach my own children you misbehave you will have consequences. I teach children in Sunday School. God does not like sin, for the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life. As we teach children we can assume they are not saved and the message should not be you can live an immoral life then just repent because God loves you anyway. Our message should be the same as a parent teaches. Sin has consequences and that is why we need Jesus. He died for our sins. I also don’t think that Sunday School is to blame for children rebelling. Casting a negative light on the church is not what I agree with. Instead as parents we need to look no further than the mirror. It is so easy to pass the blame off on someone else. But if we lay the foundation in the home and teach them the gospel then we will not be blaming their Sunday School teachers. Teaching children is very delicate and I am not about to teach them that it is ok to be immoral because God will seek you out. I am going to teach them that sin has consequences, but Jesus will save you from all your sins past, present, and future. And when you develop a relationship with him you will desire to obey him and sinless. This article had some good points but as a whole I would have to say I didn’t like it. Maybe if he had worded some areas differently.

      • Hi Kerry,

        Thank you for you gracious and articulate disagreement.

        There is a difference between teaching the gospel and teaching good ethics. True gospel belief WILL change our morality; but mere morality doesn’t bring the gospel. Just look at the Pharisees. They were preaching outside-in morality, and they killed Jesus.

        When scripture urges us to guard the gospel, it’s not the gospel that needs guarding as much as our communication of the gospel. It is SO easy to confuse mere morality with the gospel, and, alas, many Sunday Schools and many parents do that very thing.

        So no! I don’t suggest we teach imitation of the immoral behavior of the “heroes” of the faith. I merely suggest we don’t imply their “good” behavior is what attracted God’s favor.

        Thanks for your challenges. They are great.

        Sam

  19. linkh says:

    The Gospel is assumed. That is a problem with the adults in church, too.

    Here’s a formula for a bad altar call.

    Don’t tell the audience who Jesus was, that He is Lord of all and the Son of God.
    Don’t tell them that He died on the cross for their sins.
    Don’t tell them what sin is.
    Don’t tell them that God raised Him from the dead.
    Don’t tell them who God is.

    Ask if there is anyone in the audience who has never ‘prayed that prayer to receive Christ’ or who would like ‘God in their life’ or ‘Jesus in their life.’

    Then have them raise their hand and repeat a prayer–or go down the altar first– asking Jesus into their heart.

    The Gospel is assumed. The preacher assumes the audience knows it and doesn’t explain it to them. The people repeat prayers leave, and other people who peaked during the prayer or looked around during the altar call tell the people who repeated prayers that they are saved.

  20. Joshua Cantrell says:

    Loved this! It is the message of a omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God pursuing mankind who in no way pursued him or even wanted to pursue him. That we in NO WAY deserve his love but yet despite all of that he chooses to love us anyways! It is the Gospel message and the grace of God that transforms lives and hearts. It creates something new and allows us to crucify the flesh. It takes what was once dead and dry and brings it to life! The fact that because of the blood of Jesus I have obtained righteousness through Christ Jesus, that my identity is found in him and that when the Father looks at me he sees not my sin but rather the blood. So many people try their whole lives to chase and obtain something that was already given to them two thousand years ago on the cross. I’m called not to do anything in my own power because I simply can’t. I’m called to surrender. To give up control to the one who is in complete control and then I have the pleasure and honor to watch as his grace transforms my life so that I can be used as a vessel in which he chooses to use as an outflow of that same grace and love to others! The love of God is astounding!

    • Hi Joshua,

      As you say, “The love of God is astounding.”

      And here is the thing, if God’s love were dependent on us, we would have no courage, because at any time we could (and WILL) fail.

      When his love is dependent on his grace, we have a limitless hope.

      Thanks.

  21. Fantastic article, I’ve let bounce around my head a bit trying to decipher the good from the bad of Sunday School. Subtracting the messy parts of the a Bible (like we are the beast) to streamline and simplify the messages in an organized & sellable package seems to get us in trouble. Dealing with the unorganized and unexplainable parts of the Bible seem to be the difference making decisions, like “Why God pursues us & loves usdispite our ugliness,” keeps us depending on Him. Even though it is not neat & tied in a bundle it keeps us going back to God & more importantly dependent on Him. Explaining the unexplainable to simply sounds like trouble, even though it sells.

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your observations. I especially like your ending summary, “Explaining the unexplainable too simply sounds like trouble, even though it sells.”

      Here is what struck me by that. EVERY good story has huge tensions, we don’t see how something good can come out of this, and it is gripping.

      So, when we “explain the explainable” too simply, we are robbing the gospel of its power.

      I really like what you see here. It’s a GREAT observation.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  22. Mark Wilby says:

    Nice post. The problem is much deeper than Sunday school. The problem is us; that’s the bad news but the good news is that we can dispose ourselves to deeper conversion. We do not have any power to dispose others, even our children, to conversion. The “belief of the heart” that your post addresses involves a principle of deep conversion — complete surrender. This is what Paul refers to when he writes, the life I live is not my own, but Christ lives in me. Paul is talking about a supernatural life, a spiritual life. We can only get from here to there through an encounter with the living God, over and over again. We are really talking about a divine life. Its one thing for us to get there and altogether another to permit our children to get there. I say permit because I think we have a tendency to get in the way. Sometimes I think this “false gospel” you describe is driven by anxiety we carry for our children. We want them to be good because we know if they are good its less likely that bad things will happen to them. So we encourage them to be good to buy some peace for ourselves not realizing that we are recommending a life of appeasement. We have a much easier time surrendering our lives than we do surrendering our children. I recall a line from The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. At some point in the story, Lucy asks the Beaver, if Aslan is safe. The Beaver responds by saying of course he is not safe but he is good. Intuitively we know this is true about Jesus. He is not safe but he is good. It is risky business for us, but its worth taking the risk. Our children don’t always perceive when they are playing at life, but they are experts at seeing it in us.

  23. Hi Mark,

    Great, thoughtful answer–just as I’d expect from you!

    I like your line–because it is so true (ask any parent): “We have a much easier time surrendering our lives than we do surrendering our children.”

    I’m coming to realize that my children aren’t my own, whether I surrender them or not. I’m sure you know just what I mean.

    My hope for my children does not lie in their innate goodness, not does it lie in my goodness or good parenting (thank God!). My hope lies in the infinite mercy of God.

    I do wish, however, for them to live good lives. It IS better for them (and everyone around them) if they are good. So I want this, I hope for this, I teach it.

    As long as I don’t confuse it with the gospel.

    Thanks,

    Sam

  24. Andrea says:

    This is a good article. It reminds me that it is utlimately the responsibility of the parents to teach our children about God. Church can be a great support to that, but we should not rely on it as the sole source of educating our children about God’s saving grace.

    Daily family Bible, worship and prayer time is essential! We have recently discovered a fantastic devotional called “Long Story Short” by Marty Machowski. It goes along with his children’s bible, “The Gospel Story Bible”. It is designed to show children ages 4-12 how from the beginning of Genesis everything points towards Jesus and God’s grace. The OT stories are told realistically and without over-simplifying the characters. For example, we spent a week discussing how Jacob lied to and decieved his father to get the blessing. That discussion also involved seeing how God brings about his plans in spite of our failures. I highly recommend this book!!!

    • Hi Andrea,

      Thanks for the tip. I’m sure readers will appreciate it, as do I.

      I agree that parents are responsible for teaching their children, but of course we too need to remember the gospel.

      In some ways my article was geared more to us adults–parents or not–to remind us (again) of the gospel. Because it’s not only kids who get the gospel confused. I think it is a natural tendency to swing back and forth between being the prodigal younger brother and the Pharisaical older brother.

      A great Christian thinker once said, “The Christian life is like a drunk man trying to get on a horse. First he falls off one side and then he falls off the other side.

      Thanks for your tips and comments.

      Sam

  25. CH Bill Harrison says:

    Excellent article and discussion to follow. We need to remain in a constant state of humbly seeking God’s will for how we communicate the unchanging Gospel message to a changing world in danger of never knowing our loving Savior! Church leaders are in great need of fully committed Bible teachers for children of all ages – especially the adult children. Too often we settle for a warm body when we need a disciple answering a calling to demonstrate God’s love to that class. We also must acknowledge that even when it works out perfectly, it is still plan B, because it is really the parent’s job to disciple their kids at home! Muture Christian families also should be able to worship together with well-behaved kids that are not a distraction to those around them, but often we are forced to create a children’s church option that shuttles them out of the sactuary to have their short attention spans entertained with games and stories. We need to work through all of these issues with discernment within the walls of our churches so that we can then focus on the real mission outside of reaching a lost world. That requires living a whole and satisfying life of integrity before our peers that makes life with Christ appealing and inviting. Casting Crowns gets this in their latest song “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” that mentions us plank-eyed sinners that the world stumbles over on their way to God. I also highly recommend a book/series called “Discipleship in the Home” by Matt Friedeman (available at AFA). We are all works in progress, in desperate need of grace, and there is so much riding on this for our children’s generation – who are abandoning our churches in record numbers.

    Prayerfully submitted,
    Chaplain Bill Harrison

    • Hi Bill,

      You have many great points. I’d like to highlight a few.

      “We need to remain in a constant state of humbly seeking God’s will for how we communicate the unchanging Gospel message to a changing world in danger of never knowing our loving Savior!”
      – Yes, absolutely. This take a constant vigilance.

      “often we are forced to create a children’s church option that shuttles them out of the sactuary to have their short attention spans entertained with games and stories.”
      – This is a great example of our need for discernment and prayer.

      “Casting Crowns gets this in their latest song “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” that mentions us plank-eyed sinners that the world stumbles over on their way to God.”
      – I haven’t heard that song, but I love the image of us “plank-eyed” sinners.

      Thanks for all your comments, and thanks for the book recommendation at the end.

      And thanks for your service in the military.

      Sam

  26. darrenschalk says:

    This is interesting, and as an Editor for One Accord Resources Inc, (a large provider of SS Curriculum), I have to comment. I appreciate your insight. And you are right. The scope and sequence of SS material should be more gospel-centric, pointing out human flaws and God’s love and forgiveness. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    First, your lumping of all SS curricula into simple lessons isn’t necessarily truth. Yes, your assessment is close to right, particularly with the youngest age levels, but it’s not 100% right. In older age-level curriculum, more difficult issues should be, and often are, tackled. If they weren’t, believe me, the stuff would never move off the shelves. It has to be relevant to sell.

    Secondly, to say that “Sunday schools may be creating our worst nightmares” is, to be blatantly honest, absurd to me. Teaching biblical truth could NEVER create nightmares. Sunday school has been around for literally 100’s of years, and to say that people are walking away from church now b/c of what we do for one hour each week just doesn’t compute.

    We could certainly do better, I admit. And I like the main points of your article. We should have a more gospel-centric scope and sequence, and a less behavior-oriented focus. I completely agree with that, and I will be taking it into consideration in our future material. But questions still arise.

    At what age can we start telling children about Rahab the prostitute, or Esther’s sexual deviance, or Gomer’s unfaithfulness to her husband? At what age should we talk about Moses’ murder, David’s lustful eye, or Jael’s tent peg to the head? Mature themes must be saved for mature minds. And some mature faster than others. Its hard to judge this when creating a scope and squence for thousands of classrooms.

    Sunday school isn’t the problem, particularly when you look at its recent decline. We work with dated material that walks students through the entire bible in a matter of years. But dated curricula is quickly dying. Every company who has made their living in dated SS material is moving quickly away from such material, into small bible studies, book studies, and undated, topical materials. This has led to a huge decline in biblical literacy, which is now at an ALL TIME high. Teaching biblical truth isn’t the problem–failing to teach it is.

    Try looking to the breakdown of families, the loss of any sense of truth whatsoever, and the complete lack of any sense of morals in our society. Try looking into the complete loss of a biblical foundation for life. Perhaps we should focus on these before we go blaming our one hour Sunday morning sessions for the nightmares we have in society.

    I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh. I did appreciate your take on how some things are covered in SS material. Thanks for the writing. Glad to know someone is thinking about this stuff with us!

    • Darren,

      Thanks so much for your gracious comments and excellent critique (a good, honest critique). Let me respond to a few things.

      First, yes, biblical truth is always helpful, and the only nightmares they produce are GOOD nightmares, frightening us out of our sin. But much church teaching is not biblical, and I mean much conservative preaching. Perhaps reacting to today’s immoral culture, much preaching is Moralistic vs just moral. And there is a difference; it has to do with the grounding of our identities.

      Second, I absolutely affirm the incremental nature of education. Kids aren’t ready for everything all at once. We lean addition and subtraction before multiplication and division, before differential equations.

      But differential equations don’t negate the original foundation of addition and subtraction. I hear parents (and often SS) focus on teaching boys and girls to be good girls and boys. They don’t “exactly” say that is the way to God’s love; but the implication is frequently loud.

      We can still show the weakness of our heroes, Abraham’s deception, Jacob’s deception and theft, Joseph’s immaturity, David’s murder (I think that is okay), etc.

      And then we can show God’s saving grace–when it is not merited–to Joseph AND his brothers (they were saved too, and they were pretty nasty to their brothers).

      Third, we need to recognize the difference between behavior and gospel. Yes, we want our kids to be good, for many many reasons. And it is okay to instruct them in good behavior. Let’s simply BE ON OUR GUARD not to confuse these lessons with the gospel (unless we teach the changed heart, sanctification, due to the gospel).

      Last, in some hidden ways, my article was focused on adult gospel beliefs than on Sunday school. The opening story of the woman who taught her son about the “heroes of the faith” — notice it was HER teaching, not Sunday school. And I end the article saying our kids need to learn how Beauty kissed the beast, “and maybe we do too.”

      When the adults are grounded in the gospel and they guard that grounding daily–never assuming and never confusing it–then I’ll have more confidence in the Sunday school classes. No matter how good the curriculum, it will still be taught by weak sinners.

      One more “lastly”–I was raised in Sunday school, and it was actually pretty good. And I am deeply appreciative of all the time and effort of those now forgotten teachers. I never thanked them enough.

      Sam

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you for your comments. I was wondering if anyone else was going to state that 1 hour 1 day a week is not destroying our children. The foundation is in the home! I also agree 100% that all material must be age appropriate. Just like I am not going to discuss to my 2 year old what sex is until he is more mature. I’m not going to tell my 7 year old about David committing adultery. What needs to be taught right now to children is salvation and God’s love, not sin and God will seek you out. Let’s wait until they are developed enough to understand that part of the gospel. Also, this world is very good at placing the blame on anything else but themselves. If our children don’t understand the entire gospel then the person to blame is the one staring back at us in the mirror. It is your responsibility as a parent to raise your children and teach them the gospel and live it out in front of them. SS doesn’t need to be blamed if anything it needs to be praised for trying to give children sometimes the only truth they may hear because parents are to busy to do this themselves. I know this article was suppose to make parents aware of what is being taught to their children but I fear it only gives them someone else to blame besides themselves and could end of leading parents to stop bringing their children to SS. Which is a big mistake. I have seen it, when parents and children don’t attend SS then they stop connecting with the body of believers their age, then they stop coming regular to Sunday worship, then they stop coming altogether. SS is very important for fellowship and most importantly spiritual growth. I hope no one is lead to believe that SS is to blame for children not knowing the full gospel.

      • Hi Kerry,

        Again, thanks for your gracious and challenging disagreements!

        Yes, parents will blame Sunday school teachers and Sunday school teachers will blame parents. Blame rarely helps; self examination is usually the best place to begin.

        I love your line, “If our children don’t understand the entire gospel then the person to blame is the one staring back at us in the mirror.”

        I agree. So, let’s ask ourselves this, “Does God love us because we’ve changed, or are we changed because God loves us?”

        I’m not asking merely for our textbook answer (although, yes, let’s start there). I’m asking each of us to look in the mirror and see what we most deeply believe in our hearts.

        Thanks again for your comments.

        Sam

  27. amyelizabethsmith says:

    As Nathan and I were talking about this, it was as simple as, “Why do we love Ezra (our son)?” Because we do. He hasn’t “earned our love through obedience, etc, but we freely give him our love. How much more does our CREATOR love us?! And we must teach him about that great love. Thanks for another great post.

    • Hi Amy,

      Great point. Do we think God is LESS loving than us? Would we want our children to think we only love them when they are sweet and nice to us?

      Of course we WANT them to be good, and as parents we need to bring consequences to bad behavior, but our love for them is not dependent on their behavior. Sometimes, in our love, are are really kissing the Beast!

      Thanks,

      Sam

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