the Sunday School DebateJuly 31, 2013
An article questioning whether Sunday School is bad for our kids has been doing the Social Media circuit this week.
It’s main point, which I essentially agree with, is that turning the vibrant, complex, theologically rich narratives of the bible into trite moral lessons is no gospel exercise, but in fact, bad news all round. The pre-packaged didactic moral lesson ending to a bible story butchers the text, robs the hearers of their participation in the text through wondering and questions, and quenches the Spirit’s role speaking fresh truth through a living Word.
But there are other aspects that lie behind the critique of sunday school in this blog that I am not so enthusiastic about.
Firstly, I find it frustrating to have this caricature of Sunday school perpetuated, when as a practitioner, resource writer, trainer and consultant in children and families ministry, I can testify to a widespread move away from ‘morality’ based hermeneutics and teacher centred didactics, towards inquiry based learning, discovery and exploratory models, multi-sensory textual experiences and deep commitments to nurturing the holistic spiritual development of the child in community, not just an agenda for producing moral conformists. There are no doubt places where there’s no school like the old school and the practice persists, but I would not consider it best practice or representative of church-based sunday programs for children.
Perhaps, though, sermons for adults suffer this weakness in many places – but is delivered with greater sophistication, in terms that sound like ‘life-application’, and yet are no more than simple moralisms for adults. ‘Read your Bible more’. ‘Share your faith with your neighbour’. ‘Prioritise your family’. ‘Don’t cheat on your taxes.’
Secondly, the theological underpinnings of the article presume that it is wrong to treat children as genuine followers of JEsus. That the focus of children’s ministry should be to communicate to children their sinfulness and the primary case of rebellion, prior to them reaching an age at which they might then receive a saving faith.
This taps into a long held frustration between the methodologies of best-practice children’s ministry and youth ministry. Those entrusted with the nurture of children recognise the biblical mandates to incorporate children in the daily, incarnational faith practices of the community. As you sit and walk and lie down and get up – these are the times to talk of the One faithful God, who has made his covenant not just with consenting adults, but with all generations (Deut 6).
The biblical template for children, as for adults is to walk with God, by the faith that God gives. This ancient (Old Testament) way is entirely consistent with the kind of justification by faith that Paul writes of. It is always God who gives saving faith by his grace. Shibboleths of cognition, understanding and an ‘age of accountability’ all frankly boil down to ‘works’ which would make the old reformers turn in their graves.
However, after being discipled according to this biblical model through childhood, many emerging adolescents are confronted in youth ministry with an over zealous and misplaced assertion of their guilt, rebellion and unacceptability to God – and of course the need for salvation. This is readily seen as the purpose of the attack on Sunday school moralism in the article.
But how disorientating and damaging this must be for the young person. Having been taken seriously as a genuine participant in the grace of God – a pray-er of real prayers, a person whose choices are to be careful, a person who can serve, and a giver of gifts – suddenly all of this is proclaimed counterfeit.
What is lacking is a deep understanding of the gospel that does not need to progress in a linear point to point manner – beginning with sin and moving to salvation then being validated by sanctification.
Again, looking to the biblical narratives this trajectory is remarkably absent. Instead we see real human being in bumpy, yet gracious relationship with a real God. A God not constrained by formulaic faith or four spiritual laws, but a God that establishes covenants with people and persists, despite failures which come around in cycles like the seasons.
We need to have confidence in living deeply in the biblical texts that ‘make us wise unto salvation’, listening for the goodnews of grace, and the ways of God in them – but without trying to ‘import’ a gospel formula into the text. If we really believe the
Bible is of God (and I certainly do), we do well to trust its power.
Oddly, for an article that called for a greater faithfulness to the text, some of the examples given of Bible narratives ‘reinterpreted’ according to the author’s favoured rubric suffered some significant interpretive adulteration. Esther, for example did not chose to have pre-marital sex, but was compelled as a sex-slave to satisfy a King’s appetite. David is not identified as an adulterer in the text, but as a predator who took the (conjugal) property of a neighbour.
The article has struck a chord with many in children’s ministry on a surface level, as we resonate with the rally against moralisms.
But a stronger call must be sounded against replacing the perjury of moralism, with an alternate perjury of pseudo-evangelicalism. Plastering a Sin-Sorry-Salvation-Sanctification gospel formula over the complex and life giving texts similarly obscures the grace and truth which children of God of all ages seek.