Children’s Spiritual Development and Sabbath School

When Lia was in Cradle Roll (ages 0 – 2 1/2) and Tiny Tots (ages 2 1/2 – 4 1/2) I spent my time critiquing the pedagogical efficacy of the way we do Sabbath School.  [Sabbath School, in case you don’t know, is like Sunday School – age-based classes before the main church service.]

Do babies and toddlers really learn best by holding a basket full of items that they take out and rattle at appropriate intervals?  By placing children in small chairs with well-dressed, skirt-clad parents sitting behind them, are we teaching parents how to engage in their child’s spiritual life?  Are we setting a lifelong expectation that the teacher is the primary spiritual teacher?

And I daydreamed about Sabbath School becoming something of a spiritual Gymboree – parents dressed to physically engage with their children, developmentally appropriate props and skills, sitting on the floor in a circle clapping and singing with babies in their parents laps.

But now, at the age of four and a half, Lia is starting to pick up on what her Sabbath School teachers are saying, so I’ve transferred my interest to the theology being presented. How is she being taught to think about God, the world, the church?

The first thing that caught my attention is how common it is to say that Esther or Jonah or Daniel prayed to Jesus.  Um, no, they didn’t.  They were pre-Jesus, old testament figures.  They prayed to God, Adonai, Yahweh – the big Jewish God who was so sacred, you wouldn’t utter God’s name.  To so freely mix in New Testament faith into Old Testament stories is to lose a great deal of …GOD.  In my opinion.

Curriculum-wise, the meanings that are drawn from the stories are often misleading and/or erroneous.  Daniel, for instance, and his rendezvous with the lions, is turned into a story about how angels protect God’s people when they pray.  And we hold toy steering wheels and sing songs like “when I go riding along, along, God takes care of me”.  (This particular song was never more painful to me than when it was sung in the presence of a teenager whose friend was – and still is – in a coma from a car accident).

If my child believes that the story of the lions den is only, mostly, or primarily about God’s angels keeping God’s people from harm, how am I going to explain things like car accidents, martyrs, or abuse from that point of view?

How about drawing on themes of devotion, faith, prayer, engaging with the powers-that-be when they overstep their bounds?

Our curriculum needs serious theological overhaul.  What children learn at this age is what shapes their world view, what shapes their God-view.

Maybe it would be a good idea to sit with Sabbath School teachers and talk about the stories – first at the adult level of understanding, and then at a child’s level of understanding.  I think both the teachers and the children would greatly benefit from a wider, more informed reading of the stories.

I would love to be a part of this change  – to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak.  But as a church widow (ahem, I mean, married to a pastor), my responsibility is to my three children, caring for them and being the engaged parent during church hours.

So instead, this has really driven home what we’ve always believed –  parents are the most important spiritual guides/influence/leaders in a child’s life.  Not the Sabbath School teachers.  What we say at home needs to by far outweigh what they might hear elsewhere.

Which means, for us, is that we need to talk about God MORE.  And tell stories MORE. Lia loves to hear stories from the Bible.  She especially loves stories about Jesus… and bloody Old Testament stories.  (I think I’m going to give up on explaining the violence in the Old Testament and just let the stories speak for themselves…just like the Bible does).

And we need to continue to develop a language about God that we believe is right, rather than just accepting what gets handed on.

One of our greatest achievements in this matter is to hear Lia, when singing songs to herself, sing “Jesus came to show us how to live”.  We don’t believe that the entire purpose of Jesus’ life was His death.  His death is important, vitally important, but it was His life that brought Him to that death.  And the language we use is teaching her that both clearly and subtly.

The funny thing is that there are things that I know and believe with all my heart.  But when I open my mouth to explain them to our four-year-old question mark, I find that my understanding is full of holes.  So parenting is turning out to be a great faith-instiller, a great theological clarification process, and a great reason to study more.


11 thoughts on “Children’s Spiritual Development and Sabbath School

  1. wow. power packed post here, Leilani! lots of things I have definitely given thought to since i have had 2 children. i do teach cradle roll, and am always thinking of new thoughts. there is so much to teach these tender little minds for eternity. indeed, having children, for sure makes you rethink and redefine!! thanks for posting this. 🙂

  2. Hi. I read your blog off of the Kyles’ blog. I am so in agreement with you on this! The songs of Jesus/Moses was a happy boy, happy all day long, make me so upset. How do we really know that? I wish we could redo the programs a bit. Some parts are great but others are so full of making it seem like one has to be perfect all the time in order to please God. I believe, at least at my church here, that it is a Janet Sage program. I recognize the songs from when I was in Cradle Roll across the USA from here. :p I wonder what has to be done to change this. Does it need to be at the NAD level?

  3. Hey Angela, official welcome! I, too, get irked with the perfectionist view of “good children”. Like someone once told us and we’ve taken as a family motto : we’re not trying to raise perfect children, we’re trying to raise responsible adults. 🙂

    I suppose that eventually it should get changed at the NAD level (or GC, as I suspect these programs go worldwide). But the truth is that no one pays too much attention to cradle roll, so if you’re teaching, make your own adjustments. Is that what they call grassroots? Or, I suppose, gather friends to lobby the Children’s MInistries dept of the NAD. 🙂

  4. This really resonates with me.

    I’ve often wondered at our choice of language with so many spiritual things. I think our words often portray incorrect theology.

    For example, is it even correct how we pray? Should we teach our children to pray “Dear Jesus” followed by “In your name we pray”? Shouldn’t we pray to God in Jesus’ name? I thought that Jesus’ role was to help us reconnect with the Father. When he taught his disciples how to pray they didn’t pray to him, they prayed to the Father.

    I know my own language is rarely as precise as it should be. I need to work on that!

  5. Very thought -provoking discussion. Particularly interesting in that just this evening 3 of us were having a major discussion about Cradle Roll and how to teach tiny children about God and the idea that God changes us when we give ourselves to Him. That we do not do the “being good”, but rather God does that for us. Challenging stuff for the little people. I do think that the Gracelink series put out by the GC is on the right track in that respect. The programmes themselves I do not find so useful, in that there is so much change from week to week, for the very tiny ones. I am definitely well past the age of dealing with small children at home, but still LOVE to be with the children in SS. Young parents, you are the ones to work on making the message of God’s love and grace more real to the little ones. Keep up the good discussions and keep searching for the better way! Eloise

  6. Eloise! Welcome! Thank you for joining the discussion. I, also, really like GraceLink. We’re in Tiny Tots now – Amelie’s 3 – and one month per lesson is working well. But with the younger ones…I agree that repeating the lessons longer would make more sense. Of course, then the parents might get bored! Haha.

  7. I have enjoyed reading the comments. I am an old hat at the old style of teaching and am now back in the saddle, (my daughter is now 15) I was just out looking for some new material and ran across your blog and the comments. thank you all for give me some new ways of looking at sabbath school. Here is a question for all of you. we have young parents that may have been raised in the church but are not churched. they are struggling with there own christian life that they can’t teach there children much. I have kids coming that are not use to sitting and listening to stories, or being patient enough to put up felts. if we are not practically standing on our heads they are not involved. I would love some simple idea’s that i can use to encourage these parents and support the work of sabbath school at home. AND how do i get them to sabbath school on time??? : ) I am going to start working in some of your suggestions above, tomorrow morning at sabbath school.

  8. How many realize that teaching the Cradle Roll a.k.a. Beginners class is the most important, serious and responsible position in the church? VERY FEW! And those of us who work in this division know it all too easily.

    After starting to work in the division at my new church (I’ve been in this division for over 10 years straight—nearly 30 years all in all, but as a military wife, this is our 3rd church/city in those 10 years), I found a book, “Teaching Tiny Tots,” by Kathleen Louise Meyer written in 1967. I read it cover to cover. Aside from the chapters about teaching the children with the Bible felts story and the sand table, it is the best book I’ve ever seen written on this subject. If you can find one, GRAB it!

    It talks about the responsibilities of a leader/teacher in this group. A lot more than 9:30-10:30 Sabbath morning! She talks about weekly studying as a staff, prayer, visitation, etc. For example, it’s always been my pet peeve that pastors, elders, deacons, deaconesses do not visit the membership, but as a teacher, am I visiting my class members at home either? Makes you think about your role and it’s full encompassing duties.

    As for Gracelink, it’s a great program. But it says right inside—use what you want and adapt to fit your needs. It’s not a one size fits all program. Have a lot of 3 year olds? Then you’re set, almost everything works for you. Mostly infants? Then adapt the music, words, and props to work for you not against you. (You’re teaching your children not just about God, Jesus, and the Bible, but also community, worship, and reverence. So, it is important to teach the children how to sit in their seats, what is appropriate to wear to church, how to interact with others.)

    I’ve recently come to understand though, that it’s the relationship between parent and child that matters the most in the class. It’s our job to enable a better spiritual connection between them. Therefore, encourage the moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, etc. to sing to their children (or softly into their infant ears) when they’re singing. Have your children interact with caregiver instead of other children. (i.e. sharing songs, cooperative tasks) Have the parents work WITH their children during the craft time. It’s not meant to be a time when the child creates his own craft, NOR is it a time when the parent should be doing all of the work. This is a relationship bonding experience designed to teach the children to trust their parent, and that their parent wants to spend time with them learning about God/Jesus. It’s also meant to be a story building exercise, NOT a time filler (kids coloring any old thing) so parents can chat.

    I agree that some of the songs and activities that Gracelink uses is inappropriate for their level of understanding. It seems more directed to kindergarteners than beginners. But if you really are committed to teaching the children and you aren’t just passing time until the next year’s teachers are chosen, then you can come up with your own lyrics by counting out the number of notes and having a syllable for each note. It’s not THAT hard to do.

    I wish that all church leadership would gravely consider the task of filling the division during nomination time. And I wish that all children’s leaders were required to attend training conferences. Much more important than elders conferences, or even pastors conferences.

    Teaching the youngest members of the church is the most powerful evangelistic effort any church can do.

  9. Loran! Wonderful thoughts, thank you so much for sharing them. I especially resonate with encouraging parents to work with and interact with their children. I do think Sabbath School should ultimately be a training ground for parents in how to engage with their children on a spiritual and religious level. Thank you again!

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