I Was Mistreated At Sunday School
By Terry McNannel
The lifelong lessons from church that these people carry with them are ones filled with hurt. Are you sure the same things aren’t happening to children in your ministry today?
We talk about unforgettable lessons a lot in Christian education because we want our Bible studies and lessons to be life-changing.
Our staff here at Children’s Ministry Magazine started wondering, though, if there’s a “dark side” to unforgettable lessons. Are there things that are said or done at church that may burn people for a lifetime?
So we asked adults if there were ever times in church as a child that they were made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or awkward. Check out the things we heard-and hopefully, apply the salve of God’s grace in your ministry to keep others from being burned in the same ways in your ministry.
Down In Front
When my daughters were young, they loved going to church and Sunday school every Sunday. Because of the noise in the back pews where all the young families were, the girls sat up front so they could hear and see better. I’ll never forget what happened one Sunday morning when one young girl said to my daughters, “You don’t belong up here; you belong in the back ’cause you’re poor and your clothes are old.”
My children were so hurt that they never would go back to church after that. To this day, they have a very hard time with people who call themselves Christians.
As a young person, I was in a boating accident in which I felt I “should have” drowned, but something or someone had kept me afloat. The more I thought about it, I had a distinct feeling that Someone (probably God) had saved me, but I wasn’t sure who God was or what God could do.
I was shy about asking my parents or anyone else, but I did tell my Sunday school class about my experience on the lake, secretly wanting someone to explain to me what had happened. The teacher’s response was something like, “That’s nice.” That was the end of it. I realize that my Sunday school teacher himself may not have understood or known how to respond to me, but I wish he would’ve helped me understand this better.
At vacation Bible school opening night, the minister approached the small wooden podium. He then sermonized for 20 minutes about the perils of hell if we didn’t repent for our sinfulness and ask God into our hearts right then. He explained what would happen to our skin (blister and crack), our families (gnashing and wailing, torture and dismemberment), and our souls (scorching and burning in eternal fire).
He singled out random children and said, “Do you refuse God?” He asked, “Who dares to claim he’s not a sinner? Who of you will be saved?” I was scared out of my wits. I just wanted his ranting to stop, so I raised my hand. I was the first person to raise my hand, but not the last. After me, a floodgate opened. Little hands shot up around the room. I had no idea what was happening, but it seemed as though I’d done the right thing.
A woman in a wool suit led me from the room into the darkened sanctuary where we sat, all alone. The woman told me to ask to be saved. “I don’t know what to do,” I said. After more prompting, I managed a halting prayer that was both meaningless and driven by fear, pressure, and embarrassment.
When my mom picked us up, she asked how VBS went. We told her it was horrible, scary, the people were mean, and we didn’t want to go back. Looking back some 20 years later, I can safely say I felt traumatized that night.
When I was about 8, we went to a church where my two sisters and I didn’t know many kids. We went to different schools, and we didn’t attend Sunday school very regularly. It was always kind of awkward being there anyway, but especially awkward when we came in late-a lot of strangers staring at us while we found open chairs. And it seemed like we were often running late. So on several occasions, my sisters and I would wave happily to Mom when she dropped us off, then walk through the church and out the back door where we’d “hide out” under enormous evergreen trees behind the church. We’d hold our own little Sunday school out there-singing hymns and reading Bible verses.
The PK Problem
We’re a pastor’s kids and my brother really got the brunt of it. All of his Sunday school teachers throughout his life seemed to expect him to automatically be the best-behaved kid in the class and to know everything about the Bible.
Teachers would always call on him to answer questions in class. He’d feel stupid if he didn’t know the answer, and he felt picked on by the teacher. This continued into youth group, and he really hated it. He developed a resentment of Christian education. In an effort to prevent him from really rebelling, my parents backed off on their requirement that he attend all the youth group functions. They still “made him” attend some things but tried to be understanding about his desire not to go to other things. He made it through
okay and is now in college and spiritually doing well because people there don’t know him as the PK.
What he really needed was just to be allowed to be a regular kid. A kid who might misbehave sometimes (like most boys do). A kid who didn’t want to be embarrassed. A kid who didn’t know everything. A kid who wanted to blend in.
We’d just moved to Texas from California. The hairstyles were a little different from state to state, and my son had a haircut that fit well in the California lifestyle but was a little unique for Texas. From the moment we stepped into his new Sunday school classroom, all the boys laughed at him. The teacher tried to calm them down, but the damage was already done.
Odd Man Out
I first made a faith commitment at a VBS program in a church basement in Michigan, but this one particular year I wasn’t able to attend the first day of the program. And that’s when the plaster of Paris molds were passed out and filled. On the second day, it was “paint the plaster cross” day and I had … well, nothing. I felt so left out.
And because each day was planned as a specific step, the leader just patted my shoulder, told me that it paid to come on the first day, and appointed me as the Official Paintbrush Washer for the rest of the week.
Our elementary church choir practiced after school, and we kids were being a bit disruptive. So our choir director stopped us and told us that something bad could happen to us if we continued to talk because God was listening and hearing how bad we were being. That was a harsh picture to paint of God.
When I was 4, my parents got a divorce and shared custody of my brother and me. We spent alternate weekends with each parent. On Sundays with my mom, we would go to church. And on Sundays with my dad, we’d go to the hardware store. I never liked Sunday school because all the other kids seemed to know each other, and the teachers knew all the kids except me. I assumed this was because I didn’t go every Sunday like the other kids. And I never felt accepted or welcomed by either the teachers or the students. Finally I begged my mom so much to not make me go to Sunday school that she had to take me into “big church” with her, and I never went back to Sunday school again.
Think About It
My brother almost quit going to church because he strongly questioned his Sunday school teacher about the theory of evolution. She brushed him off casually at first, thinking she could just move on and not address his questions. He pressed, and she proceeded to call him a heretic and said he didn’t deserve to come to church if he entertained such unchristian attitudes. This had a huge impact on my brother concerning the expression of Christian love and acceptance.
A couple of other kids had probably been getting a little rambunctious. That’s when the male teacher we had pretty much just blew up. He grabbed me by the arms and shoved me up against a wall hard, shook me, and snarled in my face that I better “shape up and quit screwing around or else.”
No kidding! This is one of my prime memories from all my VBS experiences when I was young-even surpassing the VBS programs where they brought in live barnyard animals. Funny how a memory like that can stick with you even into adulthood.
The teacher got in trouble for it, but nonetheless it dampened my enthusiasm for VBS and church. And it left us kids a little bewildered for a while.
While visiting new churches, my parents liked one church where the people were extremely friendly. During my Sunday school class, though, all we did was talk about basketball scores from recent professional games. The kids and teacher even made bets on upcoming games. It was all supposed to be fun, but there was no lesson or sharing about God or the Bible-and I had no idea what to say during those times since I didn’t follow this sport. I felt left out and embarrassed-plus ripped off for not getting any lesson. I thought my teacher must be one lazy guy! We didn’t go to that church for long.
The Heavenly Ceiling
When I was in first-grade Sunday school, we learned about Creation. I thought the adventures of Adam and Eve were great, but when we went back and started getting deeper into the creation and naming of all the animals, the bomb dropped. The teacher said God would only allow “man” to enter heaven. I was crushed! How could God have done that to me! It took a long time before I was able to understand that the teacher meant “people.” I was pretty upset with God for a long time for making me a girl!
Our Sunday school class wasn’t always the most attentive bunch. One Sunday our teacher, who happened to be the father of one of the girls in our class, came in and announced that he wasn’t going to teach the regular lesson. He then told us about the revelation he had had that our class was all doomed to hell because we didn’t give him proper respect. He went on and on describing the tortures awaiting us in the afterlife and assuring us that our fate was sealed. At the end of class he walked out, and we never saw him at church again (thankfully). We were left in tears. It took us awhile to get over that one, and we still talk about it to this day when we get together.
Just Say Sorry
I still recall second grade when my teacher accused me of stealing a book. I was flabbergasted that she would think I would take anything. Anyway, she found the book, but she never apologized for the accusation. It seemed like the “teacher is always right” syndrome.
Roses With Thorns
A camp counselor told me that if I followed Jesus as my Savior, I would notice an instant difference in my life. My problems and trials would seem smaller, and I’d have fewer worries. Everything would essentially be all rosy. So, he and I prayed together that evening and I expected to wake up the next morning and my whole world would be changed. Alas, I was still me!
This article “I Was Mistreated At Sunday School” by Terry McNannel is excerpted from Children’s Ministry Magazine, June 2002.