What better time, then, to reflect on our goals, and on the mission and purpose, of our Sunday School instruction time?
So, we teach children about history and at the youngest years they memorize the parts -- dates, events, people -- so that when they reach a later stage of learning, they are able to swiftly begin analyzing the parts because they are already familiar with them. This happens not only with history, but also with science (the levels of classification), English grammar and writing (the parts of a sentence, the parts of a paragraph), mathematics (the fundamentals of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), and foreign languages (vocabulary and conjugations).
Now, stick with me a minute as we talk about what Sunday School has to do with this.
On any given Sunday morning from August through June, if you are poking around the downstairs hallways in the hour between 9:30 and 10:30, you will find:
- In the toddler class -- Patient narration of the stories of the Bible, from the calling of Samuel to Solomon’s building of the temple to the birth of Jesus and the childhood of Timothy, and much practice of memory verses.
- In the preschool through 3rd grade class -- Rigorous instruction in the doctrines of creation, the majesty and power of God, the infallibility of the Word of God, the means of grace, the battle against sin, and the Holy Spirit.
These are progressive levels of the grammar of the Bible!
Building first on the history of the people of God, the lessons introduce and articulate the work of redemption within that history with vocabulary words and abstract concepts that seem way over the heads of those little people sitting in their little chairs every Sunday morning. Isn’t it a waste of time to use and explain big words like “atonement” and “propitiation” to such young children when most adults don’t even understand them?
“Small kids need big words,” says Trevin Wax in his recent article, “Why Little Kids Need Big, Biblical Words”, on The Gospel Coalition blog. “Not because they understand everything all at once but because, over time, God uses the inspired words of His Book to convict kids of sin and convince them to repent and believe in Christ.” In time, just as the classification of birds and the conjugation of Latin verbs come to have meaning in the broader picture of their respective subjects, the big, biblical words repeated and rephrased and reintroduced when presenting the facts of the Bible will eventually find their context in later discussions about being one with Christ and the mediatorial work of a perfect lamb.
Children Desiring God (CDG), the curriculum publishing arm of Desiring God Ministries, has said this same thing for years, referring to the stages of learning with different tags than the ancient classical educators, but recognizing that since God’s creative order can be observed and classified (consider how neatly animals and plants fit into classifications), it is therefore helpful to watch for and respond to the development of children within that creative order:
“Children are like plants -- they grow in God-ordained stages, and it is wise to be attentive to those stages. They are not yet adults and do not yet have adult reasoning capabilities or maturity (1 Corinthians 13:11). A wise sower knows the stages of growth and nurtures the plant according to each stage’s unique needs.” (Helping Children to Understand the Gospel)
After the grammar stage -- or the Discovering/Discerning stage, using CDG’s titles -- a child enters the Deciding stage, and here the stakes are raised. Here the focus is on the personal implications of the Gospel message. At Three Rivers Grace, in the 4th through 6th grade class, this might sound like thoughtful discussions about how the knowledge of these truths affects thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors in the lives of those who are called the children of God, who are citizens of the kingdom of God, and how to interact with this gospel of grace, and even more importantly, with the Savior of grace. Because we take what Trevin Wax calls “the long view of Bible teaching,” we don’t dwell on this type of discussion in the younger classes. According to CDG, it is usually not until a child is at least 7 years old (obviously with some exceptions) that she is able to consider the cost of the choices she makes, and whether she is prepared to surrender control of her life.
“We can short-circuit this process,” cautions the author of the CDG booklet, “if we presume that preschool spiritual interest is saving faith, but this only prolongs the wait for the necessary spiritual battle to take place…. We need to purposefully walk with children through this stage, encouraging them to surrender to Jesus and place their trust in Him. Furthermore, we must remain dependent on the Holy Spirit to guide each child through this tumultuous stage.”
“Often our temptation as adults is to be impatient and jump to the resolution of the struggle -- to ‘insure salvation for the child.’ Hence, this is where our faith as sowers is really tested: do we trust God to bring the child through victoriously? Will we trust in the sovereignty and goodness of God?”
Think of the times when you have needed to keep the long view in mind: whether it’s the goal of getting out of debt, one credit card bill at a time; or the plan to prepare yourself and your family to go on the mission field; or the decision to adopt and bring a child into the shelter of your household. As ready as you may be to get to the end of the path you’ve laid out for your plan of action, skipping steps for the sake of the prize could be a very foolish thing to do.
The challenge is that in this long view of Bible teaching, this stage could last for years. With hearts aching, “we fear the outcome of the child’s struggle and we want to secure the desired result.” We can even find ourselves (parents and teachers alike) trying to push the child into a decision he is unprepared to make, possibly creating a sense of security that is not there, delaying conversion, and stealing from the child the experience of the heart struggle that exposes its wickedness and grieves over its transgressions.
Thankfully, even our well-intentioned errors are as nothing before the power of Christ, for he promises to faithfully save and hold secure every one of those whom the Father has given to him. As we prepare for the start up of Sunday School classes in August, as we prepare our own families’ devotions, and as we prayerfully lead children to the Cross, may we faithfully sacrifice our own wants and desires to see children come to Christ according to our own timing and methods that HE may receive all the glory for the harvest.
Read the article by Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition by clicking here.
Read CDG's view on and summary of Helping Children to Understand the Gospel here.