Really? Who broke it? The simple but hard answer is, “We did!” Whenever we present a Bible story apart from the gospel, we break, undermine, and destroy the positive features of Sunday school. Now hopefully, you and I are not guilty of hiding God’s grace on a regular basis. But all across America the awesome message of repentance and forgiveness is being regularly missed by our church kids. If we hope to reach the next generation for Christ, we need to grapple with this stark reality by becoming even greater champions of the gospel. And here is why:
A recent study of churchless Americans revealed that 60% of them have not progressed beyond their childhood faith (Barna & Kinnaman, pp. 61-62). In other words, most people who currently don’t go to church shaped their ideas about Jesus, society and the world (in part) while munching on crackers and looking at pictures of Jesus during Sunday school. And if most who avoid church like the plague thought that salvation was through Christ alone by faith alone, we would have done well. Unfortunately, this is not reality.
Learning the Wrong Things
Most unchurched people think salvation is a matter of works (p. 72). Do this and this, and avoid that movie, and you are ready for heaven. In short, bunches of kids are coming into our churches, flying around our children’s center, and then going out the door with the wrong gospel. Perhaps phenomenon explains why 90% of all 13-yr-old kids claim Christ but only 3% of our youth actually subscribe to a biblical worldview (Barna, pp. 39, 41). And when these kids grow up and want to get more serious about their faith, the largest group of them (31%) will try to obey the Ten Commandments more faithfully (Barna & Kinnaman, p. 134). They double down on their efforts to work themselves to heaven. There are no two ways about it; many of our church kids are getting the gospel.
Why Don’t Kids Learn?
- Some simply don’t listen. I had many excellent Sunday school teachers as a child (some of whom still pray for me). But as an unsaved kid, I found daydreaming about baseball and toy soldiers to be more interesting that children’s Bibles. Kids who tune out now will naturally struggle to recall the gospel when they are grown.
- Every kid is born a sinner. Apart from the grace of God, no kid can understand the gospel or embrace any truth. All will either think the cross is foolish or objectionable (I Cor. 1:23). And to cope with their sin before salvation, kids often either consciously or unconsciously alter the glorious truths of the gospel to make their own sin more manageable. I.e. surely I can work my way to heaven and please God without transforming faith. Now to find an old lady to help across the street to make up for stealing that pack of gum.
- Teachers are misrepresenting Christ. We could actually be teaching that the gospel consists of self-motivated obedience. Remember David? You need to be brave. Remember Paul? You need to be bold and sacrificial. We forget to mention that obedience can only be achieved through the power of Christ. And perhaps, we promote a works salvation because that’s what we actually believe.
Over 50% of church people self-identified more with the Pharisees than with Christ.
So, over 50% of us good church folk live as if God made us extra special holy people; we think ourselves inherently better than the unchurched (p. 179). As a result, some of us have undoubtedly stopped teaching that we are all (or were) wretched sinners daily opposing God and in need of unearned grace. And we forget that God alone saves and equips us to do good works. It’s quite possible many of our kids aren’t getting the gospel because we have taught salvation by works alone. As one lifelong Sunday school teacher recently said,
If kids are leaving the church, it’s because we’ve failed to give them a view of Jesus and his cross that’s compelling enough to satisfy their spiritual hunger and give them the zeal they crave” (Klumpenhower, p. 52)
Keep the Gospel in Church
Admittedly, we cannot keep every child from wandering off from classroom into the sea of churchlessness. Only those kids who have encountered the risen savior will embrace local congregations when grown. We are not responsible for what people hear and believe. God’s got that under control.
But God will hold us accountable for what we say. We can and should faithfully teach the gospel. The preached word (and not our gimmicks or bands) is the hope of the next generation and of today’s churchless. Even around 23% of the unchurched get this truth and long for better Bible teaching (Barna & Kinnaman, p. 99). The gospel of God is the complete and only good news we have to offer. If we want to fix our Sunday schools or keep them humming well, we must faithful teach the gospel yesterday, today, and always.
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. – I Timothy 4:16
- Barna, G. (2003). Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions: Why Children Should Be Your Church’s #1 Priority . Ventura : Regal .
- Barna, G., & Kinnaman, D. (2014). Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. Austin: Tyndale House.
- Klumpenhower, J. (2014). Show Them Jesus: Teaching The Gospel to Kids. Greensboro: New Growth Press.