Thursday, January 16, 2014

Why do church kids leave the church?

Have you ever noticed how kids who grow up in church often leave the church?

Have you ever noticed how the moms and dads who go to church and take their children are often people who came to faith in college or early adulthood, and not people who grew up in church?

Have you ever wondered why?

In my past life, besides being the overwhelmed mother of four fantastic kids, I was a Sunday school teacher.  I taught a lot of Sunday school, years and years of it, and I loved it.

However, I can tell you: all Sunday school curricula are not created equal.  There are Sunday school curricula that I loved using, and those that I literally choked over.

I think if we carefully evaluate some of the most popular and widely used Sunday school program materials, we will come to an understanding of why a lot of young people grow up in church and don't stay.

I'm not going to name names here, of bad resources (although there are some bad resources out there).  Instead, I'm going to lay out a guideline that teachers of Christian education should carefully consider.

Many, many Sunday school programs see themselves as the "mother's helper" in terms of teaching children good behavior.  This is the problem with them, and this could be why their graduates do not stick around.

The main points I often saw in Sunday school lessons were things like,
  • Jesus wants you to share your toys with others.
  • Jesus wants you to obey your parents.
  • Jesus wants you to make peace with others... the way Isaac did when the others kept taking away his wells (this one drove me crazy, because it also took the story completely out of context and it rolled around like clockwork every three months, at the exclusion of many other significant Bible stories).
  • Jesus wants you to tell your friends about the ABC's of salvation and bring them to Sunday school.
The focus was on manipulating the children's behavior because "Jesus wants you to do this."

There are three glaring problems with this emphasis:
  1. It is all about works, not about grace.  (Are you behaving well enough to keep Jesus happy?)
  2. It is all about what we do and not about what God does. (They questions revolve around, "What have you done for Jesus?" rather than, "Do you know what Jesus has done for you?")
  3. Children are expected to want to please and obey Jesus, without ever having been adequately introduced to Him.
Children grow up having a sort of "Jesus" crammed down their throats, but not the real Jesus.  They are pounded with a Jesus who wants them to do all sorts of things that they don't naturally want to do, and he is apparently sad if they don't do these things, and happy if they do them, but he always wants more, more, more.  They are supposed to take delight in pleasing this demanding Jesus, but they don't understand why.  So they start to hate him, and to try to get away from him, and to avoid thinking about him... even though they never really knew him.  All they knew was a sad misrepresentation of him.

When I taught Sunday school I found that kids love theology.  Love it.  And what I mean by that is this:  you start talking about God with kids, about His attributes and His character, and they light right up.  Not all of them, of course, but a lot of them.  I'd even dare to say a majority of the kids in my classes got really interested when we started discussing, for instance, what it means that God is omnipresent, or that He is sovereign.  If you teach them about an almighty, loving, perfect, righteous, sovereign God, and you show them verses in the Bible that explain these concepts and qualities, then you are feeding their souls.

ahhhhh.... out of time


Hope T. said...

Interesting thoughts here. I think you may be on to something with the idea that kids come to associate Jesus with someone who is never satisfied with their behavior. What denomination were you teaching in?

I taught Children's Church in a Baptist Church when my oldest was three or four. My husband and I had quite a laugh that almost every lesson involved a craft in which the children glued cotton balls on paper. Fluffy cotton-ball sheep, fluffy cotton-ball clouds and whatever else you could make out of cotton balls. It was innocuous, of course, but got rather boring after two years of it!

The stories were the more well-known ones (mostly about sheep)and I never had Issac and the wells. In fact, though I have read Genesis quite a few times over the years, I didn't even remember that story and I had to look it up. It still doesn't ring a bell. But I DO know a lot about cotton balls.

ruth said...

I have mostly taught in Baptist churches as well. The best material I ever used was the Kids Desiring God material that comes out of John Piper's Desiring God Ministries. It was more work, but much more rewarding than the other stuff.

I kept running into Isaac and the wells when I taught 3-4 graders, and possibly also when I taught 5-6th graders. I think I came across it in both Sunday school and even in VBS. The main point was always, "Isaac was a peacemaker," which is not at all the main point of the Biblical story (which teaches that Isaac trusted God to give him the inheritance that He had promised him and ends with a reaffirmation of the Abramic covenant). I finally requested and obtained permission to stop using that particular brand of material and to transition over to the Desiring God lessons which I used (and deeply enjoyed) both for teaching children and for teaching adult women. The Desiring God lessons do not have many crafts, if any, and I do not remember ever using cotton balls! :)

There were two series that I particularly enjoyed. One was called, "In the beginning... Jesus," and it went through the Old Testament showing how Jesus' coming was foretold and foreshadowed all way from Genesis. It was a wonderful history of the OT, as well as a clear explanation of how the OT and NT work together. The other one I liked was called "Faithful to His Promises," and it focused on the promises of God, but alongside the promises, we studied His character, which helped us understand why and how He is absolutely trustworthy and we can know that God will always, always keep His promises. Very fortifying for child and adult alike.

Hope T. said...

It sounds like you love teaching Bible to kids and adults. Are you thinking about going back to teaching either Sunday School or Bible Study once you settle into your new home?

ruth said...

I would love to teach again. It's been awhile. I didn't teach at the last church we went to in NY, for two or three years. Last year I tried to teach English at a Christian school, but I've written about how poorly that went. My passion is not to teach English. I like teaching Bible, and not in a setting where it is graded.

I've been attending a Bible study here called BSF, but there aren't really any opportunities for more teachers in it. So I go, and I enjoy it pretty well, but I sure do miss teaching.

We've decided to settle into a church we found here, but we are holding off on joining. It is a tiny, tiny church, and they don't have Sunday school. The expositional preaching is excellent, some of the best I have ever heard in my life. But the fellowship opportunities are so limited, and I so need to be able to make friends... it is one of those times of daily taking up my cross and trying to do what I think Jesus wants me to do, but having my faith stretched as I wonder how He is going to meet my need for community, friendship and fellowship, as well as wondering (and trying to find peace as I wonder) whether I will ever be able to teach again.

Shawn Carpenter said...

I could not agree more! Looking forward to the next post on this (part II?).

Hope T. said...

I used to babysit for a BSF. It was my last paying job and it was almost twenty years ago. It was a very large group of women, as I think those studies usually are. Will that provide an arena for friendships, even though your tiny church does not? I assume the tiny church attenders are all senior citizens. At the cotton-ball crafts church I attended, the seniors had a bell choir and I was the token young member. It was so fun to get to know the older ladies. Maybe you could start a Bible Study for the seniors?

ruth said...

No. No senior citizens in this church.

We have tried many churches, and it came down to three we like.

One has about 30-40 people, many seniors. It was a sweet, sweet church and we liked the pastor. Very friendly people, and it was geographically very close to us. It is from a slightly more liberal denomination than I am usually comfortable with, but they seemed to be theologically grounded in themselves. I even sort of made a friend there.

The second is slightly smaller (15-20 people) and farther away, nearly a half hour drive. This one has the nicest building, and they even keep it warm! The people are about our age, on average, I think. The pastor and his wife are sweet, sweet people who really reached out to us during the time of my surgery. They have kids near the ages of our kids.

The last is a tiny, tiny church. there have been times we've gone when there would have been less than five people if we had not been there. I think if absolutely everyone turned up on the same Sunday, there might be 12, but this has never happened. This church has hands down the best preaching I've ever heard, and that is not to knock the other two churches, because they did a nice job with preaching. There were some churches we visited where they never really cracked the Bible open. We crossed them off immediately. But this teeny tiny church has amazing expositional preaching.

We've decided to give it a chance, to start attending there regularly and see how God leads us. It's scary because I am so lonely here and there are not many friends to be met there. Then again, we never could have chosen a church like this when we had our children to be concerned about. Perhaps God has brought us here at this season in our family life so that we could be (I don't know?) some sort of help or encouragement to a growing baby church. I don't know. We're going to attend and pray for 6 months and see how God leads us from there.