I have a very clear childhood memory of siting at a tiny little table in a room full of toys, coloring a picture of different types of telephones and then crossing them out while listening to someone explain that you can’t call God on the telephone. I was five years old and it was part of a Sunday School lesson on prayer. To my mind, it seemed that I was being taught a great theological truth about the nature of God and telephones. This idea was reinforced by the fact that “You can’t call God on the telephone” was a maxim that was repeated whenever prayer was the topic of a Sunday School class for the next several years. Apparently, this is considered a good way to begin discussing prayer with small children.
That strikes me as being extremely odd. Evidently, the point was to distinguish prayer from human-to-human conversation, but why is that such an important point to make? Why do people think that it’s the first and primary thing about prayer that young children need to know? Wouldn’t it be more significant to point out that prayer actually is sort of like talking to a person, and that it’s a really special blessing to be able to talk directly to God? Besides, it’s not as if a telephone somehow blocks prayer from reaching God’s ears. If someone was to pray while holding a telephone to their face for some reason, that wouldn’t negate the prayer. But that is also an unnecessary point to specify when defining prayer for children, because the topic of prayer is not intrinsically linked to the topic of telephones. At least in my case, the discussion of telephones was a distraction from the subject of prayer, not an instructive illustration of the concepts being taught.
Little-kid Sunday School, at least as I remember it, relied on a lot of canned phrases and irrelevant craft projects to discuss things in vague terms that would have been better if they were just taught explicitly. We were told over and over again that “God is everywhere” and that we were supposed to “Always trust in God” without any additional explanation or discussion of those concepts. Old Testament stories were taught as if the whole point of them was how righteous certain “characters” were and how we should be just like them. Bible stories from the gospels were learned by coloring pictures of Jesus and talking in vague terms about how loving Jesus is and how He always cares for us. The epistles were completely ignored until around fifth or sixth grade, at which point those teachings were incorporated into Sunday School lessons by having each student look up a certain number of verses, all taken out of context, that related to a certain theme. That theme was sometimes moralistic (like how important it is to love everyone) and sometimes encouraging, (like how God doesn’t want bad things to happen to Christians) but it was always something fairly vague and rarely had to do with salvation and justification. Instead of learning the Ten Commandments or discussing Law and Gospel, we looked at cartoons of children engaged in various activities and pointed out which ones were misbehaving and which ones were being good. Coloring on the walls is bad, setting the dinner table is good, pulling people’s hair is bad, and helping a friend who fell down and scraped his knee is good. Maybe the occasional Sunday School lesson happened to mention Jesus’ crucifixion and the forgiveness of sins, but if it did, that was a trivial point compared to the primary purpose of telling stories illustrating goodness and badness, or reminding us that God is [insert any generic adjective with a positive connotation].
For teenagers and preteens, most Sunday School lessons try very hard to prepare students for the possibility that they will have to defend themselves to peers who may tease them for going to church. I remember many, many lessons that involved watching videos or looking at stories written in comic book form, showing a Christian teenager explaining to his/her friends that he/she can’t participate in a certain social event on Sunday morning because he/she had church. The friends would laugh at the protagonist, say that church wasn’t important, and (horror of horrors) call the protagonist a “religious nut.” Then the protagonist would resist peer pressure, meekly walk away from the conversation, decide that those kids are terrible people and bad influences with whom no Christian can be friends, go home, do his/her chores and homework, and read the Bible for an hour before going to bed and getting at least eight hours of sleep because that’s the right thing to do. He or she is a good and faithful Christian, everyone else is bad and should be avoided, and the lesson is over.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad with teaching kids moral values, emphasizing the greatness of God, or warning teenagers about peer pressure and anti-Christian sentiment in popular culture. But I don’t understand why most adults think that children can’t understand anything beyond empty clichés and the distinction between good and bad. It would be so easy to take a stereotypical moralistic Sunday School lesson and expand it into a meaningful Law/Gospel lesson by adding a few words to the effect that Jesus died on the cross to pay for all our sins. That’s not an intellectually challenging concept; at least one of my younger sisters was able to articulate it as soon as she was old enough to talk in sentences. It would be so easy to take a popular theme or Bible story and expand it into a meaningful message by taking the fluff out of Sunday School lessons and using that time to read entire Bible passages instead of individual verses. It would be so easy to remind Sunday School students what their church teaches in addition to what their friends are likely to think about their church. Little kids would benefit a lot from having some substance in their Sunday School lessons, and older kids would benefit even more because their lessons tend to follow an even narrower theme than little kids’ lessons do. Just because teenagers face peer pressure doesn’t mean that all they need to hear is how important it is not to give in to it.
It’s true that Christians are subject to hurtful stereotypes, especially on the internet, and that Christians do sometimes experience peer pressure that will try to turn them away from the church. It is very true that Christianity is distinctly set apart from the secular world, which is why “secular” is even a word in the first place. And it makes sense to occasionally warn teenagers about the anti-Christian messages that they will often encounter. (Here, I use “anti” both in the sense of “opposed to” and in the sense of “instead of”) But despite the non-Christian values of our society and the negative view of Christians that is propagated by certain aspects of the media and held by many individuals, this culture is still a very safe and easy place to be a Christian, at least in comparison to many parts of the world. In this country, not only is it legal to be a Christian, but it’s fairly normal. Peer pressure and anti-Christian stereotypes are issues that Christian teenagers face in this society, but it isn’t exactly the constant hardship that Sunday School lessons tell them to anticipate. For one thing, Christianity is common enough that most Christian teenagers have friends who share their faith and would never tease them or alienate them for their beliefs. Besides that, very few atheists will suddenly dump a best friend for being Christians. Sure, religion does occasionally tear relationships apart, but it’s unlikely that those kinds of issues will occur out of the blue sometime when someone teases you for going to church on one specific Sunday.
I myself have never been directly and specifically mocked by a peer for being a Christian. There have been occasions where someone has questioned my values and beliefs or has expressed surprise and confusion about my unwillingness to skip church on a whim, but (unless you count the occasional hateful anonymous internet comment) I have never been victimized on account of my religion. But there’s something else I have encountered quite a lot, something that Sunday School never told me might ever happen. People ask me genuine, sincere, curious questions about religion all the time. Atheist or agnostic friends are curious about what exactly Christianity is all about, non-Lutheran Christians wonder what exactly Lutherans believe, and occasionally, people who are completely on the same page as me want to hear what I know about a particular topic. It’s a good thing that I go to church and Bible study regularly and grew up in a Christian home, because Sunday School alone wouldn’t have prepared me to be able to give even the most basic explanation of what my religion is. As it is, I admit that there have been a number of cases in which I have responded by mumbling something random and inarticulate that may or may not have resembled actual words. But there have been quite a number of other times where I have had a very interesting theological conversation with someone who genuinely wanted to hear about my faith and who had no intention to respond with insults or mockery. Those kinds of conversations are always good experiences, and I’d like to think that the other person gets something out of them, too.
At any rate, I think it’s an important thing for Christians to know and be able to articulate what they believe. It seems to me that Christianity in general is following the dumbing-down trend set by Sunday School lessons. Just take a look at the ways people express their faith on the internet. It’s impossible to avoid the “share if you love Jesus” facebook posts and the inspirational “Christian” quotes that have nothing to do with Christ. When we were kids, we were taught that faith means being good, or being able to tell when other people aren’t being good, or resisting peer pressure by letting everyone know just how much we love Jesus, or making generic and vague statements about how good God is. So that’s what Christianity means in our culture now. And, based upon what I have seen and heard, the result is that some Christians and most non-Christians really are unaware of what Christianity is. People actually don’t realize that Jesus’ death and resurrection is what’s important, and that the central teaching of Christianity is that His death and resurrection gives us salvation from our sins. That’s a much more important teaching, not only for the grownups, but for people of every age group. When it comes down to it, there’s no distinction between Christian teachings for kids and Christian teachings, because kids should be allowed to know what their religion says.