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Children's Sunday school and the battle for the Bible
March 22, 2004
By Russell D. Moore, Dean, School of Theology, Southern Seminary

A recent editorial cartoon in The Weekly Standard pictures a father and mother with their sobbing son leaving a theater showing of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The dad reassures the boy by telling him, “Don’t worry, sweetie. In the sequel, He comes back and kills all the bad people.” While this cartoon is an attempt at playful sarcasm, there’s a little glimpse of biblical truth there. The Scriptures do indeed leave us with the reassurance that the Crucified One will return to overturn this present evil world order and to vindicate the justice of God. The question that remains is this: can our children handle that kind of truth?

I’m not advocating that we take our small children to see Gibson’s movie. I’m suggesting something far more radical -- that we teach them the Bible in Sunday school.

And that is far more radical than we might think in an evangelical world that increasingly sees children’s Sunday school as a platform for a syrupy moralism -- and not much more. There is some great material available, but there is also a lot of evangelical curriculum and teaching theory in which children are thought to be too immature for “hard” concepts like sin and atonement; too tender for the “darker” aspects of the biblical storyline.

So many evangelical child-ren’s Sunday school classes are translating biblical texts into a baptized version of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Jesus’ calling of the Twelve is about the fact that “Jesus had friends.” Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and the fish is about the idea that “Jesus wants you to share.” Noah’s Ark is now about responsible care of pets. The children are then called on to emulate the biblical “characters” in being good boys and girls. Previous generations had a term for Bible study like this. It was called “Protestant liberalism.” And, in case we don’t remember, it didn’t lead to anything good.

This triumph of moralism in children’s Sunday school has led to an alarming biblical illiteracy -- even among the most “churched” children. A Pres-byterian told me of substitute teaching a children’s Sunday school class in a solid, Bible-believing church. When he mentioned David and Goliath, the children stared at him blankly. He tried to jog their memories -- “You remember, David killing the giant with the stone and then cutting off his head?” More blank stares -- until my friend asked how many knew the story of “Davie and the Giant Pickle.” Hands shot up, and faces glowed with recognition.

I grew up in a working-class, rural Southern Baptist church that hadn’t yet heard which parts of the Bible were unsuitable for little ears. My Sunday school teachers just taught us the Bible, which meant that we heard a lot of “inappropriate” content. We heard about Goliath’s head on a stick, Jael’s creativity with a tent peg and Ehud’s sword slicing the fat of the king of Moab. And we heard about the cross of Jesus -- not just as an example of God’s love for us -- but also as a payment for our sin. My fifth-grade boys’ Sunday school class loved it -- for some of the “wrong” reasons but for all the right reasons too.

The problem is most pronounced when it comes to reaching little boys. John Eldredge of Wild at Heart fame may have some things wrong, but he has one important concept very right -- men are created with an adventurous spirit. My two-year-old sons already love bedtime stories about giant killers and warrior knights. Like all child-ren, they understand intuitively that evil exists -- and they are reassured not by ignoring it, but by seeing its defeat. They have a sense of adven-ture that is rooted in the image of God they bear (Gen 2:15). It is a joy to point them to the real giant-killer, the real dragon-slayer (Rev 12:9). I have 18 years or so to show them how, from creation to the empty tomb, their King Jesus crushes the Serpent’s head (Gen 3:15).

Thankfully, they have a Sunday school that reinforces this teaching of the Bible. But I wonder how many of their evangelical peers are being robbed of the apostles and prophets in favor of Precious Moments moral sketches? A feminized Sunday school pedagogy has serious ramifications for the raising up of men to lead the church in the next generation. How can you hold the attention of adventurous boys when the Bible subliminally becomes for them an etiquette class designed to train elderly women how to behave in church?

But the stakes are even higher when we consider the eternal consequences of children’s Sunday school. Unlike Protestant liberals, we understand that we are called to evangelize our children -- not simply to nurture them in some inherited faith. That means that we must be working toward conviction of sin -- a conviction that comes through the Spirit who speaks through the Scriptures (John 16:8-14). If we replace the narrative of Scripture with moral sketches from Bible stories, are we not keeping the little ones from hearing the voice of Christ? And doesn’t Jesus take that seriously (Mark 10:14)? Again, we have much good curriculum -- and many good teaching helps. What we need are more pastors and church leaders who will communicate the importance of robust children’s Bible teaching to our congregations.

The Passion of the Christ might be too graphic for little boys and girls. But the Bible isn’t. In our homes and in our churches, let’s teach the whole counsel of God -- even to our little ones. On second thought, let’s teach the whole counsel of God -- especially to our little ones. For, after all, didn’t Someone once say the Kingdom of God belonged to them anyway?


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