A friend of mine, an amazingly effective Bible teacher, once told me that he was turned down by his church to teach children’s Sunday school. The reason, he said, wasn’t that the church didn’t think he was gifted to teach but that he was too gifted. They wanted him to teach adult discipleship classes, so they didn’t want to “waste” him on children’s Sunday school.
That statement was one of the saddest and most self-destructive things I’ve ever heard from a church.
How Sunday School Transformed Me
I’ve often said that I wouldn’t want to have to choose between my seminary education and my childhood years in Sunday school, but if forced I would choose Sunday school each time. Now that’s saying something since I believe so strongly in seminary education, and gave most of my ministry to it. I’d never want to give that up. But as important as theological education was for me, Sunday school was more so.
There was nothing about my Sunday school experience that would be commended by a seminar on children’s development or Bible teaching. My teachers weren’t theologically trained, and probably not one of them could have explained the hypostatic union or the Pauline doctrine of election. They also weren’t pedagogically equipped. Some just had us go around the room taking turns reading, monotone, from the curriculum shipped from the denominational publishing house. Sometimes the biblical text was incomprehensible to us, since we were, at the time, a King James Version-only church (not out of some theological conviction but because we didn’t know about other translations).
And yet, Sunday school transformed my life.
What I needed was the slow repetition, over years and years, of the Word of God. What I sometimes find among Christians is knowledge of systematic theology in one tribe or of biblical moral principles in another—without knowing the narrative of the text itself. Some Christians know how to argue their view of whether Romans 7 describes pre- or post-conversion experience but don’t know the difference between Rehoboam and Jeroboam, between Abigail and Michal. We would all—as gospel Christians—affirm the entirety of the Bible as necessary and profitable but still might, if we’re honest, think that knowledge of the text’s details—rather than the theology or life principles arising from it—is more about Bible trivia than the Christian life. If so, we are wrong.
Love the Lord Your God with All Your . . . Intuitions
We can sometimes assume the Bible is profitable to us since we know how to search it for the right passages at the right moment. Someone in the church is teaching that sinless perfection is possible? Well, we know how to get to 1 John 1. We feel guilty for sin? We know how to find Psalm 51. We are depressed and discouraged? We can go to Jesus in Gethsemane. That’s all good and valuable, but it’s not as important as having our intuitions shaped by the whole Bible.
When Jesus is tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, his response—with biblical texts—isn’t a matter of proof-texting. His biblical responses aren’t just propositional but narrative. When Jesus responds to the temptation to turn stones into bread with “Man shall not live by bread alone,” he’s doing more than finding an applicable truth to counter an error. He recognizes he’s standing where Israel had stood before him, in the wilderness, tempted to question God’s fidelity to his people. When Jesus cries out from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he isn’t merely quoting an isolated text on vicarious atoning suffering. He sees himself in the warp and woof of Psalm 22. So it isn’t just a cry of dereliction but ultimately a cry of victory too: “For kinship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28).
It’s good to find a word from God when we need it. But God usually prepares us with his Word before we know we need it. Jesus tells his disciples ahead of time he will be crucified. He tells them ahead of time they will experience persecution, “that when their hour comes you may remember that I told [these things] to you” (John 16:4). What a blessing to have a conscience shaped by the story of Peter’s restoration years before you wonder after a terrible sin if Jesus will receive you back. What a blessing to know how to inhabit the story of Elijah years before you wonder if you’re alone and abandoned.
If you’re walking through a time of fear and anxiety, you may scan the whole Bible to find relevant words, but I’ve found the best way is to have intuitions so shaped by the rhythm and flow of the text that most of it lies there submerged, poised to rise to the forefront at just the right time.
That’s why children’s Sunday school is not just another program. It can be a matter of life and death.