I Wonder If Sunday School Is Destroying Our Kids

Several years ago I met with a woman distraught by her son’s rejection of Christianity.

She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”

She wondered why he rejected Christianity.

I wondered why it took him so long.

The regression of the gospel and the loss of Christianity

In Marks of the Messenger, Mack Stiles describes how the gospel is lost through generational teaching:

  1. The gospel is Accepted –>
  2. The gospel is Assumed –>
  3. The gospel is Confused –>
  4. The gospel is Lost

Stiles continues, “For any generation to lose the gospel is tragic. But the generation that assumes the gospel is … most responsible for the loss of the gospel” (emphasis added).

We are that generation. We assume—and therefore destroy—the gospel message.

Here is how we destroy the gospel message

Look at almost any Sunday school curriculum. You’ll find:

  • Abraham was faithful, and God made him the father of a nation. So be faithful like Abraham.
  • Joseph was a good little boy (unlike his “bad” brothers), and God made him Prime Minister of Egypt. So be good like Joseph.
  • David had a pure heart (unlike his brothers), and God made him King of Israel. So have a pure heart like David.
  • Esther was an obedient girl. God made her Queen of Persia and she saved God’s people. So be obedient like Esther.
  • Finally, if we fail to be good, Jesus will forgive us (a “P.S.” tacked onto the end).

What’s so bad about these Sunday school lessons?

Nothing really. Except that they lie about God, they lie about these “heroes of the faith,” they lie about the Bible, and they lie about the gospel. Apart from that, they are pretty good. Oh, they also create “younger brother” rebels and “older brother” Pharisees.

Is the gospel our central theme, or is it a “PS” tacked onto the end?

The gospel storyline

The message of the gospel—the entire storyline of scripture—is God’s loving pursuit of people who run from him as fast as they can and who live lives unworthy of his love.

That’s why it’s called grace.

But our Sunday school lessons teach us to be good little boys and girls, and God will love us and use us. It’s the total opposite of the gospel. It’s a counterfeit of the worse kind.

The inside out of the gospel

The wonder of the gospel is not the love of the beautiful; it’s when Beauty kisses the Beast.

The Beast isn’t loved because he has changed; the Beast is changed when he is loved. Joy doesn’t come when he’s loved for his beauty; joy overwhelms him when he is loved in his hideousness.

If the Beast were loved for his beauty, it would be an unbearable burden. Any day he might be scarred, and soon he will certainly be a wrinkled old man.

So why do we burden our children with the unbearable load of “being good little boys and girls like the heroes in the Bible”? We wouldn’t load a pack mule with the burdens we place on our children.

Let me show you a better way

Let’s teach the wonder of the gospel. Let’s show our kids that God loves us … simply because he loves us. In our beastliness. That he loves us before we are good.

That his love isn’t vague sentimentality, but it cost him his most precious treasure to turn us into his prized possession; that the storyline of the Bible is God’s Search and Rescue mission to find the dying Beast and kiss him into joyous life.

  • How Abraham was an idol worshiper and God loved him and pursued him;
  • How Joseph was a narcissistic boy and God loved him and pursued him;
  • How David was a murdering adulterer and God loved him and pursued him;
  • How Esther had sex outside of marriage with a non-believer and God loved her and pursued her.

Our heroes weren’t loved because they were good; they were good because they were loved.

We may believe in the innocence of youth, but our children know better. They see the children in the schoolyard (and they see us at home!). They don’t need the counterfeit gospel of pack-mule-moralism; they need the kiss of the Beauty.

Maybe we do too. Besides, it’s what the Bible in fact teaches.


So what do you think?

  • Are you offended at my depiction of Joseph and Esther?
  • Do you agree that our Sunday schools may be creating our worst nightmares?
  • Which do you think is the gospel, loved because we’re good or good because we’re loved?

Comment below under, What do you think?

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What do YOU think?

30 thoughts on “I Wonder If Sunday School Is Destroying Our Kids

  1. I am a children minister, and I agree with you for that the gospel is often mispresented in many curriculums. We are definitely not loved because of who we are or what we do but despite of who we are and what we do.
    The gospel is about God restoring what has gone wrong back to the right relationship with Him for His own pleasure.
    So, I would like to add something to your presentation of the heroes of faith. Although they were failures in the beginning, they were faithful people we can follow the example of their faith in God. They first had to encounter God, but they did their part of trusting God , humbling themselves before Him, and God used them for His glory. Thank you for sharing this post.

    • Hi Hannah,

      Thank you so much for you comments. I love your line, are are loved “despite of who we are and what we do.”

      I agree with what you add. They were failures but responded to God, and humbled themselves before him. Yes! Absolutely.

      Great comments. Thanks.


  2. I agree with you that many children’s curriculum lessons do not present the gospel correctly, but I don’t think they always misrepresent and cause the nightmares. Some times they do present the gospel correctly but do not give the whole picture.
    Also, I see what you are trying to say about the heroes of faith and I completely agree with you that God loved us first and not because of who we are or what we do, but despite of who we are and what we do.
    However, despite of their failures, when they encountered God, they responded correctly by humbling themselves and trusting God. Their faith journey wasn’t perfect but was good example for us. Their lives show the restoration God desires and offers, in love, for us to experience in our own. Thanks for posting this! 🙂 good read

    • Hi Hannah,

      Again, I agree that the lessons don’t always give nightmares; as you know, my concern was the focus of God’s love. Do we get it because we deserve it? No. But, receiving it does create in us a more loving, humble heart.

      As you say, “Their lives show the restoration God desires and offers, in love, for us to experience in our own.” Great line.


      • Sam, I’m sorry about this redundant comment. I was writing it on my ipod, and for some reason, it kept saying that the comment could not posted (the pages kept giving me an Error message, and finally I gave up). I wasn’t trying to write the same thing :/ Thank you for your patience & kind response!

  3. Thanks for writing that Sam.
    That is one of the best and simplest explanations I’ve heard for what happens to kids who have grown up in Christian homes where the gospel was “assumed”.
    It blew the covers off legalism too, which despite our Sunday schools teachers best motives, is exactly what kids become burdened with through the sequence for events you’re described.
    I also love your take on Beauty and the Beast. There is nothing more freeing than being loved “while we were yet still sinners” (Romans), that is to say while we are still in our “beastliness”.
    Your timing for this post was kairos for my heart, thanks so much,


    • Hello Guy,

      Your comments are “kairos” for my heart! Thanks.

      The Beauty and the Beast metaphor came to me just as I was writing that paragraph. I wrote, “The wonder of the gospel is not love of the beautiful…” and then it hit me. The gospel is like when Beauty kisses the beast–in all his beastliness.

      Oh Lord, please move this truth from our heads into our hearts! We need to know you love us because you love us, before we are “good.”

      Thanks Guy,


  4. Thank Jesus it’s not “loved becaused we are good”. I would be out for sure.
    I really like this post Sam. Missy and I were just discussung how we want the kids to learn more about God and His love for us, and how conflicted we are about some of the messages delivered at Sunday school and Church.

    • Hey Damon, my blog instigator!

      Yes indeed, thank you Jesus.

      I understand the conflict we all have. We DO want our kids to be moral–we don’t want them to lie, cheat, and steal. Nobody does, believer or not.

      It’s just that we need to use another tool, other than twisting the gospel into a lie, and thereby corrupting the very thing that we all need most.

      We need to work out a system of teaching the gospel first, though, because in the end. the gospel is the only thing that will bring deep heart changed morality.


  5. Sam
    What a great message this morning. As we receive this message and God’s love ourselves only then can we truly pass this on to our children. They know when you love them unconditionally and they know when you only love them when they do good.
    How many of us are messed up because we have tried to earn love rather than receive it?
    Thanks Sam

    • Hi Chris,


      Here is my thought (at 7:50 in the morning): If we teach and explain the gospel to our kids over and over, again and again, repeatedly, maybe we’ll begin to get it ourselves!

      That the gospel is when the Beauty kisses the Beast–us.



  6. Hi Sam! I love this post. It resonates with my heart. It’s all about grace. You say, “The message of the gospel…is God’s loving pursuit of people who run from him as fast as they can and who live lives unworthy of his love” and “The Beast isn’t loved because he has changed; the Beast is changed when he is loved. Joy doesn’t come when he’s loved for his beauty; joy overwhelms him when he is loved in his hideousness.”
    This is my story. I have been and still am to this day pursued by a relentless God who will not give up on me, who loves me in the midst of my unfinishedness and messiness. And beauty rises to the surface in me every time I encounter His presence and His acceptance of me.
    I have adult children who grew up with many of the sunday school lessons that you talk about (be good, faithful, kind…placing unrealistic burdens on them–setting them up to feel like failures and then become posers). Today they are not interested in that kind of religion, niether am I. Bringing the gospel to my kids today, is running after them as fast as I can in love; loving them in their hideousness (just as God has loved me in mine), being like the Father of the Prodigal who waits at the end of the road every day for the lost one to finally come home…and adorning him with a robe of righteousness and the family ring, and inviting the community to celebrate his home coming with a feast! This is the kind of love that changes things. It is costly, beautiful and very attractive.
    Thank you, Sam, for putting this out. This is Good News and the reminder I need today.

    • Hi Dana, it is SO very good to hear from you.

      I love your line, “This is my story.” Yes, your story, my story, and everyone’s story. And our kid’s story. God pursuing us relentlessly and lovingly.

      And here is the other thing I love of what you say. You say that you can run after your kids in love. That is what the gospel does to us. We no longer have to run after then so we can be “good little boys and girls”–which means we run after them to feel good about ourselves. No! Now we can run after them just in love. We have been loved and that fills us with love so we can pour out love.

      Oh, I love it.

      Thank you so much for sharing this.


  7. I was reading through this and it reminded me of a book review I saw the other day of “The Antidote” by Oliver Burkeman. Although written from a secular perspective, and therefore missing the main point, it has some similarities: not trying to view the world (or, in our case, the flawed humans in the bible) as a set of positives but instead “bathe in insecurity” or we might say bathe in the saving grace of Christ. Obviously there are a lot of differences in perspective, but maybe there is something significant to being real about our humanity.

    But I think the most difficult part of this is making it accessible to children. In teaching these concepts to children we must balance the teaching/understanding of our sin and God’s grace. Although I have not yet had kids of my own, I can imagine that this is no easy task.

    • Nate,

      That’s a great perspective. Thanks for the book share.

      I agree, this is hard to share with kids. How do you share about David’s adultery with a five year old? You probably don’t. (I didn’t know what it WAS as a five year old.)

      But we can share the good news that we don’t have to be perfect FOR God; we are made perfect IN him.


  8. I agree with you. I think that we should teach our students how to live right and to make good choices, to be obedient and follow Gods word but I think we also teach them that God uses the willing not the able, that He loves us in spite of our flaws bad choices and disobedience. That were gonna mess up and do the wrong thing but when we do God helps us up He disciplined us and then He loves….He disciplines us because He loves us. No one can live well on their own it all comes with Gods help. If we teach them that God only loves good people they’ll prob stop trying. We are good because we are loved because we want to please God because as He shoes His love through grace and mercy we no longer want to disappoint Him so we do better or try to. I wasn’t sure what u wanted in the website box but I found this on Facebook.

    • Hi Alyssa,

      Thanks for sharing your comment.

      I’d say that we aren’t “loved because we want to please God” as much as “we want to please God because we are loved.” Our desire to please God comes in proportion to our understanding how much he leaves us even when we don’t want to please him.

      Thanks for taking the time to share and comment.

  9. Wow this is a really really good article! I’m going to link to it from my blog.

    I’ve noticed that in little-kid bibles or Sunday School lessons, it takes the bizarre, complex stories of the bible and reduces it down to one take-home lesson about how to be a good person. Esther is about courage. Hannah is about trusting God. Noah is about obeying God. David and Jonathan is about friendship. Etc. In reality, the bible is really weird, and the “bible heroes” were real people who had complex lives and strengths and weaknesses like we do. And some stories in the bible are just really weird and don’t have a simple lesson to be applied to one’s life.

    • I love your line, “the bible is really weird, and the “bible heroes” were real people who had complex lives and strengths and weaknesses like we do.”

      Yes indeed, REAL people with complex lives.

      I am so happy God loves me in my complexity of sin and selfishness. His love is the only thing that can get me out of myself.


  10. As one who has been reminding kids (gr. 1-4) for 30 years about what the curriculum doesn’t mention about our ‘heroes’ I totally enjoyed your exhortation to tell the whole truth and nothing but… So help us dear God!

  11. I have been confused by how church people tend to make the assumption that everyone they interact with knows Jesus. Not just Sunday school kids, but adults too. Since I have been organizing the Sunday school at my fellowship, I have noticed that following a set curriculum seems to make us lazy. Its much easier to regurgitate a canned program than to take the risk of interacting with hearts. So it is with adults. We seem to have a set way of talking about faith that shields us from sharing our hearts.

  12. Altho sunday school does in fact present the bible via story telling to help younsgters comprehend, I do think that the part that is not made clear, for adults either for that matter, is that God wants a relationship with us. He made us, He loves us, He pursues us. As we grow older, I hope that all people will have a “wise sage” come along in their life to help them realize this,.. and begin a conscience “walk with God.” Thanks for being willing to put it out there. Lyle

  13. Gday. Love to read more. Your post drew my attention straight away. Now to go and find your book. Where do I find it??

  14. I agree that often the gospel is missed in the sharing of the Law.
    The examples given in the article were set up as Law. You do this, God does this. The law works like the rain falls. Sometimes we like the way if falls and sometimes we are on an outing and wish God would do things differently. Some pray for rain and the crops die for lack of moisture. God does what He wants to do. Man makes plans and rules. God laughs a lot at this.
    If the stories given in the O.T. and the brief summaries found in Hebrews 11 were not shared to encourage us to follow their examples, I am missing something. The problem is our insistence on trying to set rules within the covenant that God has not agreed to. God’s laws are good. Legalism in not.
    God chose people to do certain things. Many who did what God called them to do were called faithful in Hebrews. If you read their accounts, their faithfulness was not perfect.
    The examples used in Heb. are good examples. In spite of their imperfection, God worked in their lives. This = Grace. Why were Joseph’s brothers not chosen? God must have seen something in those he choose. Otherwise the phrase, “your faith has made you well” makes little sense. “And Noah was found righteous by God. Why were pagan cities sited as having more faith than Jewish cities by Jesus? In spite of being less than perfect, some character traits seem to place some people in the work of God and others are not in that work place.
    Noah was not perfect. But he did not have to learn how to swim as his last task on earth. I doubt it would have helped.
    Does the law work all the time? Of course not. We and all in the kingdom, Old covenant and new, live by grace.
    Faith greases the wheels of grace. And genuine faith demands action. That action sometimes puts you in a place of great power. (Joseph) That faith sometimes gets you killed. (Peter, Paul, James, Stephen, the Prophets… well the list goes on. Jesus showed perfect faith. He died before taking on the task of ruling the universe.
    Yes, teach kids about those who have gone before in faith. Make sure they understand the foundation of life is grace.
    Without the law, they would not understand what Grace has done for them. But the imperfect law, with the main task of drawing people to grace, is still a factor.
    I doubt any of the kids reading well written and so so Sunday School lit. are going to rise to Joseph’s character. The article is taking liberties with the story to accuse Joseph in such a manner. His greatest fault was not trusting God enough as he complained about his circumstances. Even so, his complaint was the catalyst that brought him before Pharaoh.
    WE are told to instruct our children in the Law. I think it is a good thing to do. I don’t think that false promises are good. But false promises don’t keep children from growing up to trust the govt. to be god. Welcome the Tea Party and those who believed and still believe that Pres. Obama was the second coming. Most drop out of faith and church because of other reasons. Anyone who has not recognized that they receive shallow answers because they were kids has not grown up yet. To hold it against those trying to help them in life is immature. Are we to hold everyone to perfection in every calling of life? Some grace for the teachers. And… Please don’t try this with kids. They know better.

  15. So the better way to teach this generation in Sunday school is to tell them to go ahead and be an idol worshiper like Abraham, a narcissistic boy like Joseph, a murdering adulterer like David, or an immoral young lady like Esther. Just be sure you pray later. After all, God loves you anyway.

  16. Nice post. The problem is much deeper than Sunday school. The problem is us; that’s the bad news but the good news is that we can dispose ourselves to deeper conversion. We do not have any power to dispose others, even our children, to conversion. The “belief of the heart” that your post addresses involves a principle of deep conversion — complete surrender. This is what Paul refers to when he writes, the life I live is not my own, but Christ lives in me. Paul is talking about a supernatural life, a spiritual life. We can only get from here to there through an encounter with the living God, over and over again. We are really talking about a divine life. Its one thing for us to get there and altogether another to permit our children to get there. I say permit because I think we have a tendency to get in the way. Sometimes I think this “false gospel” you describe is driven by anxiety we carry for our children. We want them to be good because we know if they are good its less likely that bad things will happen to them. So we encourage them to be good to buy some peace for ourselves not realizing that we are recommending a life of appeasement. We have a much easier time surrendering our lives than we do surrendering our children. I recall a line from The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. At some point in the story, Lucy asks the Beaver, if Aslan is safe. The Beaver responds by saying of course he is not safe but he is good. Intuitively we know this is true about Jesus. He is not safe but he is good. It is risky business for us, but its worth taking the risk. Our children don’t always perceive when they are playing at life, but they are experts at seeing it in us.

  17. We turned a generation of kids over to mothers in Sunday School thinking it was better than sitting with fathers in church. The Jewish tradition still leaves religious education to elder men for a reason…

    • I agree that too many kids are left to mothers for training. It unfair to the mothers (who already do so much) and it ignores our need for both parents to parent.

      But I can’t say that fathers (alone) would have solved this problem by themselves. It’s easy to be a moralist alone–whatever our gender–we need grace.