Sunday is not a day for school

October 12, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 20
Will Braun |

I don’t know how to talk to my four-year-old about God. I tell him God is the one who makes things grow. I think I once told him God makes the wind blow. I ask if he wants to thank God for anything at bedtime. I’ve told him love comes from God.

Aside from this last line, which I’m fond of, I can’t imagine that any of these statements mean much to him. As proof, when my wife said something about her keeping our younger son, who is breastfeeding, alive, the four-year-old asked her, slightly puzzled, “Are you God?”

I could get a picture Bible and read him stories about stone tablets, a man-eating whale and a blue-eyed son of God, but I’m not honestly sure my relationship with God has benefitted from countless tellings of the Jonah story.

I don’t recall what I thought about God at four, but I do recall the Sunday school years. I learned three things. First, there are fine, caring people in church. This was the most significant lesson. Unfortunately, it was not the only one.

I also learned that Christianity is trite. We were asked simplistic questions with predictable answers. This sent a negative message about the intelligence of both students and church in general.

Finally, I learned that faith is closely related to school. I learned that faith, like math or geography, is something you acquire via your intellect while sitting indoors, quietly and still, during a given time slot, while listening to an authority figure. I hated school, so the fact that the church’s primary  formal offering to me was called “school” was an unspeakably ill-considered piece of marketing. It was also a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of faith.

Last March, Christian leaders from around the world met in Kenya for a theological conference on children. In a statement about the event, the World Council of Churches—one of the participants—emphasized the importance of “the Sunday school movement” and the need to expand “theological curriculum from a holistic child development point of view.”

Count me and my boys out. I’m glad the Ph.D.-laden leaders are talking about kids, but “school,” “theological curriculum” and “development” are from the wrong paradigm. When Jesus put a child in the midst of the disciples, he did not say, “If you impart sound theology into this child’s undeveloped brain, you receive me.” (If he had said that I would know what to tell my son.) Jesus said, “Whoever receives such a child in my name, receives me.”

An aboriginal friend told me that children are closest to God. Parents still provide guidance and impart wisdom, but this notion turns the common assumption that children are lacking—usually intellectual knowledge—upside down.

What I want for my sons is a setting in which their own innate, heart-level oneness with God can flourish. I think this requires love and attention, exposure to natural wonder, nurture of curiosity and beautiful religious rituals. I feel my childhood had all but the latter. I would love to see our churches get better at providing this for children today.

Occasionally, our family visits an Anglican church that has a particularly beautiful communion ceremony. My son willingly comes back from the playroom for this part of the service. I like to think that when we go to the front, where he can smell incense, hear the music, see rituals and receive a blessing, his sense of the holy is nurtured in a way that a lesson could never achieve.

Will Braun is a Winnipeg writer. He can be reached at

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