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Is Your Sunday School Class Pointing Kids the Wrong Way?

Do all of our “shoulds” teach children that being a Christian is more about rules than it is about relationship? 

I failed him. His drawing made it clear.

I’d asked the kids to draw pictures of their favorite Bible stories. Alex drew an open Bible, and inside he wrote, “Be nice. Be good.”

Would I be happier if he’d put, “Be mean. Be bad”? Of course not! So what was the problem? This child, when choosing one sentence to represent the Bible, chose rules. Alex believed the main message of Scripture is “do the right thing.”

Don’t get me wrong! God does want us to do the right thing. We want the children in our ministries to do the right thing. Parents bring their kids to church in hopes that their kids will do the right thing.

So, again, what’s the problem?

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that none of us does the right thing simply because we are told to do so. In fact, the Bible teaches just the opposite. Being told what to do brings out our worst. Romans 7:8 says, “Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”

We might pass 10 closed doors on a given day and not notice any of them until a “do not enter” sign appears. Suddenly we want to know what’s inside. We’re fascinated with the forbidden. It’s in our fallen natures.

How do we resist opening the door? Maybe we resist because we remember a bad outcome from breaking a similar rule. Maybe we’re afraid of punishment. Or it might be that we trust the person who put up the sign.

Whatever the case, knowing a rule doesn’t equip me to follow it. The rule alone only frustrates me. My ability to follow the rule comes from something greater than the rule itself.

Alex, the child in my program, knew the rule “Be nice. Be good.” Without something greater to stand on than just the rule, though, he will sink under its weight.

What’s the Answer?

Jesus explained this most clearly in John 14:21: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

Alex, like all of us, can be equipped to obey only through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Only through knowing Christ does the law lose its sin-causing power over us. Romans 7:4 says, “You also died to the law…that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.”

Sadly, we’re as quick leading kids to the law as to Christ-though we usually don’t realize it. See if you relate to any of these statements:

“I want kids to apply the Bible, so for each passage I tell them something they can do.”

“I give kids God’s rules to protect them from the immorality of today.”

“Sin is serious. I want kids to know and fear it.”

The above statements raise valid concerns-each has some truth and some danger. The effectiveness of our ministries hinges on how well we keep sight of the goal as we deal with these issues. Let’s take a closer look.

How To vs. Who Is God?

“I want kids to apply the Bible, so for each passage I tell them something they can do.”

Sometimes our desire to help kids apply Scripture turns a Who Is God? lesson into a how-to lesson. The difference? A how-to lesson could slip almost without notice into a public school curriculum and focuses on simply being a good citizen. A Who Is God? lesson focuses on the Creator and Savior of the world.

We do want kids to apply Scripture. That’s a no-brainer. Where we get off track is thinking that “apply” always implies a “moral.” That is, we want every passage in the Bible to tell us something to do.

We focus the account of Moses in the basket, for example, on Miriam helping her brother. That way we’ve got a moral, something physical: “Let’s be helpful.” It’s concrete, easy to understand, and we’ve got kids applying Scripture.

But will the kids apply what the passage is really meant to convey?

Here we’ve got a baby boy born to people in slavery who are crying out to God. All their male babies are being tossed into the Nile. And yet this baby is saved on the very river that was meant to swallow him!

In these worst of circumstances, God begins to save his people, starting with Moses. We see that God takes care of Moses, God takes care of his people, and we can infer that God takes care of us. The application for this story then is not so much something to do as it is a perspective on our relationship with God: God takes care of us.

How many kids in your class have parents going through a divorce? Are kids getting bullied on the playground? Are they afraid of the dark? Will we rob them of the message that God takes care of us, only to encourage them to “be a good helper”?

What if you began this lesson — even before reading the account — by asking kids to tell you about a time they felt afraid? As you get them talking and thinking about their fears, prepare them for the truth of the story. Stir them up to receive the comfort and knowledge of God’s care.

Before teaching any passage, we must ask, “Why is this in the Bible? What does it say about God?” From there we consider what the passage might mean to the kids! Then we’re using Scripture for its purpose: to reveal God — not to deliver rules.

Rules or Relationship?

“I give kids God’s rules to protect them from the immorality of today.”

Our tendency to assign a moral to every Bible passage might have another root: the decadence of our culture. We want kids to know the difference between the ways of God and the ways of the world.

God wants our kids to know the difference between his ways and the world’s too. So God reveals what life in his kingdom should look like through Scripture.

As we look at a Scripture passage and ask, “Why is this in the Bible? What does it tell us about God?” sometimes the answer is a moral, telling us what to do. We should convey this to the kids.

So, it’s true: God’s rules do protect us from immorality. As we teach these rules, though, we’ve got to remember yet again that the rule alone won’t help the child. The rule alone won’t equip the child to follow it.

The bulk of our lessons should reflect the bulk of Scripture, which is the story of God’s relationship with his people — who are constantly breaking his rules! This is the context for teaching God’s laws.

Take the Ten Commandments, for example. Let’s say you’re teaching a group of fourth graders the commandments, one per day. What if, at the end of every class, you asked children to each write on a piece of paper one way they’ve broken that commandment?

Then, the most important part: Have all the kids come forward to pin their paper on a cross and receive God’s forgiveness!

Whatever the age group, we need to teach rules in the context of our relationship with God. This guides our understanding of rules, and relationship is the only thing that’ll enable us to follow them.

More than 400 years passed between the calling of Abraham and the giving of the law. What happened in between? God built a relationship with his people through the blessings and trials of Abraham, his descendants, and their sojourn and salvation from Egypt. Relationship before rules!

Grace or Law?

“Sin is serious. I want kids to know and fear it.”

For Alex to “be nice. Be good,” he must know how unable he is to do it. This is a far cry from The Little Engine That Could and any just-believe-in-yourself mantra!

Alex must realize that Christ-the one who actually is able to “be nice. Be good”-paid the price for Alex’s failing.

Grace. This is grace.

Yet we teachers sometimes fear that an emphasis on grace will cause kids to take sin lightly. After all, kids need discipline. If they break their parents’ rules or their teachers’ rules, they need a consequence to prevent further bad behavior. So what happens if we tell them that God forgives them no matter what they do?

Aha! We must distinguish between consequences and forgiveness! Hopefully, parents and teachers also forgive children no matter what they do-even as they administer a consequence. Likewise, our sin has consequences, even as God forgives us.

Forgiveness restores our relationship with God, but it doesn’t erase the cause-and-effect consequences set in motion by our sin. Samson, for example, received restoration from God-forgiveness-in his final moments. This did not, however, free him from captivity by the Philistines-the consequence of his sin.

When we teach this story, kids see both sides. As we teach other passages, kids continue to see this pattern. While not every passage so evenly shows forgiveness and consequence, the Scripture’s collective effect makes it clear.

If you teach a broad range of scriptural accounts, kids will see that sin is serious. They will know and fear it.

Still, our focus must be on God’s grace. To emphasize something such as, “Samson broke God’s law, and look at what an awful thing happened to him!” might produce fear of sin, but it won’t produce love of God.

Just think: Jesus taught that those who are forgiven little, love little: but those who are forgiven much, love much (Luke 7:41-47).

I wanted Alex to take more from Sunday school than a batch of cute crafts, memory verses, and good morals. All these were supposed to be a means, not an end. The end-what I really wanted-was for Alex to know the love of Christ so fully that if he had to choose one sentence to represent the Bible, it might be something such as, “Jesus gave his life for me.”

Now, when preparing a lesson, I put my main teaching point through a litmus test:

  1. Is it true to the Scripture passage, revealing God?
  2. Does it highlight relationship over rules?
  3. Are forgiveness and consequences accurately portrayed?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, I rethink what I’m teaching. Otherwise, I’m asking kids to serve a God they do not know.

Lisa Wheeler is a Christian educator co-director in Birmingham, Alabama.

Looking for more teaching tips? Check out these ideas!

4 thoughts on “Is Your Sunday School Class Pointing Kids the Wrong Way?

  1. I came across your website on the internet concerning Training, I am interested in our S.School Teachers and Workers/Volunteers being trained, but we cannot attend your Training Sessions/Conferences, because of the cost and travel and accomodation expenses. Another reason why we cannot attend is that we just cannot afford., we live in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.
    my question is this, do you stream or record on dvd’s your sessions (Training Sessions and Conferences) so we who cannot attend can still receive of the wealth f information being shared. Thanks for your response.

    • Children's Ministry Magazine

      Hi Russell, Thank you for reaching out to us. We do not record our conferences or training sessions due to exclusivity for those in attendance. However, we do have a vast number of resources on our website that will be able to help you grow in these areas! When visiting our website, you’ll notice headers at the top of the page. We suggest visiting “Sunday School Lessons”, “Teacher Tips” and “Leadership” first.

  2. Ojelabi Adejoke

    Thank you so much for this eye opening Truth
    Am glad am reading from you and I will sure need more materials to help in my class where children can see relation , God’s love and much more.
    The lord reward your team for changing what we think we know
    Once again I appreciate your work
    Thanks for giving to the lord.

    • Children's Ministry Magazine

      Thank you for your comment, Ojelabi! We’re glad this blessed you.

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