In a supply closet at my church, I found bulletin board borders declaring “Sunday School is cool!” in crooked Gothic print. I shuddered. Because even children know that what is truly “cool” doesn’t need to announce it; nothing becomes cool by being designated “cool.” The truth is—slice it however you choose—Sunday School is not cool.
It may be profitable—though not always. It may be fun—though only sometimes. But there is no way that dressing up and going to church to learn Bible stories on Sunday mornings is cool. The cool kids get to stay home or go exciting places and do what they want. When we declare the coolness of Sunday School, our children will not believe that Sunday school is “cool,” but they will believe that “cool” is something they should want.
And they’ll also believe that church is about people trying to please them, and that church should give them age appropriate activities. Because, whatever we say about church, in the vast majority of churches, this is what we model. We shepherd children from one age-bubble into another, and then wonder why, as young adults, they don’t know how to integrate into the world of grown-up church.
Since we’ve taught our children that they should want “cool” and look for fun, peer-related activities, they’re eventually going to figure out that there are much cooler activities elsewhere. They live in a culture that screams messages contrary to the church-isms they’ve heard all their lives, and the screaming is usually louder than the beat of the drums in even the most up-to-date church service.
It’s a familiar scenario: young people raised in the church leave home and leave their faith behind with their childhood playthings.
A 2012 Canadian study called “Hemorrhaging Faith” examines this issue—young people are leaving at a rate of two-thirds overall in Canadian churches—and pinpoints four factors which influence whether young people leave the faith. These are:
1. Parents’ faith (or lack thereof): children of parents who take their faith seriously, rather than simply attending church, are more likely to take their own faith seriously and keep it.
2. Experience of God: young people look for specific evidence of God’s existence through answered prayers. When God does not behave as they expect, or they don’t “feel” His presence, they doubt His existence or His care.
3. Community: young people with a strong community of Christians around them are more likely to remain Christians than those who have no Christian community
4. Teachings and beliefs: young people want to dig deep and have real questions answered. They are more likely to stay in churches which welcome hard questions and help people to wrestle through tough issues, rather than dismissing doubts and struggles.
The study suggests that churches invest in parents, equipping them to model serious discipleship to their children. It says churches need to emphasize teaching about God that shows Him to be more than a cosmic request-granter. It also suggests that churches foster mentorship, and work to deal with tough questions, so young people are not left on their own trying to navigate their struggles but have access to the wisdom of a community of older believers.
Though these are all good suggestions, the most important piece of the picture cannot be provided by any church program. The only way that young people will keep their faith is if it is real: if the Holy Spirit has worked in their hearts, giving them saving faith in Jesus Christ. Neither community nor mentorship nor discussion of questions can give saving faith; saving faith is a work of God Himself.
So should we throw up our hands? Say, If God doesn’t want to save them; there’s nothing we can do? By no means. Only God saves. But He does use people as instruments in the process. The home and church and community environment in which young people find themselves can influence whether they recognize faith as a real thing, whether they recognize Jesus to be a real person, whether they understand that Jesus provides real answers to real questions.
They need to see Jesus. The apostle Paul asserts that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It has to be about Christ. “Sunday school is cool” has nothing to do with Jesus. Age-appropriate activities aren’t Jesus. “Getting involved” and “using your gifts” can miss the point. Ultimately, it isn’t about programs; it isn’t about investing in parents; it isn’t even about dealing with real questions and being honest about struggles. All of those may be good, but the thing that we need is connection to the Head and foundation of our faith, Jesus Christ, the preeminent Son of God, who was born, who was crucified, who was raised—for us.
I recently heard of a church in which the pastor responded, when a church member asked for ways to get involved and serve the church, that the best way to serve the church was to love Jesus. The book of Colossians confirms this: Paul describes Jesus as “the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” Growth of the body—the church—comes from connection to the Head—to Jesus.
We often operate as if the independent efforts of various body parts can make a body grow, as if one flailing hand can bring health to a headless corpse. It doesn’t work. We must stay connected to Christ, making Him—and His glory—the focus of our planning.
The goal, after all, is not to make people come to church and stay in church; the goal is to make them love Jesus and keep on loving Him. And the best way to work toward that goal is to love Him ourselves.
I don’t care if your Sunday school is cool, but this I want to know: do you love Him?
©2014 by Stacy Nott