Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Plugging the hole in the sinking ship of Sunday school

If you’ve been following my series on the family integrated church, you know that the hallmark feature of the FIC model is the absence of age-segregated Sunday school classes. And if you read my post on an alternative to youth groups, you know the statistics are in on Sunday school and youth programs, and it’s not looking good. I suggested in that post that we have two choices in light of the failure of our Sunday school/youth programs in the modern church. We can either abandon them entirely in favor of a family-integrated approach. Or we can attempt to fix our Sunday school/youth programs so that they will be more successful at training up our children in the Lord. This post is devoted to the later option. Many of us are parents and/or Sunday school teachers. Some of you, like my husband, may be pastors. We all want to do what we can in our sphere of influence to make a difference in the lives of our youth. So, what can we do to plug the hole in the sinking ship of our Sunday school programs?

1. Parental involvement is key. Remember that Deuteronomy 6 is clear that it’s the responsibility of the parents to teach their children about the Lord throughout the day every day. You can be Biblical and send your child to Sunday school one hour a week, but it all hinges on your involvement. If you are a parent, talk to your child’s teacher and stay up to date on what your child is learning in Sunday school. Actually read any take-home literature and let their lesson serve as a conversation starter for you to take up where the teacher left off. If you have concerns about the SS curriculum talk to an elder or change churches if the material is not sound. If you are a teacher try to involve the parents as much as possible. Give them a heads up on Scripture passages the kids are supposed to be memorizing and encourage the parents to work with their kids throughout the week. You can’t make it happen, but you can facilitate it through open lines of communication. Lots of times the parents are willing, but feel inadequate or don’t know where to start. Tell them what you’re studying and encourage them to talk with their kids at home. For that matter, encourage the kids to talk with their parents about it as well. If you’re a pastor, try to encourage these open lines of communication between teachers and parents. The key is that the Sunday school teacher is only to come alongside and help the parents in their God-given responsibility to train up their children. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. One hour per week is not going to make or break your child’s faith. Far more important is the day in day out spiritual life of their home. Is the Bible highly regarded in their home? Do their parents pray with them and talk to them about spiritual matters? Do they worship with their families at home or is worship a once a week activity? In general, so go the parents, so go the children. We cannot hope to change a generation of children in one hour per week. We must win the parents in order to win the children.

2. Add family-integrated classes. This is really an extension of the first point of parental involvement. I shared with you previously that my husband has recently started a family-integrated youth class to take the place of a youth group. Teens and parents attend Sunday school together. This is great because it addresses the issue of parents not knowing where to start and is perfect for parents who are new believers. Parents and kids are studying God’s Word together and their bonds are strengthened in the process. The teens see that the parents’ faith is real and that their parents are investing themselves in their lives. This philosophy could also be extended to fellowship activities in which parents and youth fellowship together. In our church we’ve only experimented with the middle school/high school age group, but some version of this could certainly be applied to every age. I teach a catechism class on Wednesday nights and have often thought how awesome it would be if the parents could participate in even a small part of that each week. Maybe we can implement that in the future.

3. Teach the whole Bible. Ken Ham in his book Already Gone suggests world view training in Sunday school. I would argue that the Bible is enough, but so often the Bible is not taught in its entirety. When we give our kids little snippets of the Bible they come away with a skewed view of who God is. If they don’t know God, how can they worship Him? For example, a common tactic of the modern church is to teach only snippets of the NT. They go heavy on God’s grace and love, while neglecting to teach His holiness and wrath. This type of education lends itself to heresies such as “easy believism”, the kind of thinking that since I’m saved by grace I’m free to live however I want. That since I walked an aisle or raised my hand or repeated some prayer, I'm part of God's family and saved even if I show zero signs of spiritual fruit. Some refer to this as “cheap grace”. My husband and I spent a year at a church that taught God’s grace to the exclusion of His holiness and wrath. We never once heard a sermon encouraging holy living. You can imagine my husband’s difficult task as pastor of college and career young adults. They could live it up all week long and then be released of any guilt Sunday morning. This “cheap grace” made it very difficult to inspire them toward holiness. I am no expert on Sunday school curricula, but I’ve taught from several and love, love, love Desiring God ministries SS curricula. I’ve been so impressed with them and highly recommend them to you. I’m teaching 2nd and 3rd graders “In the Beginning... Jesus”, which teaches how the whole Bible beginning in Genesis reveals our need for and God’s promise of a Savior. Our kids are learning that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow! We should not neglect any of God’s Word in our Sunday school curricula. Likewise, our pastors should preach the whole counsel of God. We may pay lip service to the sufficiency of Scripture, but if we’re only teaching a portion of it, what good will that do us?

4. Use qualified teachers. I’m afraid we’ve become so desperate in our quest to “fill slots” for our Sunday school program that we’ve dropped our standards along the way. The Bible establishes qualifications for teaching elders in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Why not apply these same standards to Sunday school teachers? Are our children of less value than the adults in our churches? A better question might be, isn’t the accurate handling of the Word of God that important? If you go to a church that screens their Sunday school teachers by checking for a heartbeat first and then maybe running a criminal background check at best, you should probably screen them yourself. If you’re satisfied then great, the Lord has blessed you with someone to come alongside you and help you train up your child. If not, then remove your child from that class. If you’re a pastor, disciple your Sunday school teachers. Know to whom you’ve entrusted the teaching of God’s Word in your church and take it seriously. My husband and I laugh now, but we look back at some of the Sunday school teachers we’ve had through the years and it’s scary. Desperation can be a powerful force to be reckoned with, but don’t let it get the best of you. If you don’t have qualified teachers, disband Sunday school until you’ve trained up leaders. Don’t settle for warm bodies or good intentions. Not everyone is meant to be a teacher, thus the collective sharing of individual gifts for the mutual benefit of the body of Christ.

What else? What other suggestions do you have? Remember, the Bible does not prohibit others from teaching your children. I homeschool my kids and my husband and I take training our children up in the Lord seriously, but show me a Scripture where parents are prohibited from allowing others to assist them in training their children. We have freedom here to use our best discretion, but we must not throw out our own responsibility which is paramount. I’m so grateful for the children I’ve had the opportunity to teach. Kids soak up the Word of God and I’m amazed at the depth of understanding my 2nd and 3rd graders are able to grasp. I think the family integrated model of doing church together as a family is wonderful. But, I also think we can separate for 1 hour per week if we exercise discernment in the points discussed above. Remember, the Hebrews allowed for the training of young men in the Torah by rabbis. Paul, himself studied under one of the most famous rabbis of his time. Timothy did learn the Scriptures from his grandmother and mother, but he also became Paul’s protégé. The Reformers held catechism classes. Men go to seminaries to study theology and learn to be expositors of the Word (warning: some do this better than others!). I’m just saying, there’s nothing wrong in and of itself in allowing teachers to assist you in training up your children.

Maybe there is no FIC where you live. Or maybe God is calling you to make a difference in your church and family where you are. Almost Gone reports that young adults who grew up in Sunday school are leaving the church in droves when they graduate from high school. There’s something wrong with our existing Sunday school model, but by making the changes above I believe we can make our Sunday school classes Biblical. And there is no higher goal than to be Biblical. That is our ultimate standard and we must not create an additional one.


  1. I look forward to sitting down and reading all of your posts about this tonight

  2. Awesome information!

    I, too long for that single-minded devotion of knowing Christ and Him crucified!

  3. I am really enjoying your series and really agree with you. Dh and I teach a Wed night catechism class, too. I look forward to any ideas you might have on promoting parental involvement.



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I'm an on-the-run mom to 6 kids who studied and taught exercise science in a previous life. I love all things running, nutrition, and health-related. I usually run at zero dark thirty in the morning and am often quite hungry before, during, and after my run, but I live a rich, full, blessed life with my children, family, and friends. My faith in God is my anchor, and looking to Him and His promises allows me to live fully even when life circumstances are difficult. While running gives me an appetite, my desire is to hunger and thirst for righteousness more than for physical food.