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Sunday School Strategies for Every Grade

If you step into a typical Sunday school classroom, you’re likely to see students seated on the floor listening to a Bible story from a picture book, tables covered in crafting supplies ready to be glued together into a quick representation of some piece of that story, or even kids marching around the room singing simple songs that connect to the lesson of the day.

Notably missing, in many cases, is a depth of discussion that expects children to grasp not only the theological truths in the story but also the broader metanarrative of Scripture. This isn’t because Sunday school teachers are unwilling to provide more intentional and effective spiritual formation for their students. Often, they’re simply not equipped, either with a robust and purposeful curriculum or with the training on how to best reach children at each age level.

How can we help them? How can we shape our children’s programs to nurture kids who understand the full breadth of Scripture?

Choose Stories Wisely

In curricula today, the stories tend to focus on a few events, usually those resembling a superhero plot and featuring great men and women of faith. Stories of God’s people are twisted into moral tales, meant to admonish children into behaving well. This approach can distort the true nature of the Bible, which isn’t a story about humans at all. It’s the story of God.

A better approach is to look for stories that reveal the nature of God while staying focused on the central message of the narrative. Each piece of Scripture points us either ahead or back to the cross, the center of our faith.

With this mindset, helping students to understand the sacrificial system of the Old Testament becomes just as essential as telling them the story of God’s power in knocking down the walls of Jericho. Perhaps more so. With each story, the ultimate theme of God’s love for his people should be spoken aloud every Sunday.

Build Curricula Around the Big Story

With a distinct beginning, middle, and end, the Scriptures reveal who God is and answer life’s most important questions about our identity and purpose. Starting with your youngest students, tell the story slowly and deliberately, in its proper order. When you get to the end, tell it again. Hearing the entire story multiple times ensures children develop a solid understanding.

The overarching story of God’s good creation, the brokenness that came from the fall into sin, and the redemption and restoration that Jesus bought on the cross is reflected throughout the Scriptures. This framework shapes not only which stories we choose to tell but also how we tell them. As we together seek these elements in every passage of the Bible, students learn the tools to do this for themselves.

For example, the story of Jonah demonstrates for students of any age the brokenness of humankind but also the unfathomable grace of God in calling Jonah as the unwilling prophet, in turning him back around when he literally ran away from that calling, in sparing his life despite his disobedience to bring him to his knees (in the belly of a great fish!), and in inspiring widespread repentance and faith in the notoriously wicked city of Nineveh.

Rather than simply marveling at the amazing miracle of God’s use of a fish to swallow Jonah up, we focus on these bigger themes to redirect students to what’s most important. Older students can also make more direct connections, like between the three days Jonah spends entombed in the fish and the third-day resurrection of Jesus. All students can see and rejoice that the goodness of God isn’t dependent on the goodness of man.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Repetition truly is the mother of learning. Time after time after time, our retelling of these truths imprints them on our children’s hearts. There’s good purpose in God’s reminders to his people to tell their children again the stories of his faithfulness. Forgetfulness leads to doubt and disobedience. Hearing the story one more time draws us ever closer back to him.

Tell God’s story intentionally and repeatedly, rehearsing its main ideas every week. A child who attends even one class should walk away having learned something about the character of God and the story of redemption. Students who attend our Sunday schools for several years should hear the entire narrative multiple times, at ever-deepening levels.

Students who attend our Sunday schools for several years should hear the entire narrative multiple times, at ever-deepening levels.

Repetition of routine can also be an incredibly powerful teaching tool. Integrating patterns of prayer, praise, discussion, contemplation, and response builds a framework for worship. This consistency isn’t only an important gift we give our children today but one they carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Grow the Lessons with the Students

As children grow and develop, their strengths and challenges do too.

Early Years

Young children are eager to soak up information and build a firm foundation of knowledge. They can memorize with ease and enjoyment, especially through song, story, and action. Capitalize on these capabilities without sacrificing depth or truth. Ask them to memorize Scripture (longer passages too!) to hide in their hearts, so they develop a deep well of truth to visit time and again as they grow.

Middle School

Students in middle school are situated between childhood and adulthood. Their minds and bodies are changing at a rate equaled only in toddlerhood. These students search for truth in a new way. They’re eager to know for themselves what’s true and good and beautiful, and this desire often shows up in hard questions.

Forgetfulness leads to doubt and disobedience. Hearing the story one more time draws us ever closer back to God.

Amid these questions, they may look like they’re turning away from faith. But this need not be so. In these tender years, provide students with a safe space to ask the most important questions. Encourage them to test things for themselves and push back, but give them something firm and immovable against which to push—the Truth.

Lessons centered on robust and honest discussion led by faith-filled and compassionate adults will allow students to own and deepen their faith. They’ll see the value of every word of Scripture as they look closely at the text while seeing overarching themes and connections.

High School

During these years, students are discovering who they are. They’re eager to show this self to the world, so guide them to do so with wisdom and grace. Understanding their place in the story of God’s people will allow them to center their lives on Christ rather than themselves. This is countercultural and may even go against the grain of their desires. But it will ultimately root them in the One who never changes—who created them, loves them perfectly, and orders their steps.

Take care to help students develop compassion and grace for those who hold different beliefs. At this age, cynicism and a tendency to villainize the “other” are strong. Developing a true biblical worldview that holds unswervingly to Truth while reaching out in love to those who don’t yet know it is a step toward spiritual maturity.

Time-Tested Education Submitted to God

This approach to education in the church follows the flow of Scripture while honoring the developmental needs and strengths of the child. It’s mirrored in the classical model of education. Over the past decades, these tenets have proven effective for developing depth of thought and love for learning in students in both homeschooling communities and traditional schools.

But in all things, remember that no teaching strategy or cleverly designed lesson can bring about the regeneration of a soul. The Spirit draws hearts to the Father. The most essential tool in the hand of a Sunday school teacher isn’t a particular curriculum but rather the prayer of the righteous, which is powerful and effective (James 5:16).


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