If you ask people who grew up in church why they left, you’ll get a variety of answers. Maybe they were hurt by someone they trusted. Or they couldn’t reconcile an all-powerful and good God with the evil in the world. But the answer I hear the most, both from friends and online communities, is they were tired of hearing what terrible people they were.
One of my best friends, who no longer attends church, told me: “All I ever heard was that I was the scum of the earth. The only reason I was worth anything was because God forgave me. It’s discouraging to hear that every week.”
I grew up with a similar rhetoric. Instead of focusing on Genesis 1, in which we are told that humanity was made in God’s own image, we tend to rush to humanity’s sin in Genesis 3. I even grew up learning techniques for evangelism that taught, “You have to make people realize the depth of their sin so that they will understand how great the gospel is.”
I know this teaching is presented in good faith by those trying to stay true to the Bible. And they are right. Adam and Eve did fall. We all sin. But the unintended consequence of overemphasizing this teaching is that people agonize over their sin instead of rejoicing in the goodness of the gospel.
I am a children’s minister at a Presbyterian Church (USA). I vividly remember walking down the hallway of our children’s wing during my first week and seeing a collage of get-to-know-you pages each titled, “I AM GOOD!” The children had been learning about Genesis 1 and how after everything God created, God said, “It is good.” But after God created people, God said, “It is very good.”
The children each had written their names, drawn a self-portrait and written what they are good at. Yes, we teach about sin in our church. In fact, we have a prayer of confession every Sunday. But these children walk down that hallway every week and remember that they are good.
I am shocked by some of the Sunday school and VBS curricula written for children. One lesson instructed the teacher to turn off the lights, have each child sit alone in a corner, close their eyes and think about their sin. The curriculum insisted this was necessary to help kids understand the depth of their sin before sharing the good news of the gospel.
The reality is children already know they sin. I get informal confessions every week.
“Mrs. Grace, I cheated on a test this week.”
“Mrs. Grace, I love my brother, but sometimes I’m mean to him.”
“Mrs. Grace, when my mom told me to clean my room, I stuffed all my toys in my closet.”
The kids in my ministry know they make mistakes and do things that are wrong. They also feel comfortable telling me about what they do wrong.
“In an environment where sin is overemphasized, children don’t sin less — they just hide more.”
In an environment where sin is overemphasized, children don’t sin less — they just hide more. The children in my church know I will not shame them for their mistakes. Instead, I ask them questions.
“Why did you cheat on your test? How do you think God feels about that?”
“What did you do to your brother? How can we show love instead?”
“Why do you think your mom told you to clean your room? How can we make cleaning more fun next time?”
My suggestion is not that we exclude conversations about sin with children. I am suggesting we reevaluate our emphasis. Children are being formed in big ways at church. We do not just teach them stories from a book; we tell them who they are and who God is. This is not a task I take lightly.
Brené Brown has written a lot about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt says, “I did bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.” When the children in my ministry move up to the youth group, I hope they can say, “I am a child of God. I am beloved.” Yes, they sin. Yes, they make mistakes. But their identity is in Christ, not in their shortcomings.
“The good news is not that we are terrible and God loves us anyway.”
Presbyterians love to quote Mr. Rogers. He was a Presbyterian minister ordained to his television program for children. Although his show was not overtly religious, he taught truths that children needed to hear then and still need to hear today.
Mr. Rogers said: “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”
This may be uncomfortable for those of us who grew up hearing how fallen the world is and how broken we are. But if I may theologize Mr. Rogers a bit, this is not a claim about Genesis 3. This is a claim about Genesis 1. We are made in the image of God. The bedrock of our being is good stuff. The good news is not that we are terrible and God loves us anyway. The good news is that we were made in God’s image, we sin, and God loves us still.
We are children of God, and our identity does not change, no matter what we do.
Grace Sosa serves as coordinator of children’s ministry at First Central Presbyterian Church in Abilene, Texas. She is pursuing a master of divinity degree and master of arts in New Testament degree at Abilene Christian University’s Graduate School of Theology. She is a candidate for ministry in the PCUSA.
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