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'HOT POTATO': Is Sunday School Theological Child Abuse? [with a Response]

Wednesday, 6 April 2011  | Paul Tyson [Response by Beth Barnett]

I was a guest at a Greek Orthodox church recently, and I was fascinated by the prominent role children played in the ritual and symbolism of this very long and serious liturgy. The children were not treated in any sweet or condescending way, they were not put out the back because the service was too grown up for them, and their active and serious role in congregational worship was taken for granted. Further, looking around, it was evident that babies, children, youths, singles, parents and the elderly were all integrally present in this liturgy. (OK, most of them were Greek, but, ethnicity aside, this community was obviously both diverse and integral.) This was a gathering of a worshipping people with a rich and doxologically centred communal life.

I was struck by how different this worshipping community was to my experiences in a Baptist church. The church in which we were members had kids club (Sunday school), children’s talks, youth groups, and a large array of age, interest and gender specific sub groups, and we would even put on services and do outreaches that had a specific demographic target. Yet, when children participated in the service it was either passively as recipients of an entertaining children’s talk, drama or puppet show, or by children doing some sort of ‘item’ that was looked on with suitable delight by its adult audience, due to how cute and sweet our children were. And children were always pushed out the back to kids club during the sermon. Children were not integral to our collective worship and were excluded from the ministry of the pulpit.

I am a theologian and I have four daughters under the age of ten. So I appreciate that I cannot avoid being something of a nightmare to any typical ‘children’s ministry’ leader in your average Baptist church. Fun and buzzy American children’s programs get up my nose, and I am articulate and outspoken enough to ask uncomfortable questions about why we do this sort of thing at all. This is entirely unwelcome. My pastor said to me “your problem, Paul, is that you think too much.” This was the only justification I was ever given as to why nothing ever came of my concerns about children’s ministry.

Personal histories aside, I think (oh dear, sorry about that) there are serious theological concerns that standard Evangelical children’s ministry raises. Two types of concerns are immediately obvious – ecclesiological and doctrinal – but there is also the matter of why theological concern itself is just not that important to us as we relentlessly turn the children’s ministry wheel.

What place children have in our churches is shaped by our ecclesiology – our beliefs about what church is. That is, ‘children’s ministry’ which is not explicitly justified by some theology of church remains tacitly justified by the common ecclesiological beliefs assumed within any given congregation. In the modern technocratic age, we tend to view everything through the lens of what we can concretely see and control. If we assume church is like this too – which we typically do – then ‘church’, for our children, is some sort of program which is designed to Christianly educate, socialize and entertain the children of church attending adults on Sundays. Further, church for children conveniently happens at the same time – but in a different location and with specially tailored activities and programs – that church services happen for adults. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, we don’t want bored and naughty children disrupting our services. Secondly, we assume that age appropriate programs for children are better for their Christian development than them being in church with the adults.

Here are the basic theology 101 problems with this understanding of the church, and hence with the children’s ministry that goes with it. This understanding of church is atomistic and programmatic whereas the New Testament understanding of church is corporate and organic. That is, the church is not centrally what we can see and control, and is not centrally a collection of individuals with different needs that must be programmatically met, but it is a family where Christ is the head of each and of all. Theologically the essence of church is outside of what we can see and control, and it is not equivalent with what we do. Practically, we have lost sight of the core theological reality of what church is.

Doctrinally, Sunday School is a nightmare. Its lessons are typically about being good, nice and obedient children on the one hand, and about gory stories of killing the enemies of God on the other hand. The doctrine of salvation is a sickly simplistic penal substitution formulation, and all the depth and profundity of Biblical narratives are flattened out so that children can get the ‘right’ moral or doctrinal answer out of each lesson that is delivered. It’s cross word theology, and the answers are at the back of the book.

Now I am a professional theologian and I have four young daughters. In my experience your average child is far more theologically astute than your average adult. Children have not yet lost their taste for profundity, they are open to wonder and they have a thirst for satisfying meaning that most adults are simply too busy or uninterested to match. Belief – deep and open to God – is also often quite natural for children. This being the case, I cannot see why today’s kids should have any different response to what I had as a child in Sunday school – serious boredom.

But I fear things are worse than that. Perhaps, even, cross word dogmatics is actually what the adults teaching Sunday school, and adults in the church generally, believe, and Sunday school is a formation exercise in bashing deep child-like theological belief out of our children. If this theological (de)formation is successful, and if the child manages to graduate from Sunday school to youth group and then to adult church (unsurprisingly, this doesn’t happen that often) they will then fit in to the theologically two dimensional ecclesiological normality practiced in the daily operations of our churches. Suspecting this is the case, I have come to believe that Sunday school is typically a place of theological child abuse, no matter how genuinely sweet and sincere many of the late middle aged women who do all the hard yards at Sunday school certainly are.

Every evening we have family devotions at home. We read some scripture together and we often read an accessible short commentary on it, and then we talk about what we have heard before praying. In the conversations that flow out of this shared family time around God’s Word, my children (and my wife) regularly ask the most profound theological questions and make the most insightful observations. I do my best to go with them and to never fob them off with shallow or simplistic ‘correct’ answers. So, blessedly, I know they know the difference between the profound and the banal in theology. But I still can’t bear to see them being force fed simplistic and banal theological drivel at Sunday school. Fortunately, when they do go along they seem quite happy colouring in and cutting out, and, blessedly, they don’t seem to pay much attention to getting their cross words correct.

But here is the bigger problem. One does not have to be a professional theologian to see that the atomistic programmatic way we do church bears almost no relationship to what the New Testament means by ‘church’. Why are children – and the elderly, and every demographic – not integral to the serious and real life of worship and teaching in our churches? One does not have to be a professional theologian to notice that the ‘simplified’ dogmatics typically delivered at Sunday school often sail very close to theological banality which no child could seriously believe with their inner heart. And yet, a lot of what we get from the pulpit is just as theologically banal. Why is it that solid theology is so peripheral to how we do church and to what we teach to both our children and our adults at church?

There is, alas, a quite obvious answer to this question. We are living through what John Drane calls the McDonaldization of the church. Philip Johnson describes Drane’s diagnosis of our situation like this: 

"The McDonaldization of the Church springs out of a sociological thesis developed by George Ritzer (McDonaldization of Society). The image of McDonaldization refers to the epitome of modernity: the fast-food process and assembly line. Drane takes up Ritzer's image and reworks the metaphor for the church. In Drane's view the McDonaldization process refers to a predictable theology, predictable church service, with slick simplistic formulae for evangelism and apologetics."

In other words, we in the church function organizationally in very much the same way as ‘successful’ corporations in the larger world around us. In one way this makes our churches comfortable and known places were our modern consumeristic comfort zones are all in place. On the other hand, the loss of deep connection with one another and the fragmentation and business of our modern lives – not to mention the absence of any sure transcendent orientation (God beyond and above my needs and desires) – means that if we stop turning the handle for an instant, the triviality and meaninglessness of our lives comes crashing in on us. And so we believe we cannot stop to ask any fundamental questions or look closely at who we really are. In short, we in the church are captive to the world.

So, can we imagine a different type of church where children are integral to the real and serious life of the church and all its ministries? Can we let go of the safe and predictable business of running programs, and the infantile security of cross word dogmatics as adults? Will the Scriptures, serious theology, and the power of the Spirit of God rather than the works of Man get a place in our churches again? These are pretty important questions.

Dr Paul Tyson lectures in Theology and Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane.

Response to Paul Tyson: ‘Is Sunday School theological child abuse?
’   by Beth Barnett

Paul Tyson expresses a number of serious ecclesiological concerns for which he finds focus and fuel in the practice of children’s ministry. I am encouraged to find any serious theologian who has enough depth in their lens to consider the theological experience and contribution of children with the same respect as any other human being. Justice deserves applause.

Tyson poses the question in his characteristically provocative style, accusing the Sunday school movement of ‘theological child abuse’.

Abuse, especially child abuse, is both an emotive and serious term. In respect for those who have suffered in such a way, we ought use this phrase carefully.  Flippant use of such a term undermines the sense of authenticity accorded to those who courageously rightly name their experience of abuse. 

But it is not on these grounds alone that I wish to challenge Tyson’s claim. Following his own ecclesiological argument, the charge of theological abuse should not be brought against just one segmented age stratum of the church alone. Tyson (and I with him) champion the integration of all ages (and all possible demographic divisions) in the body of Christ. We all belong, sola gratia, sola, fide, solo Christo. If there is disempowerment, condescension, trivialisation and reductionism anywhere in the church, it is everywhere. Tyson hints at this as he investigates what becomes of faith as we grow. We must look first to the theology permeating the whole church.

Perhaps unintentionally, Tyson is hoist by his own petard, as he denigrates the ministry of the ‘sweet and sincere late middle aged women’ who do indeed do the ‘hard yards’ as well as the ‘fun and buzzy American’ programs. Could it be that the Kingdom of God is present among the so-called weak, despised and foolish of this world, sneaking in through ways that are not at all the intention of the official church system, which in many cases is thoroughly conditioned by the discourses of power and status as defined by the ‘gods that fail’ (Vinoth Rachandra’s fantastic phrase)?

In many groups which seek to nurture children theologically and spiritually, open ended questioning, multisensory experience, discovery, inductive and abductive (imaginative) learning methodologies, and collaborative, co-operative contexts are common place.  The agency of the young person in their own growth and formation is respected and expected. Mutuality of contribution, listening and concern is foundational.

While I concede that this is not ubiquitous, and that there is still much ground to be gained, particularly in matching the competencies (especially in literacy) exercised in the church-based children’s context with those of the school-based children’s context  (see my Cape Town 2010 presentation: Proposal paper for 3rd Lausanne World Congress on World Evangelization) there is less danger of theological abuse in our children’s ministries than in our adult congregations. The paradigms of power, dialectic of decision making, presumptions of speaking for others and claims over other’s lives  in the sermon as monologue are, if not abusive, at least prone to underestimating the intelligence of the listener, rarely provide opportunity for multi-sensory information acquisition, make gross unilateral assumptions about the listener, and are somewhat limited to persuasion, enticement, two- dimensional rhetorical rationalism or bald instruction. We often treat our adults more like children than our children.

Here I have described the worst of the genre, with sincere apologies to my many fine preacher friends. There are several sermons I have heard in my life that have made a profound difference in the practice of my faith – so I do not wish to underestimate the existential power a sermon has had in anyone’s experience. My point here is to highlight that soliloquy itself resides in the cultural margins alongside marketing spiels, political speeches, academic lectures and street corner ranters – which particularly Australians filter with suspicion or submit to with gullible prejudice.

My many fine preacher friends frequently bemoan the distance between the intention of their words preached and the practice of the congregation lived. It seems that the form is not positive on either side.

Here I hope to suggest more positively, agreeing with Tyson on the profundity of faith and insight of children, that despite the whispers of theological abuse, our children and their faith communities offer a significant contribution to the maladies of the wider church. Flat doctrine, rote learning, top down instruction, and dissociative rationalism are not good for anyone. Many children’s ministry practitioners have a broad palette for engaging intelligently and integrationally with ideas, information, existence and external factors. Children themselves can model inquiry, investigation, analysis, evaluation, as well as appropriation and implementation of constructs, skills and materials.

With Tyson, I see hope in the church courageously  reforming as an expression of the kingdom in which justice calls us all to share in full participation, contributing and reciprocating, serving and being served. As a declaration of the gracious welcome of God, we would do well to begin with our own children. If we cannot stand to share with them, how will we love our enemy, or welcome the stranger? Agreeing with Paul Tyson’s conclusion, let what we do be shaped by who we are.

Beth Barnett is the Baptist Union of Victoria Children and Families Facilitator,  and prepares resources for Scripture Union on opening the Bible with children and all age worship.




Paul Tyson
April 7, 2011, 4:39PM
Thanks Beth for your great response to my piece. I have only one thing I would like to say to your response, and it concerns my use of the very strong language of 'child abuse'. I am very specifically talking about the use of bad theology when talking with children, and the acceptance of bad ecclesiology in relation to children, in our churches. That is, it is theological child abuse, not any other sort of child abuse, that I am talking about here. I do not use this strong language flippantly for it is clear that Jesus takes the belief formation of little children with the utmost seriousness. And this is consistent with everything about the Kingdom of Heaven, which is especially focused on the powerless, the dependent, the non-persons, the marginal of His time. Children in 1st century milieu certainly fit that designation. Also Jesus makes remarkable statements about how we must become like little children in order to enter His Kingdom, and clearly the outlook of trusting belief that is open and responsive to God is what is at issue here. By inference our children trust us to speak as truly as we can about that which is most important, and if we abuse that trust that is in my view a very serious abuse of the belief formations of our children. In terms of accountability, adult ministry is not so serious, for adults have a mature ability to weigh what they hear and accept or reject the beliefs and attitudes they are exposed to. We should fear greatly when we do children's ministry, for the formative power children give us will have its impact on their most basic belief outlooks. So I think it is important to raise the bar of our theological expectations and ministerial responsibilities in regards to childrens ministry, and I know your work in that area does exactly that.
Sam Abalo
April 8, 2011, 8:48AM
Thank you for this enlightening article and the response. It needs to get a wider readership and attention. It challenges me as a preacher to ask myself questions about how I can presnt the message a bit differently.

Thanks once again
Gareth Hadfield
April 8, 2011, 6:19PM
Thanks Paul for your thoughts.

I think your ideas offer a good starting place for discussion. It seems your main points are:
- Inclusiveness is good, segregation is bad
- We should think theologically about children's ministry
- It is problematic to think of children's ministry as primarily a program (and such an attitude, which springs from the technocratic age, is the cause of the aforementioned bad segregation)
- Children's ministry lessons lack depth (and adult ministry does too - which again is caused by the cultural milieu)
- The situation is not good enough and needs to be fixed

I hope I have summarised correctly. I think I agree with the core of most of these points and I would like to offer some feedback.

I do think your caricature of typical children's ministry lessons is a straw man. I agree with Beth Barnett that many groups engage children in very healthy ways. I would also add that your assessment only focuses on the Sunday church events. Further examination of wider church life might reveal more.

I wonder to what extent the "inclusiveness" paradigm can be universally applied. Is there a place for segregation in order to best cater for differing needs? I am speaking from my involvement in a church that has a vision based on all people worshipping God together (The Heavenly vision in Revelation 7). I am fully onboard with the concept of inclusiveness!

However, a practical issue seems to prevent a thorough application of inclusiveness: We are not in Heaven yet. The barriers (be they language or age) do not seem to fade away in a Babel-reversing Pentecostal language miracle every time we meet together (although sometimes this can occur and we get glimpses of Heaven). Why does this not routinely occur? Perhaps the Spirit of God wants us to live with the diversity so that we can learn to be more others-focussed. Perhaps growth and diversity is part of being human.

As with you, I would like to "imagine a different type of church where children are integral to the real and serious life of the church and all its ministries". The children's ministry I have witnessed is already a real and serious dimension of the life of the church. However, integration into all ministries is easier said than done. It could be argued that this theological discussion is a form of ministry. Has anyone included the children? The big words are unsuitable even for many adults.

I agree that we need to think theologically about children's ministry (and all ministry). I highly recommend that churches consider this in training and selecting children's ministry workers. However, the theological discussions can be a bit abstract (it is a good point but it needs traction). An understanding of the corporate, organic and theologically invisible nature of church may help to filter out bad programs. However, it does not automatically materialise good concrete ministry activities.

Perhaps we could all work together to paint a practical picture of what a good children's ministry might look like. (I am assuming here it is not as simple as just mimicking a dinnertime discussion or a Greek Orthodox liturgy).
David Chatelier
April 9, 2011, 11:53AM
One of the reasons why I love my friends Paul and Beth is because they are passionate, articulate and provocative. Knowing them as persons means that I see beyond their words to the ideals and values by which they live. And, accordingly, I wish to affirm both the article by Paul and the response by Beth.
But I still have a dilemma; I understand their questions and I agree with the stances they take, but I do not have the skills to find and apply the answers to my context. I suspect there are many Pastor's like me who are dissatisfied with children's ministry in our churches but put it into the "too hard" basket because I don't have the skills and expertise to fix the issue. So come on, step up and challenge us, not just by asking the questions and raising the problems but by also providing concrete and specific answers and solutions.
Beth comes closest to providing an answer when she says, "Many children’s ministry practitioners have a broad palette for engaging intelligently and integrationally with ideas, information, existence and external factors. Children themselves can model inquiry, investigation, analysis, evaluation, as well as appropriation and implementation of constructs, skills and materials." Practitioners and children, raise your voices consistently and insistently, come in from the fringes and the margins, help us, educate us, show us a better way, and, while you will find opposition from the seats of power, may you also find Pastors who will support and champion you as we together seek a radical way of being the family of God together.
April 9, 2011, 2:12PM
Great article, response, comments.

Gareth suggests we "work together to paint a practical picture of what a good children's ministry might look like." At that, a single picture is probably inadequate. Kids differ and change, as do adults and congregations. This is okay, isn't it? How often must the whole church meet together at once? Why does every member read the same Lesson this week, regardless of their circumstances, journey, and capacity?

Some kids do a Dogma Crossword while others hear a Spiritual Soliloquy and others fraternise on Facebook. We don't know whether they are thinking, learning or being sustained by the faithful, until we hear from them individually. Before criticising the teachers, let's see who or what is compelling kids to go to Sunday School.
Carrie Chapman
April 10, 2011, 5:17PM
Very thought provoking discussion. I wonder but doubt if Jesus segregated the children when he was teaching the multitudes. In fact it was a child that played a significant part in the feeding of the 5000. One issue that could be addressed is the fact that people in church see it as ME time - time for me to listen and reflect and gain instruction and not so much as OUR time where social inclusion of all people should be encouraged - young and old. Bring back the joy into our churches.
Joanne Klein
April 11, 2011, 6:39PM
Thank you David Chatelier. I was feeling quite a simpleton because I wanted to ask - "what does that kind of church look like?". I have always struggled with the idea of Sunday School and in fact rarely did my own children attend. On the other hand I have been a SS teacher off and on (and now fit the not so sweet but sincere over middle aged lady description) because of the supply and demand thing that happens in churches. I still feel uncomfortable about that but I also feel a sense of panic at the thought of how to be 'church' in another way! So - what does that kind of church look like?
john yates
April 12, 2011, 6:29PM
perhaps someone can explain to me what a "professional theologian" is? then perhaps we might actually get somewhere in deconstructing the multiple layers of Christendom, a much more difficult and pervasive topic than focussing in on "Sunday school"
p.s. I too was once a dogmatician within an institution; an old wineskin I would have thought
Ian Packer
April 12, 2011, 6:40PM
[Moderator comment] A question worth asking, John - want to write us something on it? But let's not divert the thread to that - unless the authors are agreeable to take it that direction.
Paul Tyson
April 13, 2011, 4:28PM
It is a delight to be part of this conversation. Obviously the questions raised are important and being thought about, however rough and ready my provocations in this direction have been.

A few comments:

Sam, thanks for this note. Glad it was helpful.

Gareth, yes you have my argument well. Your comment about my caricature being a straw man has merit – and Beth has addressed that point well I think – yet I’m afraid I have not simply made up my caricature. Of course there is always more going on in any interaction between an adult and a child than the words spoken and the ‘activities’ pursued. Meanings and love conveyed in Sunday School – however theologically two dimensional, however pedagogically ill-conceived, however situated in relation to the ecclesial norms of the life of the church – can be genuine instruments of the Holy Spirit and can come back and breath life into the children of Sunday School at any time. Let me not gain say the divine gracing of any of our efforts to love and serve the Lord and the children in our charge. Yet, there are big problems in what I have observed as the norm in children’s ministry in Australian Evangelical circles, and I have tried to articulate what it is that disturbs me there.

Regarding ‘segregation’, culturally, this is more or less unavoidable for us. For we do not live in any integral community but float in and out of special interest groups as the norm. If church is to relate to our cultural norms it cannot push the absence of segregation (of special interest groups) in any dogmatic way. However, if church is a family (and God knows how hard even our families struggle to be an integral unit in our day!) then we must aim at being more organic against the flow of our culture. Balancing ‘relevance’ with necessary non-conformism is the issue here. The gung ho pursuit of relevance and accessibility however – often the norm in our ‘success’ based criteria of ministry effectiveness – is the enemy of such balance.

How does an integral notion of church hit the ground then? The easiest response I can give you here is to refer you to Beth Barnett. She has done a lot of work for the Baptist Union of Victoria in just this area, particularly focused in integral children’s ministry. Beth is a fount of wonderfully theologically rich and practically applicable ideas and strategies in this area.

David, thanks very much for your affirmation. It means a lot to me (even polemic angry young “professional theologians” have feelings!). I imagine the matter you are raising has much to do with the norms of both congregational expectations and ministerial initiatives. If the general thrust of my argument has merit, then what is ‘normal’ in both professional ministry and congregational life (and our secular culture in general), is basically up the pole. If it is up the pole, then there are two types of responses likely within the church. Dogged determination to just try harder what is not working, or openness to experimentation and fundamental reflection. As I read your comment, you are saying that one is likely to find both those responses, even within the one person, within most churches. So, have courage if you are trying to re-formulate the basic theological stance of our ‘normal’ notions of ecclesiological and ministry, and try and go places that we haven’t been before. I think we cannot know ‘the answer’ in advance – but we will find answers if we have the courage to explore new ground.

Russell, thanks for your comment. Sure – it is a complex picture. But I’m not sure ‘children’s ministry’ is too complex to make some analysis of and attempt some coherent theologically framed alternative. Sheer pluralism is an alternative to ‘cross word theology’ (though it may include ‘cross word theology’) but I don’t think pomo atomism enables one to do any sort of coherent theology at all, and I think that is a problem. (Appologies if I have misread your comments Russell.)

Carrie, great comment about ME and OUR and corporate joy. I couldn’t agree more.

Joanne – oh dear! Beth was right. I skewered myself badly and in a very poor taste comment about late middle aged women Sunday School teachers. Please forgive me. As they say in parliament (but I really mean it), I retract that comment. Let me try and unpack what I was so poorly hinting at by that bad taste comment.

It is an unfortunate fact that amateur (i.e., those who do something for love rather than money) volunteers are usually mature women, and that they are usually seen as providing very unprofessional (i.e. second rate) input, are often given very little resources and institutional help, and are only ‘used’ because what they are doing is deemed not worth the attention of a professional. So the fact that the paid minister is with the adults and not with the children during the service means that children’s ministry is considered less worthy of professional attention than the Sunday sermon. This I think is very revealing. I have tried to argue that the leadership of the church should be MORE concerned with the formation and integration of children, and MORE theologically diligent in that front, than with adults. The fact that men don’t typically do much at all that is not paid (perhaps coaching rugby is an exception) means that late middle aged women are typically the only people who do things for others just for love. As Beth points out, this means children are often taught by the right people. Hence her case that what goes on at the margins is the real work of the church and the centre is perhaps too often just an exercise in empty works of the flesh. My comment was about trying to get the centre to learn from the margins. But there is another thing I was hinting at too. Women – as often out of the centre of power because they are closer to the centre of love – often quite compliantly just do what is expected of them by those in power. So because they want to ‘do the right thing’, they re typically quite compliant in relation to the powers that be. So they use the resources given to them, follow the program chosen for them, and fulfil the role that Sunday School already has within the church – all of which are set in place by people more institutionally powerful than themselves. So, in terms of the argument I was putting forward, they often simply perpetuate a bad theologically framed approach to children’s ministry. But none of that is because they are women – it is because they are marginal and defer initiative and authority to others. So, embrace marginality by all means, but forget compliant passivity in relation to ecclesial norms and power!

John, thanks for this note. To clarify, by saying that I am a “professional theologian” I simply mean that the only thing I get paid for doing (and not very much mind you!) is teaching theology. That is all I mean by it. Every Christian is a theologian – whether a good one or otherwise – and it is the responsibility of every Christian, I believe, to think theologically about the life and practises of their own church. (As a sessional academic the groundsman at ACU gets paid substantially more than I do for cutting the grass, and I work a 60 hour week during the 24 weeks in a year in which I can earn any money as an academic.)
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