Did you ever visit a Sunday School class when you were younger? Whether the experience is positive or negative can have a huge impact on whether or not a child wants to attend Church again. Some children have such scarring experiences, they are still reluctant to attend church years later as adults.
The really sad part is that the majority of those negative experiences could have been easily avoided with some changes in how things were done where they visited. Every story is different, but here are the comments about scarring experiences we hear the most and the ways you can keep these things from happening to your visitors and students.
- “I didn’t know anyone and no one wanted me to sit next to them. They wouldn’t talk to me either.” Create a class culture where your regular students have certain expectations for how they are to treat others – especially visitors. Wanting to sit next to a friend is fine, but students should only be allowed to deny a seat to another child because they are “saving” the seat for someone who hasn’t arrived in vary rare instances. Students should be encouraged to greet each other and visitors. They should be expected to be extra kind to visitors and offer to help them adapt. Reflecting God’s love to others is an important lesson your students need to learn.
- “I wasn’t very good at reading and they made me read the Bible out loud.” Never call on a child to read who has not volunteered. In fact, in elementary school I would encourage only the teachers to read scriptures. Reading issues can embarrass the child reading and bore the other students who have already read it silently.
- “I’m an introvert and everything was group work or loud and crazy.” If your visitor is an introvert, they are already extremely uncomfortable being around this many people they don’t know. If you then force them to do something extroverted or correct them for not being more outgoing, the result can be traumatic for the child. Asking a few general questions when a visitor arrives, can help you gauge if he or she is more introverted or extroverted. Allow visitors to hang back a little and observe. You can encourage them to try things, but as long as they are respectful, don’t overly pressure them. Often, in a class or two, they will feel more comfortable and participate like the other students.
- “I was sent by myself to the restroom and ‘something unsafe’ happened.” We all want to believe the adults in our church would never hurt a child. Most won’t, but anyone can walk into a church building. Predators often volunteer to help in Sunday School classes or youth programs because they believe they won’t have background checks or have safety precautions in place. Non-custodial parents can take advantage of the crowds and kidnap a child. Please don’t be naive and put children and teens in danger. Keep your students safe. This includes a buddy system for leaving the room, volunteer background checks, safety rules and safe child pickup procedures.
- “I have special needs and they just stuck me in a corner with a coloring sheet, while everyone else was doing a fun activity.” Most activities can be adapted to allow children with special needs to participate. Some children may need an extra adult to be their special helper for class. If you aren’t sure how to help a student with special needs participate, ask the person who brought them to give you suggestions or tell you what the child’s school does to accommodate their special needs.
- “I was different from the other kids in some way. I never felt like I fit in. There were cliques that didn’t have room for me.” For kids and teens “different” can mean many things. Kids will naturally have more in common with some kids than others. Where it becomes a problem is when they refuse to be kind and loving or exclude kids who don’t have the same thing in common. Your students don’t have to be best friends with each other, but they should be able to consider each other as friends. It may require extra teaching, discussions and in severe cases parental help, but it needs to be addressed. No one should feel like they are a misfit in God’s Kingdom.
There are a lot of reasons young people leave Church and/or God that you can’t do anything to change. Don’t ignore the things you can change. No child should ever leave class traumatized or feeling “less than” because we didn’t take the time to put some needed safeguards in place to protect them.