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The other day I was reflecting on how much time I spent in Sunday school and youth groups growing up...and how little I understood about the Christian faith by the time I left home.
For some reason, I decided to calculate roughly how much time that actually was.
I scratched out the following on a piece of paper:
Kindergarten through 12th grade = 13 years (I went to church from the time I was a baby, but I just wanted to include the core learning years in my calculation)
52 Sundays per year
90% attendance rate, to allow for illnesses or being out of town
13 years of Sunday school x 52 Sundays per year x .90 attendance rate = 608 hours
And that's not even counting the corresponding worship services...that's just the Christian education time!
I don't know about you, but that number made my jaw drop.
I spent more than 600 hours in church growing up, but by the time I left home, here's all I really understood about Christianity:
People go to heaven or hell depending on whether or not they believe in Jesus. Once you accept Jesus, you are saved. Christians need to be as good as possible and not sin just to be forgiven. It's important to tell others about Jesus so they can be saved too.
The result is that I lived the next 12 years with an incredibly blah, shallow faith. I didn't actually lose my faith--as do more than two-thirds of other kids who grow up going to church--but it was only hanging there by a thread.
Where did those 600+ hours of Christian education go? How can it be that so many kids spend this kind of time in church and don't leave home with much more understanding of Christianity than could be taught in a week of church camp?
I think I know the answer.
The Problem of Unconnected Puzzle Pieces
This is a problem of unconnected puzzle pieces.
Over the years that a child attends Sunday school, teachers vary, curricula vary, and churches vary (as families move). Kids are handed various pieces of Christianity during that time, which they collect and store internally.
But unless there is a consistent, focused, goal-oriented spiritual trainer in their life--a parent--those pieces will almost certainly lie around unconnected.
1. Having a bunch of puzzle pieces doesn't necessarily mean you know what the completed puzzle is supposed to look like.
Imagine that someone handed you all the pieces to complete a 5000-piece puzzle but didn't give you the box top picture to see how they all fit together. You'd be able to connect a few pieces here and there, but you'd face a lot of difficulty because you wouldn't know what picture you're working toward.
Kids collect "puzzle pieces" of Christianity over the years in Sunday school, usually in the form of individual Bible stories. A piece might be the story of Moses at the burning bush, Joseph with his multi-colored coat, or any one of Jesus' miracles. Most kids who have spent hundreds of hours at church can describe these individual puzzle pieces quite well.
That's not the problem.
The problem is that they don't know how those pieces fit together into a meaningful, complete picture of salvation history. In other words, why on Earth should they care to learn that God spoke to Moses in a burning bush? Could anything seem more disconnected from a kid's reality in the 21st century?
After my 600+ hours in Sunday school, I certainly couldn't have explained the connection between this event and the Exodus, why the Exodus mattered, what that had to with Jesus, and why that's relevant to my faith today.
It was just an isolated piece of the puzzle of Christianity.
And isolated pieces do not join themselves together to make a beautiful picture.
As parents, we can't expect that the pieces our kids pick up at church will fall into obvious places, even after 600+ hours. It is our responsibility, and our responsibility only, to be the intentional hand that guides these pieces into place on a bigger picture over time.
2. Having a bunch of puzzle pieces doesn't necessarily mean those pieces will create a picture with meaningful complexity.
When kids first start doing puzzles, those puzzles usually have just 12 giant pieces. They make a picture, but a very simple one-nothing like the artistic complexity of one with 1000 pieces or more.
In Sunday school, kids tend to be continually handed the same pieces over and over: individual Bible stories, help with building Godly character, and some basic life lessons.
If this is effectively the extent of a child's spiritual training, skeptics will eventually point out that their faith is equivalent in complexity to a toddler's 12-piece puzzle. Sunday school tends to be focused on the basics, but kids need so much more than basics today given the challenges they are sure to encounter.
As parents, we are responsible for helping our kids develop a faith with a meaningful level of complexity. The 40 questions in my book are critical for kids to understand today, yet very few of those questions would even be touched on in a Sunday school class. The level of spiritual depth kids need to stand strong in a secular world simply won't come from the typical Sunday school curriculum.
3. Having a bunch of puzzle pieces doesn't necessarily mean you'll know what to do with the puzzle even if you finish it.
When my kids finish puzzles, they want to leave them out for a while to display their work. Their puzzles linger in the corner of the room until I can't stand it anymore and tell them they've enjoyed the puzzles "long enough." We don't know what else to do with them other than put them away.
Similarly, when I left home with 600+ hours of church tucked safely under my belt, I truly didn't know what to do with my faith, other than continue to wear the Christian label and bide my time as a good person until I was zapped up to heaven someday.
Those hundreds of hours hadn't taught me what it means to actually see all of life differently than someone who didn't believe in Jesus; I had no idea what it meant to have a Christian worldview.
As parents, we are responsible for placing the picture into a real-world context for our kids. 600+ hours of Sunday school may never directly answer questions like, "How does the fact we are created in the image of God impact our view of the sanctity of life?" "Why is it sometimes the most loving action to tell people truth they don't want to hear?" or "How can we make career decisions that glorify God?"
Parents must be proactive in helping kids know what to do with their puzzle of faith. Otherwise, it will likely be pushed to the corner of their life, where it will eventually be dismantled and put away for good.
Don't leave your kids "puzzled" by outsourcing their faith to church. Whether they spend 600 or 6,000 hours in Sunday school, there's simply no replacement for you.