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.