Why Does Sunday School Have to be School?

It’s Sunday morning.

How many families are fighting to get their kids out the door today, and into that Sunday school classroom?

When I was a single mom, I used to look at the clock on a Sunday morning and count down the hours and minutes until my sons would be checked in to their Sunday school classes. I knew I would then have an entire hour to myself, to breathe, to pray and even cry. And when they would fight me, I would become more forceful, more angry, and more determined to get them out the door, into the car, into the car sear, out of the car seat, out of the car, and into the church because don’t they know this is what Jesus wants for them?

Why Does Sunday School Have To Be School? #sundayschool #childrensministry #learningdifferences


I have already written about how difficult the sensory experience of church is for my oldest son. But that’s not the only reason why church has become so difficult for my family.

I am grieved over how many times in the past few years my younger son, who does not have the sensory issues his brother suffers from, has also been in tears before, during and after church.

He has dyslexia. He has a processing delay that slows down his ability to think through things by about 30%. He has the IQ of a genius – which sounds pretty amazing and is, but also significantly frustrates and angers him in situations where he knows he should be able to “get it” but, no matter how hard he tries, can’t.

He just started 3rd grade, but often cannot read the word “the”.

At times, when he is reading, the words rearrange themselves, and he actually sees letters floating off the page.

When listening to a lecture style of teaching, if not significantly slowed down, he literally cannot keep up with processing all the words.

And if the environment is full of other children talking, he will likely shut down, completely overloaded, and just stare at the table or color on a piece of paper.

So you can imagine the experience of Sunday School for this one…

When he was younger, it was different. Oh my goodness, he LOVED it.

It was play based. The teachers were snuggly. They spoke slowly and entertained him with amazing Bible stories.

As he got older, the curriculum changed. There was more reading, more memorization, more questions that required really thinking through the answers. Mostly, it just got faster.

One Sunday, he was told to sit off by himself for a little while because the game they were playing required reading and he couldn’t keep up.

One year, there was a fun contest associated with memorizing ten Bible verses. A swim party reserved only for those who were able to say all ten was the motivating prize.

The next year, there was another for memorizing and reciting an entire psalm. The reward was an opportunity to go to a special ice cream party and celebrate.

He asked for help in class. I know he did because I got an email from the teacher saying that he needs to practice more at home, and that she just couldn’t help him enough in class. I understood. I emailed her back and let her know that he had been practicing every single day of the week.

At one point in all of this he asked, “Why does Sunday School have to be School?”

I know what you are thinking…why didn’t we just talk to the Sunday school teacher and let her know about his learning disability?

The answer? Because we didn’t know.

We wouldn’t know for another seven months.

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Why Does Sunday School Have To Be School?

I believe that every single person I have ever met in children’s ministry has a true heart for children. Some of the kindest, sweetest, most determined to help and serve men and women I know have been my sons’ Sunday school teachers, including the ones mentioned above.

This is not, in any way shape or form, a judgement against them. They worked, and still work tirelessly to do the best they can, often at their own expense, to help encourage children to follow Jesus. I am truly grateful for them and want to acknowledge their commitment.

This is also not just about learning disabilities. I can think of a little girl, who irregularly visited church, had a home life that was obviously tough, and really, really wanted to get to go to the swim party with the other kids.

She didn’t know the verses.

This is about rethinking Children’s Ministry, to be inclusive, to be welcoming and fun, and to be accessible for all kids, no matter what their circumstances.

In matters of faith, it seems to me that Jesus meets us all right where we are, without comparing us to other believers who are further along, or asking how many Bible verses we have memorized. I am grateful for that.  Unfortunately however, that was not the message to my son. The message he got was that he was not as good as the other kids.

The teachers didn’t make him feel that way. Of course not.

But by being excluded, and seeing most of the other kids easily able to keep up, he felt different, singled out, and less than.

In fact, on more than one occasion, he said to me that he was not smart enough for Sunday school.

When we finally learned his diagnosis, it all made sense. He wasn’t lazy or disengaged. In fact, he was likely working harder than any other kid in his class just to keep up.

And, after he told us that he thought Jesus didn’t really love him, we made the decision to take the pressure off and learn about Jesus entirely at home, and in everyday conversations with other friends and family.


My husband and I still attend church as often as possible. We love the body of Christ and want desperately to worship along side a community of believers.

We invite our children to come with us, every time. Sometimes they surprise us and come along. Most of the time, we work out babysitting or take turns staying home.

As we have moved away from the traditional Sunday school environment, both of my children have blossomed, but particularly my youngest. Not only does he rest in believing once again that Jesus loves him dearly, he has started to ask questions about being baptized. We could not be happier or more grateful for the changes we see God making in his heart.

We are good – this is not about my family. My heart is for all the other kids who are headed to Sunday school today and are dreading it.

I pray for wisdom for their teachers. I pray they will see these little ones hearts.

I pray for children’s ministry leaders, that they would seek programs that include and inspire as fundamental elements of every activity in the classroom.

I pray for that little girl who didn’t get to go to the swim party. I hope she comes back to church. I pray Jesus brings her a friend.

It’s Sunday morning.

Let’s worship together the Creator of the universe with joy. Let’s approach every single child in our church the way He does –

with lavish grace,

and with scandalous love.

This post originally appeared on Not The Former Things in 2014.


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  1. A thousand times, yes. Our Faith is the most important part of who we are, but church is so hard…thanks for writing this.

    1. Oh my goodness, so true. It is so strange to have our faith be so essential to everything we do in our family, and yet church be so incredibly difficult for our family.
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

  2. Jennifer Forbes says:

    My son had a similar experience with the jump to our ‘Mega” church (10-12 year olds). I was the Special needs ministry leader and I even missed it. He started feeling sick every Sunday and finally when confronted started crying and refused to go at all. The younger group had some pretty understanding teachers who knew my son and his learning issues and just didn’t ask him to read a loud. The older group has at least one teacher who insists that everyone read aloud. He helps those who struggle and would not even hear about not doing it his way. It wasn’t the teacher who made it hard really it was the other kids who mocked another girl who struggled with reading and made my son terrified to be the next target. My son stopped going to children church and joined us upstairs in the main sanctuary instead. He takes notes (his way) and learns far more in church then he did in the children’s program where he was always worried about being called on.

    1. I can completely relate to this, Jennifer. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.
      I know it is often difficult to have this type of conversation, but I am confident, it needs to be had. Thank you for contributing.

  3. Jackie Johnson says:

    Thank you so much once again. As my husband, Dan and I prepare for what he calls “our church”, you remind us that we need to reach out to all God’s children, not just the one’s who believe or learn or look like us. You keep me thinking.

    1. Absolutely my pleasure! Thank you so much for your kinds words. You bless me.

  4. I’m sorry to hear your son was having so much trouble with his Sunday School class. And I’m glad you still see the importance of going to church. I hope that your children see that importance too. They don’t have to attend Sunday School, they can sit in church with you. It would be too bad for them to miss out on some great sermons.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Beth. We love church and we are confident that our boys will too. We have just needed to give them time to decompress and relax after the experiences they have had.

  5. When Sunday school was invented it was for working kids that only had Sundays off. Parents discipled their kids at home. We have had some of the same issues with our son at Sunday school and other children programming. We decided to help him by staying with him during the programs. Our decision was based on a desire to help him learn in groups. Now he does OK with Sunday school but not at Awana – so I stay with him teh whole time. He often doesn’t play the games – they get really loud. That is fine. She goes slower with memory work – that is fine. But this year we are really seeing a break through. By one of us staying with him and talking with him through all the different issues we have been able to teach him skills AND teach other adults how to help him work through skills. We do not have any of the special stuff for kid that memorize there stuff. We also do Bible reading a devotions at home.

    When I was in 3rd grade a family would take me to Sunday school with them. I loved everything about it. But I only could come once or twice a month. In order to get our Bibles we needed to memorize Psalm 23. I never did. I remember on the last day of Sunday school class, coming out of my Sunday school room to see my teacher arguing with another women about whether I should get a Bible or not. My teacher won. I did get the Bible. It was my only one for several years. I carried thoughts about both women with me for many years. Which one represented what God would want more?

    Blessings on your journey.

    1. Oh my goodness, what a story! I am so glad you got that Bible.
      I wish we just had a truckload of Bibles in children’s rooms and gave them away freely (just like we do adults in the service). Why do we make children earn their Bible? (Although in all fairness, I earned a Bible in 3rd grade and I was super excited…)
      Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for sharing your experience and for all you do to help your children. I tip my hat to you momma!

  6. sallieborrink says:

    I just shared this on my FB page. We experienced our own version of this yesterday and have a few other times in the past so this was very timely (as was your previous post about when church hurts – we get that too).

    And, Heidi, that story is simply heartbreaking. Arguing over whether or not to provide a child with a Bible? Oh my.

    1. I am so, so sorry you had this experience just yesterday. Praying for you and your family right this minute.

  7. Cheryl Pitt says:

    Great post and I agree 100%! However, I do have to say that I would hold the teachers somewhat accountable, as well as we came up with the exclusive ideas. God is not a God of works, and excluding children because they can’t “do enough” teachers exactly opposite of the Word . I’m so glad you didn’t force your son to stay in a stressful situation. (((hugs)))

    1. Thanks Cheryl. I think the teacher in this instance was just overwhelmed with trying to manage the class. She probably could’ve used a helper for the number of children and was likely just trying to get the game done so she could move on…Not a decision I would make in her shoes to be sure, but I do want to try and understand the difficult position she was in.
      ๐Ÿ™‚ Thank you so much for your kind remarks!

      1. You’re welcome…and sorry for the typos. I was commenting from my phone ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. I won’t notice your typos if you won’t notice mine!

  8. So great! I agree so much! With the kids at our church, our only goal is that they leave knowing they are loved, by us and by God. No agenda otherwise.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind remarks!

  9. Oh my.

    I’ve just transitioned from teaching the 4-6yos at church (very play-based) to teaching the 7-9s. And I remember this being the age where I memorized verses and the books of the Bible and much more – I’m so grateful I did – so I was thinking this would be a great thing to work on with the kids – with prizes and the works. In part, I’ve been wanting to encourage my own 7yo.

    After two weeks it is obvious this will be much easier for some kids than for others. I’ve glossed over the reading, allow the kids to draw pictures instead of write, and have Bible book flashcards with pictures that the kids can put in order. I’ll be introducing the verses in song and video form. I’m trying to see the person while still keeping motivation there for the extrinsically motivated (which I was).

    So what do you recommend for a kids’ church class? How do you motivate memorization (or do you see it as unimportant)? At what point do you move past play and stories to real, in-depth learning in the Word, and how do you get there with the whole class so no one is left behind?

    1. In my very limited exposure, what I think works best for children is when we adopt a model of child discipleship that looks very similar to adult discipleship.
      While I do think that deep and repeated exposure to the verses is very, very important, requiring memorization is easy for some and very difficult for others (creating a divide). I think that as children mature, the topics we use to relate to them mature as well. The best way to teach the Bible in my experience, is to use their own personal experiences, or examples in the world and apply God’s word and character to every singe situation. Admittedly, this does require thinking through how to make it fun, but it encourages meeting each child where he is at, rather than requiring a certain level of achievement.
      One could also ask the question – could we move to a children’s church model instead of a school model?

    2. Thank you so much for your comments and your questions. I love engaging in this conversation and think it needs to be had! Also, I really, really appreciate your commitment to working with the children at your church. It matters so much that you volunteer and that you are seeking options to really reach those little guys.

  10. When I read this, I wept. I work with special needs children at school and this just broke my heart. I have been asked many times to help out in Sunday school at church. I grew up teaching Bible club (as a kid I had neighbor kids over, I “played” Bible club) but I have been burnt out, and didn’t want to work with kids on weekends as well as week days. Reading your thoughts and experiences makes me want to impart the love and real presence of Jesus, as well as exploring Biblical truths throulgh play, stories and imagination. I love the idea of scripture memory through song!

    Thank you for sharing your heart and your struggle! May we love these little ones well, like Jesus loves us!

  11. Man .. you’ve no idea how wound up I feel reading this post. I really hope it’s a godly anger. I couldn’t agree with you more. One again Shawna you’ve hit the nail on the head on done right by your kids and God bless you for it.

    Argh .. can’t write what I’m thinking. I think the Pope nailed it when he let kid sit a chair during Mass (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/29/pope-francis-boy–stage-yellow-_n_4175486.html). God bless the youth ministers, for real, but there is something really wrong when the church causes the little ones to stumble and ignores the least of these.

    (I love the way you take the time to reply to each post, and how much time it must take you! Feel free not to reply to this one. ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

    1. I love replying when I can (I try to reply to all because I am honestly so blessed to even be able to have this conversation!), and thank you so much for your kinds words and encouragement.
      I LOVE the Pope story. I showing it to my husband and the both of us saying – That’s it! That’s the way it should be.
      Thank you, as always for sharing.
      ๐Ÿ™‚ Shawna

      1. Innit! I love the Pope. He just so walks like Jesus walked. He is the one Pope, who as a protestant I would happily refer to as Holy Father.

  12. I think memory is really important. I teach 6-8th graders. I have 17 kids in my class. 2 are dyslexic with sensory issues and ADHD, 1 has more severe learning issues, there are 3 boys with not known learning disability but don’t seem to be able to listen to a passage of scripture and talk about it:-0 A couple of kids that are just slow processors. Then I have about 4 girls that are quick and smart as a whip. I am telling you it is hard. We have 3 years to go through a Basic Bible Training Book:-) Fill in the blanks. So last week we read the scripture and was filling in the blank, I stopped, spelled out the words – S L O W L Y. One of the quick girls said,”Why do you have to spell it? Why can’t people just look in their books?” It seemed mean spirited, but I took it as a learning opportunity for the class. I just said ” We have many different types of learners in the class, so we need to honor everyone.” She seemed to understand, but this is a difficult situation for teachers. The kids get treats for taking sermon notes and doing devotions. But they can be picture notes or written notes. There are different kind of learners and it is hard to make a class where they all thrive – and the CE board is satisfied:-/

  13. We just began a special needs Sunday School at our church and when witnessed it is a most beautiful thing. I think meeting the needs of teaching our children about the Lord is a group effort…the parent of a mentally handicapped child is leading the class with other non-parent helpers. It blesses everyone involved. We have also just begun a robust memory program for children who can handle that, but that is optional. So, it is very difficult to meet the need of all in a diverse community such as a church…I have five children myself and one of them took years before he could sit in church…but I am so glad I didn’t give up on it entirely. Somehow it takes parents and other loving people willing to train each child at the level they can handle…but also lets not throw the baby out with the bath water…many children can handle sitting in church and in Sunday School and can learn to do so to the best of their ability which will help them through life. But as a pastor’s wife also, I am also aware that the leadership needs to leave room for messy…children are messy…and actually so are adults in different ways…we must not expect absolute conformity or silence. In fact, our church is so blessed when a boy with some sensory issues blurts out “Hallelujah” or another appreciative praise.. We love it!

    1. I love your heart to include, inspire and meet all the children where they are. Beautiful!
      Thank you for sharing.

  14. I always ask, when I am addressing children of the Sunday School, or anyone else, and in all situations, “What would Jesus do?”
    This is a great decision rule. And maybe what to do isn’t even to approach Sunday School ‘material’ the Church Board and others say is appropriate, because it is actually not age appropriate. It may not even be deep, or alive. We can ruffle feathers when we take on ‘the sunday school system’ or the mainstream in our church, or if we dare to take on the medical mainstream, even tho it’s now proven that neurotoxic additives in vaccines we routinely give are linked to autism.
    [Read recent CDC coverup regarding MMR vaccine.] Heck, my mainstream neighbors wouldn’t question authority once. Fluoride in our drinking water is proven to lower IQ. Try telling that to someone who buys everything authority tells them, hook, line & sinker.
    I think Jesus was telling us something much more simply, and that is, to evaluate EVERYTHING in His name, before you engage. Let Him be the Decision Rule. Sunday School included.

    1. Actually there is overwhelming evidence that vaccines do not cause autism. This video summarizes several very large studies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o65l1YAVaYc. I know many believe there is some conspiracy behind vaccines but they have really reduced death and complications of certain illnesses.

  15. Wow, is this really typical?

    “This is about rethinking Childrenโ€™s Ministry entirely”

    That line really struck me because this is just NOTHING like Sunday School at our church, there aren’t many kids so it’s mixed ages, I try to meet every kid where they are at, I have a prize chest but if we use it that day everyone is challenged with something they CAN do so by then end everyone leaves with something. And I’m thinking about adding a little not on our SS registration form: Would you like a Childrens Bible to take home and read with your child? Check Yes, Please or No thank you we have that taken care of. Haven’t yet, seems like a good idea though right? Just want to get Bibles into their hands and subtly encourage building in that parent kid Bible time.Really this whole earning or NOT earning your Bible concept shocks me. Anyways I know not everyone has the liberty to create the Sunday School program they want, and that people grove in certain denominations or are ministered to especially well by certain pastors or communities but I feel like sometimes (if you live in a church heavy area) there should maybe be a “shopping around” factor for Sunday School. I would imagine methods vary pretty widely from church to church. Thank you for writing.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting Danielle. I am so encouraged by your description of what your experience has been with your church’s ministry. I wish I could say that this piece is based on one or two church experiences, but unfortunately, it’s not. Most church programs I have seen for my children (and for me as a child for that matter) have been geared more towards performance than grace.
      This is what I meant by our approach needs to change. It sounds like your church’s approach already has! As I said, that is super encouraging for me and likely for some of the other parents who have commented here and on Facebook. Thank you so much for sharing.
      With love,

  16. My husband and I are both employed on children’s ministry. It is our whole life! I completely agree about those things like not making all children read, but instead calling on those who are wanting to and feel comfortable and things like that, and all kids being loved on by volunteers and Jesus! We run a program that is one hour of “Sunday school” and one hour of children’s church. There are some big pros and cons to each. Here are some pros I see to Sunday school: 1.) a loving adult to connect with the kids very specifically each week
    2.) connection between kids comes more naturally in Sunday school than in kids church.
    3.) more opportunity to TEACH kids to find Bible verses and answer their big questions that are harder to be asked and answered in kids church.
    I could go on. It is a big deal to us that kids leave with a good feeling about Jesus and church, because it will shape their walk for the rest of their lives!
    I would like to share, though, that it can be VERY difficult to do ministry, especially kids ministry. Everyone has their own way they think we should do ministry. Some would say that we’re setting expectations to low and the content isnt “deep” enough. some would say the opposite. Some say “kids church is better” and some say “do Sunday school!” It is incredibly tiring trying to be everything to everyone, and trust me, we are constantly aware that we aren’t serving all 500 kids in the exact way that reaches each of them individually. We pray hard and try to just follow The Lord, but goodness, posts like these and the constant stream of opinions from well-meaning people who think they know how we should do it sure can make ministry defeating and discouraging.

    1. Wonderful! Thank you so much for serving in children’s ministry and for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences. I can understand how it feels like you can never meet anyone’s expectations – can I just encourage you and say that even offering the church and school option is wonderful! The children have an opportunity to experience Jesus in both and be a part of the body in ways that are not just dependent on “learning”.
      Please know, my post is intended to start a conversation around doing exactly what y’all are doing – trying to move towards meeting all the children where they are, and in various settings. I love what you are doing.
      In Love and With Respect,

  17. This is a question I’ve been asking for a while–we homeschool as well, and as we dropped a “school” approach Monday-Fri, I noticed how much it was part of Sunday, too. And I think the children are in desperate need of a break from “school” in church, but I think the adults are too.
    Thank you for this insightful, kind and honest post. It’s good to know I’m not the only one asking this question–and blessings to your son, who has crazy insight to ask it himself.

    1. Thank you so much, Heather.
      You are not crazy and not alone in asking these questions! I am just so happy we are having the conversation.

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