Friday, June 29, 2012

Are little kids in Sunday School missing the gospel?

I found a really interesting blog post over here: I Wonder If Sunday School Is Destroying Our Kids (posted June 26, 2012).

Summary: In Sunday School, we teach kids things like "Abraham was faithful, and God made him the father of a nation.  So be faithful like Abraham."  We hold up the "bible heroes" as examples of good people who were rewarded by God.  This is totally THE OPPOSITE of the gospel- the gospel is about how God loves us in our state of "hideousness."  The real message in the stories of the bible is how the people had faults and weaknesses and did bad things, but God loved and pursued them anyway. 

I've noticed that little-kid bibles misrepresent the bible.  They only include the stories that are easy to understand and have imagery with cute animals or crazy miracles and the like.  And everything is censored to be G-rated.  (Or maybe PG-13, depending on how graphic the illustration of David cutting off Goliath's head was.)  I remember being surprised when I first heard the story of Cain killing his brother Abel, because it wasn't in my little-kid bible.  I remember when I first heard about prophets like Isaiah going to tell the people to repent, and they DIDN'T REPENT.  Crazy town! 

David and Goliath?  Wait, why is he blond?  Image source.

I remember when I was old enough to read the bible on my own every day (the REAL bible, not a little-kid bible), maybe in middle school or high school, and I read the story where Jacob lies to his father in order to steal the blessing that should belong to his older brother.  I was like, wait, this was bad.  Jacob LIED and STOLE.  I wondered, when I read this story in my little-kid bible or heard it in Sunday School, what did the adults say about it?  What was supposed to be the "take-home lesson"?  How come I had never before realized that Jacob did a BAD thing here?

But, Jacob was a "good guy" and his brother Esau was a "bad guy", right?

The world is way more complicated than that.

Sunday School lessons take complex bible characters, with all their individual strengths and weaknesses and bizarre circumstances, and simplify them down to a single line about how to be a good person.  Esther is about courage.  Hannah is about patience.  Noah is about obedience.  Ruth is about loyalty.  David and Jonathan is about friendship.  Joseph (the Old-Testament Joseph) is about forgiveness.  Adam is about stewardship.  Jonah is about mercy.  Abraham is about trust.  I could go on and on.

In reality, the bible is WEIRD, and there's so much stuff in there that's like "... wat?"  Not everything has some obvious "take-home lesson"- in fact, I'd say most of it doesn't.

This is why people have to read the bible for themselves, instead of just hearing certain parts of it taught in church.

But back to the thing about how to teach little kids.  I hesitate to announce to kids "God loves you even when you're bad!" because kids are little trouble-makers and don't need any more excuses to be bad.  I'm speaking from experience here.  I remember when my parents told me the golden rule says "treat others the way you want to be treated" and I used that to make a case that it was right for me to hit my sister.  (She hit me, and the golden rule says "treat others the way you want to be treated" so she clearly wants me to hit her back.  QED.)

It's kind of complicated, because God loves his followers no matter what, but that doesn't mean we can just do whatever we want.  Christianity says the reason we should do good things is not to earn God's approval- it's to show our gratitude to him, it's because we've been inspired to be like Jesus, it's because God loves people so we should love them too.

And I feel like that's too nuanced- little kids won't get it.  (Dude, even adult Christians discuss and debate this kind of stuff.)  So what's the solution?

The "heroes of the bible" are good role models, sometimes, and we should totally learn from those stories and try to be like them.  But they also did some really bad things, and we can learn from that too, but what we should learn is not always so obvious.

So, what to do?  How can we teach kids about good moral principles, while also teaching them the gospel, teaching them that God knows you won't be good all the time, and he still accepts you?

I guess it's kind of the same as how kids should know what rules their parents have for them, but they should also know that their parents love them no matter what.  My parents told me even if I was bad, they would still give me Christmas presents.

So, yeah.  Anyone have any ideas on how to do this?  How do we give kids a good introduction to the bible/Christianity, without being misleading- without telling them rules and nothing else?  How do we emphasize God's mercy being greater than the law, without telling them to "go on sinning so that grace may increase"?


  1. Hi "Perfect number" (someday you'll have to explain that!),

    Thanks for the link to my article.

    You raise some great questions. One comment: I think part of the key is separating two issues. (1) We want our kids to know the gospel, and (2) We want our kids to be moral.

    When we confuse the two, we tend to teach kids to be moral so God will like them. That's not the gospel, it's more like Pharisaim, which is more of an outside-in kind of moralism.

    Of course the real gospel DOES make us moral, but it's more of an inside-out morality. As God changes our very hearts, our external behavior becomes more loving (etc.). We grow in the fruit of the Spirit.

    That doesn't mean we ignore external behavior; we just don't confuse it with the gospel.



    1. Wow, yes, exactly! There are 2 separate issues: "(1) We want our kids to know the gospel, and (2) We want our kids to be moral." I hadn't thought about that.

      So it seems like the problem is that Sunday School lessons emphasize the "be moral" part, while ignoring the "gospel" part until that one special lesson before Easter (or whenever) where the gospel is presented.

      One could make a case that the gospel is totally present in various degrees throughout the entire bible. And the bible talks about a lot of other things besides "rules for how to be a good person."

      I feel like the only solution to this is to read the whole bible, without skipping parts because they're weird, and without needing to have a clear-cut "lesson" from every passage. But I don't know how to adapt that to a Sunday School curriculum...

    2. A perfect number is an integer whose divisors (not including the integer itself) add up to the integer! For example, 6 is a perfect number because 6=1+2+3. The next perfect number is 28 because 28=1+2+4+7+14!

    3. Wow! Thanks Anonymous- that is exactly where my name came from. ^_^ You must be a math nerd like me.

  2. Funnily enough I was thinking about this as I was reading the kids Bible to my daughter. I thought, 'Hold on a minute, this is way inaccurate and I'm not really sure of the purpose of almost changing the story completely so it reads nicely for the kids'.
    This is a really important discussion, and to be honest I don't really know the answer. I'm glad you brought it up for discussion.

    1. Yeah, that's true about "almost changing the story"- for example, David was the youngest of his brothers and everyone thought he was too young and inexperienced to fight Goliath... to little kids, this sounds like he's 5 or so years old, same age as them. In real life he was probably a teenager or older.

  3. I teach children's Sunday school. I am a rebel in that while I use the children's Bible for some of the illustrations, I read to the kids from my "grown up" Bible. I try to explain some of the harder/ more complex parts. I add in the gospel message as often as I can, at least once a month. This summer I taught about Jacob and Esau. The next week they remembered that Jacob tricked his brother with a funny name and one of the brothers had really hairy arms.