The Anabaptist World magazine runs a regular comic called Loaves and Fishsticks, by Steve Edwards. In the most recent issue, the comic strip featured a person leading a children’s Sunday School class with a guitar in hand. The leader invites the class to join in singing “Peace Like a River.” Before they can begin, one of the children interjects to point out that they had just sung a song that claimed “God’s gonna trouble the water,” and she worries the mixed messages will result in a lifetime of theological doubt. The final panel of the strip has the child angrily telling the teacher that she will probably be revisiting this sing-along in future therapy sessions and warns that the teacher’s “chaplain malpractice insurance” better be paid up.
This comic made me chuckle when I saw it, partly because of the idea of a child saying the words “chaplain malpractice insurance” and partly because of how it pokes fun at the way we sometimes project our own fears on to children. We probably don’t worry too much about the mixed metaphors of children’s songs, but we do worry a lot about saying the wrong thing or not having the “right” answers to children’s questions about faith.
I understand that fear. Teachers or anyone who works with children need to be aware of just how much influence they can have on young people. I would never want to downplay that responsibility. But at the same time, I don’t think we need to lose sleep over whether all the lyrics to our Sunday School songs match up perfectly or whether we have the perfect answer to questions about God.
What I think the comic gets wrong is that it ends with the teacher giving a dismissive eye roll and saying “There’s always one in every Sunday School class.” Singing songs with contrasting lyrics is not going to scar a child, but what very much could is an adult who dismisses their questions and rejects their attempts to engage.
I don’t normally have much chance to interact with CMC’s younger children during Sunday School time, but one of the gifts of the pandemic has been that it has given me the opportunity to regularly lead and attend these classes on Zoom. As we bring a weird year of Sunday School to a close, I’ve been reflecting on this experience.
I’m the first to admit that children’s ministry is not my biggest spiritual gift. I’m so used to working with older youth and adults that it takes a lot to shift into a completely different mode for younger children. But what I’ve been reminded over the past year is that all children really want is the same thing we all want: connection. Whether it’s a Sunday School class, a softball team, a neighborhood, or a family, we all just want to know that we belong and that we have something to contribute to the world.
If I’m honest, when I think about my work with children at CMC, I’m less worried that a child will have a “lifetime of theological doubt” and more worried about a lifetime of theological homelessness. If children (or people of any age) feel like they have a spiritual home that is willing to hear them, to see them, and to accept the gifts they bring, we will have created a space where all those theological doubts can be carried together in community.