Break Free of the “School” in Sunday School: Faith is a Relationship

Break Free of the “School” in Sunday School: Faith is a Relationship
August 16, 2017 Jess Goldsmith
Faith is a Relationship

If we want kids to know that faith is a relationship and not a subject to be studied, why do so many children’s ministry environments have a school-like feel?

Why do we teach kids in a classroom where we memorize Bible verses? Why do we study about God and encourage good attendance in Sunday school? Why do we drill kids to recite what they’ve learned?

At face value, these practices are great! But we seem to be teaching kids that faith is a matter of memorizing facts or learning concepts so they can “pass the test” with Jesus.

Is this really how we want kids to perceive God and Jesus?

As a children’s ministry leader, you know your friendship with God didn’t come to you through performance. God’s love surrounded you before you believed, and he’s patient with you as you learn to trust him. Any “facts” you’ve learned about God that have stuck with you have served to deepen a closeness and enjoyment out of your relationship with God.

So let’s ditch the “school” in Sunday school and focus on showing kids that faith is a relationship. Group’s Sunday School curriculum is centered around teaching kids just that. Here are a few examples from DIG IN to illustrate this teaching style:

  • Mary learns she’s pregnant with Jesus: Why was Mary favored, anyway? This is the kind of question kids might be grappling with, as they’re often concerned about popularity and being favored at school or in their neighborhoods. Through a “popularity” game in the Deeper Bible activity, kids discover that Mary was an ordinary person, like they are–and God can do impossible things through them.
  • God creates Adam and Eve: God breathed breath into Adam; so kids draw a face on a balloon and watch it come to life as they blow air into it. Through this activity in Core Bible Discovery, kids explore the special things God “breathed” into them when he made them, and they hear that God made them for a reason.
  • Adam and Eve eat from the tree of good and evil: Kids might be wondering—if God wants us to make good choices, why does he let us make bad choices? When kids make their own “It’s Your Choice” gameboards in the craft activity, they find out that God’s there for them when they’re making choices and he’ll help them.

Looking for more examples? Download four weeks of lessons from both the The Life of Jesus and The Bible in One Year and see how DIG IN can transform your children’s ministry.

Jess Goldsmith is an editor in Group’s children’s ministry department and a key leader in the preschool program at Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette, Colorado.


  1. Joyce Gilliland 6 years ago

    I had simple memory verses when I was three.. I still remember it.. God is love… The Word is The MOST important thing for children to relate to! We WILL be judged by The Word… God recognizes His children through the Word… WHEN we speak it… How do you figure that these little children are better off without the Word! OR did I misunderstand what you said… Stories are just that.. Stories… BUT when we add a scripture that relates to the story within their appropriate age groups, They will learn how scripture fits into their lives, individually…. I remembered this scripture from age three! No one ever loved me like Jesus.. through His Word…

    • Author
      Jessica Sausto 6 years ago

      Thanks for your comment, Joyce! It’s so great to hear how God’s Word has impacted your life, even from age three! This article simply addresses a trend we’ve seen where churches take a very “school-like” approach to faith formation across all age groups. We’re not saying this is an “either/or” scenario, but rather, we want to encourage children’s leaders that in addition to learning information, such as the memorization of scripture, leaders are taking Bible knowledge deeper into its overall purpose: to build a personal relationship with God. If children memorize a verse, but don’t know what it means or how it applies to their lives, then they won’t know what to do with what they memorized. But when they understand how the verse relates to who God says they are and who God says he is, then they’re able to use it in their personal lives. This way information can lead to transformation (like you said) – which is a key part of Group Sunday School’s philosophy.

  2. Alma 5 years ago

    Dear Jessica,
    Your ditching of Sunday school has me wondering if Groups curriculum is wrong for our church, after all. We currently use Dig In and I emphasize the memorization of that months bible verse every Sunday so that the children can use God’s word in their lives—even though Dig In does not implement memorization, unfortunately. But now I’m understanding why.

    I think you may need to look back at the history of Sunday school and see why Sunday school started. That is where we get our “classroom” environment and there’s nothing wrong with it. Look at how kids minds work so that you may understand why memorization is important. Kids learn the alphabet and memorize it before they understand how it comes together. They start speaking from repeating their mother’s language in order to later put their own thoughts together. This is God’s design and order. His spoken word came before we did. Because it is his design and order therefore, it is wise to teach little minds the knowledge of God and his word before they come into the age of questioning everything which happens around 8-10 years of age. Romans 10:17 “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” When they begin to reason for themselves, AFTER hearing, it will be most likely then when they can come to personal faith. If a family and their church has done a good job of teaching in love more than just stories and encouraging memorization , that child will begin to piece all they have learned just as they pieced into words and thoughts the alphabet memorized in their pre-k years. In addition, if churches stop encouraging memorization, do you think the majority of churched families would be getting their God-centered education at home? Most likely not unless children are being homeschooled. It’s just a fact. Sadly, too many “Christian “ families do not make daily time to memorize scripture or even read scripture together more than what’s given in Sunday school. But according to you/DigIn , they should focus on asking why Mary was favored (I’ve never heard a child make that question after 15+ years of teaching kids), blowing balloons or being entertained artificially to learn because of this so-called Sunday school feel? Is God’s word no longer sufficient in itself? So should we really ditch the school in Sunday? No!

    Deuteronomy 11:18-23
    Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds: tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them in your foreheads (memorization) . Teach them to your children…

    • Ali Thompson 5 years ago

      Hi Alma, I’m so glad you’ve shared your thoughts and concerns with us! Just to clarify up front that we’re not, by any means, ditching Sunday school. I’m sorry you got that from this article. We, at Group, LOVE Sunday school and many of us are volunteer leaders in this ministry. We’re passionate about helping kids imprint God’s Word on their hearts—that’s one of our main missions with the DIG IN curriculum. That’s what we’re doing as we encourage children to dig into real Bible stories about real people. What we don’t want is for kids to feel like they have to earn God’s love with a good score on a “test,” like they take in school. We want them to know they can come as they are to God, and through relationship with him and getting to know him through his Word and other practices, God will sanctify them.

      As we mentioned in the previous response to the comment above, we’re not against memorization either. We whole-heartedly strive to create lessons that help kids to understand and live out God’s Word in their lives. This article is simply saying that if children’s leaders are implementing scripture memorization in a way that promotes kids to put the words in their heads only long enough to earn a prize … and the children forget it by the next day… then that’s not helpful for anyone.

      OR if kids experience angst over getting every word right because they’re not naturally talented at memorization, or they’re embarrassed in front of their peers, what they’re not going to remember in the long run is the scripture. What they are going to remember will be negative and is the opposite of what Jesus wants kids to know about himself. I did scripture memory as a child, and the verses that have been written on my heart are the ones where children’s leaders helped me understand what they meant in my life. The ones I remember were imprinted on my heart because I experienced the truth from the verse and was able to apply it. DIG IN does an awesome job of helping kids make that connection between God’s truths and their lives. We want kids to experience God’s love when they learn a verse about his love. We want them to have hope when they learn a verse about trusting God. We want to help them to develop a desire to please God when they’re learning a verse about obeying his commands.

      So it seems that we agree with you… this article is just asking leaders to take scripture knowledge to the next level! Thanks, Alma!

  3. Gina Girdeen 5 years ago

    I love the flexibility of the curriculum! We all have different learning styles and talents. We can switch from “book learning” to active learning through games and science experiments, sprinkle in a little music, crafts, and close with a practical wrap-up offered by Dig In, as well. The teachers are given creative license to design lessons that fit their own personal giftings. Thank you, Dig In! Together we’re impacting lives with the Word of God, and the kids are remembering the lessons from week to week. I’m thankful for all the hours you put into creating this wonderful curriculum!!

  4. Valecia Scribner 5 years ago

    Thank you for this article! Our church changed our primary focus a few years ago…we were totally content-driven, wanting kids to learn about God through scripture. When we shifted our primary focus to relationships, we learned that what this article says is true. Being a Jesus follower isn’t about what you know, but it’s about your relationship with him. Atheists can have a profound knowledge of the Bible, but without that personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it doesn’t do them any good. We still teach the Bible, but the strength of our children’s programs lies in the relationships our kids have with each other, with their leaders, and with Jesus. Ironically, our kids have a much deeper understanding of the Bible now that we’re not treating faith formation like school!
    Bravo for seeing and naming hard truths.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *