The Dean at the school where I teach often says that the incredible blessing of children is also coupled with incredible responsibility. “God gives us immortal souls and says, ‘Raise them'” he will often remind us. When it comes to the life of the Church, then, we can’t take the education and discipleship of our children too seriously. It is a huge responsibility.
One of the most important ways we attempt to educate and disciple these children is through our Sunday School curriculum. In this short one or two hours each week, we must do everything we can to maximize this time. When I was asked, then, to join the Children’s Ministry Advisory Board at my church, I said yes quickly. Moreover, I was excited to be assigned to the curriculum committee. In discussions about the relative merits and demerits of various curricula, our committee thought it would be helpful to identify certain principles of discipleship and education, as well as clarify what we though children should be learning in the short time we have with them. What follows are some thoughts I wrote in working through these questions on my own and in the context of this committee.
Guiding Principles for Children’s Sunday School Curriculum
Six years ago I was hired at School of the Ozarks to teach Christian Worldview to 9-12 grade students. Since that time I have been exploring in greater detail teaching methodology, curriculum design and content, and Bible-instruction more specifically. One of the reasons I was so keen to teach at high school when I had previously had little desire to work with high school students relates to my observations and national surveys that show the increasingly alarming numbers of kids who are leaving the church after high school. Why are so many kids leaving the church once they leave their home?
In a 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton argue that the dominant American religion is something they call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Smith and Denton identify five major points of belief common to the majority of their respondents. First, a god exists who created and watches over the world. Second, God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to others, which they believe is taught not only in the Bible but also in most world religions. Third, the goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. Fourth, God is available to solve a problem, but otherwise is largely uninvolved in one’s daily life. Fifth, good people go to heaven when they die. What Smith and Denton found was that kids who grew up in the church were fairly well entrenched in this same ideology.
How is it that children who grew up in the church held nearly the same ideology and view of life as the unchurched? I would argue that one of the major reasons is that many churches teach a Christianity about rules. Yes, we are sinners who need to be saved by Jesus, but once we get our kids to believe that and get baptized, how do we tell them to live? Quite often, we simply give them a list of morals to keep but no foundation upon why we should live that way. Unfortunately, this is perpetuated most often in children’s Sunday School curriculum. If our children’s Sunday School curriculum is man and moral focused instead of God-focused, we will produce another generation of followers, not of Jesus, but of the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I think we can all agree that this is unacceptable; we can do better.
With this in mind, the first guiding principle we established is that the curriculum must be God-focused, and this happens by being Scripture-based. In their excellent book The Bible Story Handbook, John and Kim Walton hit at the heart of this issue in several ways. First, they argue that our goal is “not learning an ethical system, though informed belief of God should result in a sound ethical system. The Bible is about God, and we should have as our desire to know him and to be like him.” This is what we mean when we say God-focused or, as our mission statement says, Christ-centered.
Second, the way in which this God-focused, Christ-centered teaching happens is not by highlighting ethical principles and using Bible stories to teach those principles. Instead, the issue is one of authority. Walton writes:
The Bible, as God’s Word, teaches with authority and demands the reader to submit to its authority. What we teach as human beings, be it valuable, sincere, challenging, and/or true, does not carry the same authority. Using a Bible story means nothing if it does not commit the curriculum or teacher to teaching what the Bible teaches in the story being used.
They argue correctly that Scripture, not the teacher, possesses the authority. Thus, if we teach a lesson that the passage we are using doesn’t teach—despite however true it may be—then we are removing all authority from our lesson. The immediate effect of this may not be evident, and perhaps that is why the problem has persisted for so long. If we teach a six year old a moral truth, they may immediately change their behavior; yet the cumulative effect is to tell kids that the best their years in church can offer is simply a moral system that most of their non-Christian friends agree with also (at least in most respects). When confronted with choices they have been told are wrong, what authority does their Sunday School teacher or parent possess that their friends don’t? Instead, we must teach kids to know God through His authoritative Word, and this can’t happen if we force stories to fit moral teaching.
Third, Christ-centered discipleship rooted in God’s authoritative Word should teach children to grow in their ability to read the text of Scripture for themselves. This happens best as adults model this practice for them, but this can only happen if we are teaching the Scriptures to determine what each text teaches, not by forcing texts to teach a theme we want them to teach. The most important principle to guide this task and guard against misunderstanding is to read each story in light of God’s Big Story in Scripture. As an example, the story of David and Goliath is not about facing our giants; it is about God’s faithfulness to bring about His redemption through His anointed king, and His salvation of David in this battle is a key means by which God sets David on the throne of Israel so that He might covenant with him (2 Sam 7//1 Chr 17). God is trustworthy and will keep His promises, and while these points are relatively clear in the text of 1 Samuel 17, they come into clearer focus as we place this story in the whole of Scripture. Walton’s comments on the David and Goliath text may help summarize how the previous several points come together, so it’s worth quoting at length:
David is not the hero—God is. To paint David as the hero runs exactly opposite to David’s own perspective and what the narrator wanted to emphasize. Furthermore, just because God brought down David’s enemy does not mean that he will give us victory over all our enemies. We cannot extrapolate this work of God to everyone’s situation at any given time. Resist using the method of “lesson by metaphor.” We should not be asking, “What giant in your life does God need to overcome?” or “What are the five stones that you have in your bag?” These do not get to the authority of the teaching of the text, clever as they may be. While we might be inclined to say, “Like David, we should trust God,” it is more appropriate to say, “Through the story of David we learn that God is trustworthy, so we should trust him.” The line between the two is thin, and the result of trusting God is the same; the difference is in the motivating factor. We want students to learn to trust God because of who God is, not because of what someone else did or believed. The narratives put God before our eyes using the story of David. They are not intended to simply put David before our eyes. Imitating David is a poor substitute for basing our behavior on the revealed character of God.
With these preliminary thoughts in place, we identified some questions to consider and some guiding principles for our curriculum recommendation.
Questions to consider:
- What is our end goal of children’s ministry?
- Mission: Partnering with families to equip children to love God and others through nurturing, engaging, Christ-centered discipleship.
- What can we do on Sunday mornings to accomplish this goal?
- Nurturing: The best way to develop a nurturing environment is to get the right teachers and train them.
- Engaging: Teacher interactions with kids and teacher-student and student-student relationships are the best way to make Sunday morning engaging. Additionally, Sunday morning should be fun, but never to the detriment of the focus on Christ. Games, hands-on activities, etc. should be used as fun activities only if they help teach the message.
- Christ-centered: Bible-focused, Scripture-based, and following the contours of Scripture and/or teaching key theological principles.
- Discipleship: Jesus’ own model for discipleship was both teaching and relationship. He lived life with his disciples and taught them along the way. Our discipleship model should likewise include both teaching and relationship.
- What guiding principles will help us achieve this goal? (See intro letter for more explanation of these three points)Scripture-based
- Reading: How to find, read, and interpret. Deepening understanding of how to read Scripture for oneself
- Teaching: Find the message/meaning of the text and learn to apply it
- Memorizing: Internalizing God’s Word; hiding it in our hearts
- God-focused, not man-focused
- Each story placed in God’s Big Story, helping students link stories together
- What are some statements we can affirm about what we believe the Bible is and does and how it should be taught?
About the Bible
- Since the Bible is God’s story, it has authority
- Since the Bible has authority, it should be the primary source for our teaching
- When we teach the authoritative Word of God, it should and will change us
- The Bible doesn’t focus on characters, but on God; the Bible isn’t about heroes since the only hero is God
About Teaching the Bible
- Primary concern in teaching any story from the Bible is to explain what the text means and what this story teaches us about God.
- Using a Bible story means nothing and has no authority if it doesn’t teach what the Bible teaches in the story we are using.
- The purpose/meaning of a Bible story must guide our lesson development; we must not allow lesson development around a theme guide how we read a text.
- Certain passages, because of the meaning and content they convey, are more or less appropriate for certain ages.
- We should not jump to application too early, nor ask questions like “What does this text mean to me?” Instead, we should understand the meaning of the text and then ask questions like the following: “What are the present day implications of what the biblical author meant?”, or “How ought we to live in the world today in light of the gospel?”
- Know the purpose for teaching Bible stories:Learn God’s stories
- Know God
- Come to know God better and therefore know better what to expect from him
- Learn what to expect of God so that they know how to respond to him
- Learn to respond to God so that they come to understand what it means to be imitators of God
- Learn to be imitators of God so they can be in ever closer relationship with him
- Come to be in ever closer relationship with God so that they will know how to serve him and be his representatives—salt and light in this world
Other Factors Concerning Curriculum Choice
- Prefer to have curriculum follow Genesis to Revelation, but thematic approach could work as long as it is systematically organized around key theological principles and is clearly God-focused.
- Prefer to have K-5 in same passage each week.
- Teacher resources: We can create and/or edit these, but the better resources provided for teachers the more helpful it will be.
- Parent resources: We can create and/or edit these, but the better resources provided for parents the more helpful it will be.
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
John H. Walton and Kim E. Walton, The Bible Story Handbook: A Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 18.
Walton, The Bible Story Handbook, 15.
We highly recommend God’s Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm and Gail Schoonmaker and The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones and Jago, both of which teach each story accurately in light of the larger Story of Scripture.
Walton has an excellent discussion of placing each story in God’s Big Story of Scripture in The Bible Story Handbook, 27-30.
Walton, The Bible Story Handbook, 165. Emphasis added.
Many of the previous points are taken from John H. Walton and Kim E. Walton, The Bible Story Handbook: A Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 13-30.
Bulleted points below are word-for-word from Walton, The Bible Story Handbook, 19.