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Sunday School: Religious Indoctrination, Or An Invitation To Exploration?

I grew up in a small, fundamentalist, evangelical country church in southwestern Ontario where I have deep family roots. Growing up as a child, I not only attended church once a week, but often three times a week. Of course there was Sunday service, then as I entered my teens I went to Wednesday night Bible study, and on weekends there was often a fun youth activity.

But lest we forget Sunday School; actually for many of us it played a large role in our introduction to God/the Divine in our formative years. Remember the crafts, memorizing Bible verses, watching the teacher work his/her magic on flannelgraphs? And we can’t forget the songs, from “Jesus Loves Me” to “Jesus Loves The Little Children” and “This Is The Day (That The Lord Has Made).”

My question today, as I look back after having left the Christian faith altogether just over a decade ago, is this: Was Sunday School a helpful part of my life and an invitation to personal spiritual exploration, or was it simply religious indoctrination?

It was often in Sunday School that we first heard stories from the Bible such as Jonah and the whale, David and Goliath, Moses parting the Red Sea. Other stories included Jesus walking on the water, Jesus causing the disciples to catch a multitude of fish, and Jesus turning water into wine (though at my church we used Welch’s grape juice during communion). If you were like me, you took these stories literally.

But beyond it all, trumping the miracle stories was the message I heard over and over again as a child: that I – as well as all human beings who had ever lived – was a sinner. I was “born that way” as Lady Gaga might phrase it. Because of Adam and Eve’s original sin, each man and woman, boy and girl to come after them were also sinful and ultimately depraved. It was a confusing message for my little brain to take in, considering the songs we were singing such as “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves The Little Children.” I then was taught, also at a very early age, that basically my sin was so severe that God had to send his son Jesus (who was also somehow God) to this planet in order to spill his blood to gain my forgiveness from sin and, most importantly, my exemption from hell-fire. This message in my formative years, combined with a tumultuous upbringing, led to many years of painful and exhaustive guilt that I have been in therapy for to this day.

Let me say that I understand parents wanting their child to hold the same values that they hold – such as the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, etc, but it is entirely different for parents to insist that their children believe the same doctrines as they do. Rather than encouraging children to explore spirituality from a young age, many parents are, even perhaps subconsciously, essentially raising their children to be miniature versions of themselves. And if these children choose different religious beliefs or viewpoints, reject fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, or, god forbid, reject religion entirely, not only are parents devastated, they and their church leadership worry for the child’s soul, taking their exploration and autonomy and intellectual freedom to be extremely dangerous. For some parents and churches, their fear slightly veils their fear of losing control over the child.

I would also say that many parents and Sunday School teachers through the years have genuinely thought that they were “doing the right thing” and raising their children in the “right way.” Many have not meant harm, they simply were passing down what they had once been taught and now believed. Also, I am grateful to an extent that I grew up in the church; it introduced me to the notion of religion and spirituality.

I believe that children’s religious education, or Sunday School, can be a time and a space where children are invited to explore their beliefs. They can be taught those values listed above, which are not solely Judeo-Christian values, but are found in the depths of humanity worldwide. Why not teach children about the faith traditions of Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, other religions and non-religious traditions, and let them decide for themselves? Imagine that!

Two other obstacles to a progressive Sunday School curriculum are time-worn presentations about science and sexuality – or the lack thereof. A 13th century view of the universe just will not cut it anymore in 2014, and kids these days are smart enough to be increasingly questioning and eventually rejecting what they are hearing in Sunday School in favour of what almost every reputable scientist says these days. The earth is not 6, 000 years old and we were not placed on this planet by a supernatural deity in order to rule over said planet. We are incomplete and still evolving, not dirty sinners in need of salvation by blood. When it comes to sexuality (which I will dedicate an entire post to in the near future), children – in particularly adolescents – must no longer be simply taught to suppress their urges until the day of their wedding. Much shame, guilt, and harm has been done by the Christian church in this area.

In conclusion, children will experience enough obstacles in life; there’s no reason to start them off with a sense of guilt, fear, and a lack of freedom to make their own choices.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Review & Commentary