How Sunday Schools Are Raising the Next Generation of Secular Humanists

How Sunday Schools Are Raising the Next Generation of Secular Humanists

Last year, for various reasons, our family had the opportunity to attend a few different churches. Each time, we debriefed on what happened in Sunday school and what the kids learned. As they recounted their experiences, I was struck by how similar they were to the stories I’ve heard from so many parents in the last few years while speaking at churches and conferences.

Parents who take the discipleship of their kids seriously are typically disappointed by the quality of their kids’ Sunday school program.

For example, I asked people on my blog’s Facebook page a few weeks ago how they felt about the kids’ program at their church. The typical response was, “It’s OK. Standard stuff. Bible stories. Snack. Some songs. Maybe a video. Nothing very deep.”

It’s well known that at least 60% of kids are leaving Christianity by their early 20s today, most turning to a secular worldview. There are a lot of factors that go into that, but today I want to talk about how Sunday school programs fail to be more influential. More specifically, I want to talk about how their failure to be more influential results in kids becoming a particular kind of secularist: the secular humanist (secular humanists are those who reject a belief in God but believe they have a responsibility to be “good” people).

To understand why this happens, we have to first understand the role of culture in influencing our kids’ beliefs.

Cultural Influence is Stronger Than You Think

I recently read Dr. John Marriott’s new book, A Recipe for Disaster: Four Ways Churches and Parents Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith and How they Can Instill a Faith That Endures. Marriott has spent a large portion of his academic career researching factors behind deconversions from Christianity to atheism. In his book, he describes how churches and parents inadvertently set kids up for faith crises by “over-preparing, under-preparing, ill-preparing, and painfully-preparing” them for the world.

Marriott’s chapter on under-preparation and how churches and parents often fail to appreciate the power of culture is especially powerful. It sheds much light on why the church experience is so important for kids—and why it so often doesn’t have the impact it should. I can’t do full justice to Marriott’s work and insights here, but I want to highlight a key point from that chapter as it relates to my current topic.

Marriott defines culture as “a comprehensive, shared set of largely subconscious assumptions and values of a group that are the product of both history and institutions, and which constitutes for them a social ‘reality.’ It is the space in which we live and move and have our being. As such, it has incredible power to shape the kind of people we are and what we accept as reasonable and moral” (emphasis mine).

We generally assume that what we believe is simply what is most rational, as determined by our cognitive abilities. As Marriott points out, however, that is only part of the story. He explains, “Ideas do not originate, seem reasonable, and find acceptance in a vacuum; they do so within social settings and conditions that make them seem either plausible or not. But, and this is crucial, the role of culture in influencing claims as plausible or rational is subversive. By that, I mean that the plausibility and rationality of claims is felt, not apprehended cognitively. Culture does its formative work at the affective level of the gut, not the intellectual level of the head” (emphasis mine—more on those words in a minute).

What’s the implication here? When a society buys into a given interpretation of the world, it legitimizes that interpretation, and it does so at the deepest gut level, despite what your own thinking may otherwise tell you. Consider Europe in the middle ages, for example. Nearly everyone held a Christian worldview. The church played a role in every part of life and every level of society, including the economic, social, intellectual, and cultural lives of all Europeans. The prevalence of the Christian worldview in culture reinforced its rationality. If the medieval church didn’t do a good job of explaining to people why they should believe Christianity is true, it wasn’t as critical for justifying their beliefs—those beliefs were already legitimized by culture.

Today, however, it’s secularism that is legitimized by culture. Belief in the supernatural—that anything beyond the natural world exists—can no longer lean on society’s acceptance for its plausibility. Culture now shapes our kids’ gut-level reaction to God in a negative way.

It’s up to the church and parents to offer an even stronger response.

Where Sunday Schools Go Wrong

If you’re familiar with my writing at all, you know that I’m constantly beating the drum of how parents have the primary responsibility for their kids’ discipleship. None of this is to suggest I now think that falls to the church.

But the church has a tremendous opportunity to come alongside parents and be an alternative culture that reshapes our kids’ gut-level reaction to a supernatural worldview in a positive way.

As I said at the beginning of the post, research demonstrates this isn’t happening. Sunday schools are doing very little to offer a strong response to counter the culture narrative, and what they are doing is actively contributing to kids walking away to secular humanism.

While much could be said as to how that happens, I want to focus on four problematic themes I’ve personally seen in churches, and that I’ve inferred from my conversations with other parents about the Sunday school programs in their churches. Of course, this is a generalization. There are certainly Sunday schools out there that don’t match this profile, or only do so to a mild degree. But I’ve found these to be common problems.

1. Lessons focus on character development without thoughtful ties to theism (a belief in God).

The predominant message kids get in many Sunday schools is that they should be good people. They should love others. They should forgive. They should share. They should give to others.

That’s nice. I want my kids to do all those things.

But there are critically important questions, given the competing secular narrative, that are rarely discussed, like:

  • Why is it that we can call anything good? If God didn’t exist, there would be no objective basis for calling anything good or bad. Everything would be a matter of opinion because there would be no higher-than-human moral authority.
  • Why should we be good people? If God didn’t exist, there would be no objective reason why anyone should live in any particular way. The word should implies a moral obligation that can’t logically exist in an atheistic world.
  • What evidence is there that God even exists?

No, these aren’t philosophical questions kids can’t understand. In Talking with Your Kids about God, I provide conversation guides for these and many related topics that are being used with kids as young as first grade. It’s not that it’s not possible; it’s that the church hasn’t woken up to the necessity. It’s easier to teach a lesson on being a helpful friend.

Many of these church kids will grow up to maintain the value of being “good,” but not understand how the existence of God is necessary to define that (nor understand why there’s good reason to believe He exists).


2. There’s not enough emphasis on understanding the identity of Jesus and why it matters.

Secular humanists often appreciate Jesus as a “good moral teacher” in a way that irreligious people without a Christian background do not. And if you listen to the average Sunday school lesson, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that was the basic church message as well. But whether Jesus was God makes all the difference in the world.

With the culture saying He was only a good moral teacher, Sunday schools should be responding by helping kids answer questions like:

  • Did Jesus really claim to be God?
  • Who did the disciples think Jesus was?
  • Why did people around Jesus conclude He wasn’t “just” a good moral teacher, as so many people believe today?
  • What difference does it make if Jesus was God incarnate or just a good moral teacher?

By not addressing these deeper questions, Sunday schools prepare kids to appreciate Jesus’s moral teachings but also to drop their vague belief in his divinity once the culture becomes the stronger narrative. Once again, we end up with secular humanism.

3. Bible teaching is limited to what’s in the Bible, and rarely addresses questions about the Bible.

Kids hear all about amazing biblical miracles in church, then go into a world that says those miracles aren’t possible.


What are they to take from that intellectual tug-of-war?

If the Bible is going to be taken seriously, Sunday schools can’t just keep retelling stories. They have to address why there’s reason to believe those stories are actually true. In a world that says the Bible is a book of fairy tales, Sunday schools should proactively be answering questions like:

  • How were the books of the Bible selected?
  • Why were books left out of the Bible?
  • How do we know we can trust the Bible’s authors?
  • How do we know the Bible we have today says what the authors originally wrote?
  • Does the Bible have errors and contradictions?

(If you’re not sure how to answer these, they are all chapters in Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side.)

Without this knowledge, kids can learn to appreciate secular humanist values like courage through David, leadership through Moses, or self-sacrifice through Jesus, but they won’t have any reason to conclude the Bible is a true telling of reality that’s authoritative for their lives. The stories they hear each week will become just one more source of literary moral inspiration for a secular humanist.

4. Churches aren’t supporting parents enough in discipleship, so parents end up focusing on raising “nice” kids.

Something I consistently hear from parents is that the kids in their child’s Sunday school can be just as negative of an influence as kids outside the church. I’m not talking about things that would be natural for all kids to struggle with (general sinfulness), but things that you might expect to be different with church-going families. For example, it’s common that kids in Sunday school are now telling others in class that the Bible isn’t true or that believing in God is stupid.

In many cases, this is because parents—even those with deep faith themselves—don’t know how to equip their own kids for today’s world. The culture has already done its work at the gut level, the parents send their kids to Sunday school hoping to counter that, the Sunday school isn’t up to the task (for reasons already discussed), and the church ends up looking like the outside culture—a place filled with kids who adhere to a secular worldview, consciously or not.

It’s a vicious cycle. And few churches are working to equip parents with the understanding they need to respond faithfully to culture at home. Meanwhile, parents do what’s easier and focus on raising kids with the kinds of “good values” any secular humanist would be proud of. Those kids eventually discard Christianity in favor of simply being “good without God.”

The church and parents lose the culture war together.

Last year, a team and I started a ministry to change that: Grassroots Apologetics for Parents (GAP). GAP works with local churches to launch and host chapters that equip parents with a deeper understanding of the Christian worldview and apologetics. Chapters complete two 10- to 12-week studies each year. Dozens of pilot chapters launched in the fall or are launching this Spring. Click here to learn more about bringing GAP to your church—we would love to have you part of this movement.

It’s going to take a lot for the church to catch up to the impact of culture. But it can be done. Just as parents and the church can lose the culture war together, we can win the culture war together. It starts with the realization that the battle is happening whether we want to fight or not. The choice is then ours: Prepare and engage, or keep giving kids goldfish and playing games each Sunday.

If you’re interested in curricula designed to take kids to this deeper level in churches and private schools, check out Foundation Worldview Curriculum and Deep Roots Bible Curriculum.

30 thoughts on “How Sunday Schools Are Raising the Next Generation of Secular Humanists”

  1. Great article! We need to get better acquainted. Your themes perfectly match the work we are doing through our “Church and Family ministry division.” Dr. Josh Mulvihill leads this division and is sharing the same message.

    1. Do you have any recommendations for curriculum that might not be quite so expensive?? We’re a small church and purchasing either of the ones recommended at the end for the small group we have isn’t really feasible. Any suggestions???

  2. I am a youth pastor from Michigan. Great article. I like to emphasize to my students that, “you are who God declared you to be!” (Middletown Bible Church did a great study called 215 Things that are True of Me Now That I’m Saved)

    Once identity begins to be established an appeal can be made to “tie what you do think feel and say to who God declared you to be.” In this sense I can lose (the world considers me a nobody) but I am never a loser (God values me so I tie my feelings to that). I can fail (I don’t measure up to secular standards) and not be a failure (I am complete in Christ so I choose completeness) etc; It is then a question of faith which truth claims I will choose to believe.

    Identity in Christ teaching gives me correct biblical information to appropriate what is already mine as a believer. My encouragement to all teachers of God’s Word is that it really is “alive and powerful” when we interpret it correctly and tie our perspective and behavior to what it says while disregarding secular sentiment.

  3. Was there anything in the research indicating if there is a certain point where it is too late to start addressing this? I resonate with the concerns and for those reasons have incorporated some of these elements in my regular youth program as well as confirmation curriculum (I actually assigned parents to go through the “Talking to your kids about God” book….gasp), but I am curious to know if there was research pointing to the most impactful time that this should be introduced?

  4. Benjamin D.Yeagar

    This is a great article because while person like me may not be struggling with some in the West maybe struggling, in Africa , we have a challenge which is basically churches focusing on peripheral things like miracles and supposedly breakthrough and we hardly hear deep messages that emphasis the finished Work of Jesus , the Bible and kingdom character development.

  5. Wow, how timely! My church is dealing with Sunday School issues right now and as a mother, I am deeply concerned. I just sent the link to my pastor and youth pastor and hopefully this can be brought to session and help facilitate discussion on what has been a complicated and not an easy to understand problem in today’s church. THANK YOU!

  6. Thank you for your article. We need to take seriously the discipleship of our children. George Barna’s research shows one’s worldview is pretty much set by age 13, Thus, the early years, as we already know, are formative. But, when a child spends 6 hrs. per day in a government/public school, and another 3-10 hrs a week with non-
    Christian coaches and another 10+ hours per week on the internet, their worldview is indeed getting shaped and secular humanism is generally that view. Christ-following parents and their local churches should see the need for full immersion in a Christian worldview learning to tackle the questions posed and much more.

  7. I would say parents should not rely on the church and christian school alone on raising their kids but it should also be taught and demonstrated at home by example.

  8. This was powerful Natasha Crain! That’s all I can say. I wish I had had a deeper understanding of this 30 years ago! Also, GAP is the best tool any parent, grandparents or person who disciples youth could have! I’m so glad you had the revelation for GAP chapters! Praying more will develop ??
    Parent Ambassador
    Beverly Powellb

  9. Its worth reading and acting upon. Its an emergency situation right here. God Help us and lead us.

  10. Excellent commentary on an important topic. As an apologetics teacher, to young high school homeschoolers, I find most of my kids sadly ill prepared to think in today’s world.

    One thing I would add to your observation is that so many Sunday School lessons present the Bible “story.” In attempt to make the characters and events interesting to children, the Word is condensed into cute little sound bite stories for children with an often shallow and even silly overall moral theme….oh and crafts…lots of honestly often pointless crafts.

    I have found teaching apologetic truth to young children the most effective when the Bible is placed as it really is. History. More importantly HIS story. Even little children can relate to a map and historical characters within the time period as God’s message is brought to life within the cultures and history of the real world. What gets across to the kids is that God wrote his message to real people in the real world.

    As they age, more of the “messiness” can be discussed of the challenges to the Bible, to the Christian faith, and to popular secular thinking, as age appropriate.

    But having the Bible based in its real history creates a base that prepares children to consider its truths as something real rather than fantasy stories to be tossed aside with the Easter Bunny and Santa Clause as they grow up into a mature adult.

  11. Natasha,
    Super article and very powerful! My youth pastor is excited to get our GAP program going. My pastor is also. I am beginning the class tomorrow! YIKES! I am jazzed about it though. Can’t wait to see what God is going to do in our church with this! GAP makes so much sense. So many parents really don’t know where to start. I am excited to be a Parent Ambassador for GAP and bring this to my church! I am honored to be used of God in this way. Thanks Natasha for all your work in this area and having a place where parents can begin to learn and teach their kids. You are an amazing lady, mom and I feel pretty certain wife, too. Thanks for this opportunity and I can’t wait to share the Keeping Your Kids On God’s Side class with the GAP folks!
    Leah L. Adams
    Parent Ambassador

  12. This is a wonderful article! You are helping Christian parents and church leaders understand the cultural landscape and respond appropriately to it. Sunday School is the place where the church can have a tremendous impact in kids’ lives. We have to help our kids understand not only what Christians believe, but also why!

    I have a blog and have sought to address this issue as well. In April of last year, I wrote “An Open Letter to Pastor and Student Pastors in America’s Churches.” I invite you and your readers to check it out.

  13. This article client be more correct. One sociologist in his infected with millennials said much the same, saying we’re teaching Moral Therapeutic Deism.

    But there’s one Huge factor that’s not in the article that in over 30 years of ministry I have fought and struggled against more than anything else and to me supercedes all the above in forming little do-gooders and not followers of Jesus….

    Ready? I’ll take that last point and reword it…
    ** Christian PARENTS aren’t supporting CHURCHES enough in discipleship, so parents end up focusing on “happy” and not principled believing kids.

    Sports and school activities take precedence so all the kids treatment when they ever are in a Sunday School, is to be good even though the church taught me than that over the course of the weeks, months and years.

    Our Christian parents need to be disciplers first and as well as their churches.

    1. John W Bechtel

      This is absolutely correct. Attendance is down to once a month on average for most kids. Scope and Sequence fails when they’re not there, in much the same way that a kid would fail school if their attendance was 25%.

  14. Pingback: How Sunday Schools Are Raising the Next Generation of Secular Humanists - The Poached Egg Christian Worldview and Apologetics Network

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  16. This is a very interesting and thoughtful article that I assume comes out of a genuine love for families, children, and faith. I just wanted to respond as one of the cases of young people turning from Christianity to secular humanism. Although this transition came for me while in seminary I do think Sunday School profoundly shaped my experience.

    This article seems to focus on affirming biblical truth and establishing a strong biblical foundation that is philosophically sound, biblically accurate, and an alternative to secular culture. With all do respect, I think this is exactly what I and others in my generation have had such an adverse reaction to.

    It was precisely the insulation and democratization from secular life that instilled in me deep doubts and dissonance with my own values and the teachings of the church. It was precisely the churches unwillingness to engage with modern issues such as sexual orientation, racism, sexism, and social justice that caused me to reject Christianity. So I went to secular humanism for my source of information in addressing racism, sexism, homophobia, and social injustice, and it was full of tremendous passionate people doing amazing work to change the world. I found many in the Christian community who had embraced these similar values and found their faith as a means of strength in this fight for equality and social justice.

    As a social worker, millennial, writer, and sociologist, I am simply trying to offer my perspective and story to say that unless your faith is engaging with society in a real way, they will most likely leave the faith. I suggest the works of liberation theology and social justice oriented Christian writers as the way forward for maintaining the importance of faith in their lives. I believe it is too late for me, but if this is something valuable for you and your family this is just my humble suggestion.
    With care,

  17. Christopher Corbett

    Great article, and thanks for the link to John Marriott’s book and website. However, while I think his research is excellent and helpful, confirming the analysis of others, I was disappointed in some of his suggestions for countering the problem.

    For instance, I don’t see the evidence that telling young people that early Genesis is totally unhinged from anything scientific (totally irrelevant to young earth creationism or even theistic evolution) will be helpful. My own experience as a former atheist and Bible/apologetics teacher in a church leads me to believe the opposite. Telling the young seekers, wobbly churched kids, and adult agnostic friends that Genesis is likely an Ancient Middle East-style myth-mimicking account will, IMHO, drive them farther away–especially when there are so many better explanations that do interact with modern science. On the flip side, I’ve witnessed many shaky believers (or apparent believers) derive a huge amount of spiritual benefit, increased confidence in the Bible, from just the kind of creation-and-science apologetic, whether young or old earth, that Marriott warns us to avoid.

    I feel the same about his advice to side-step inerrancy. I agree with him that terms like “inerrancy” and “Scripture” must be well-defined for believers both young and adult. But not only do I think this can be done, I’ve seen it done–to the great benefit of students. To start out by saying it doesn’t matter if the Bible, even the original Greek and Hebrew autographs, has actual errors would be interpreted by many students I know as a huge vote of no confidence in scripture, and a lot of “fake authenticity.” Pegging everything on the historicity of Christ’s resurrection because, “Well, we have lots of copied manuscripts of the resurrection accounts” begs the question, “Manuscripts of what? Admittedly error-prone writings? And THOSE are the writings you’re submitting as evidence of a dead man coming back to life?” I think it’s much better and more practically feasible to explain the basics of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which Dr. Marriott dismisses. I don’t think it’s as hard as he contends; in fact, I know it isn’t because I’ve had to do it.

    I’m not wanting to discard Dr. Marriott’s work. I think he’s got highly valuable diagnostic input. But I was taken aback by some of his suggested remedies. I fear they might be as detrimental to young people as the shallow Sunday School stories and the arts/crafts approach he rightly criticizes.

    1. Hi Christopher, It’s funny you should mention these two things about the book–they were the same two concerns that I had. I debated putting an asterisk on the title with an explanation at the end of the post about how, while I don’t agree with everything Marriott says, I think the book has fantastic insights that make it very worthwhile (and I do believe that to be the case). I thought he explained himself more on the inerrancy stuff toward the end of the book, but that comes too long after the parts where his views sound concerning on the subject. If I were the editor, I would have pushed some of that end content up to the front so it’s clear where he’s coming from without alienating readers who may not make it all the way through.

  18. Hi Natasha,

    an important topic however don’t you think that most of the problem is that parents (and Churches) think that a 40 minute lesson will undo 6 and a half days of neglecting the word, neglecting the mind in regard to God and his Kingdom?

    I unfortunately think it can be gauranteed that most Parents rarely speak of God, his word, why they believe on any regularly basis.

    I do think Churches and its leaders should largely flip the focus to how we can equip Children and that is through equipping the Parents to disciple their own Children.

  19. Mark Portukalian

    Maybe Sunday school should consist of teaching the parents how to teach their children, and have the children sit with their parents during the class – teach the family, with parents teaching children (the apostle Paul called his converts children). The problem with churches is that they segment the body and the family into groups rather than uniting the church and families as one. Better yet; gather some families in a home. After a time of fun, food, and fellowship, teach everyone together involving the children with the adults. Make disciples! Go on nature walks and outings together and casually but very purposely share the truth. All memory is attached to emotion – sterile class rooms with pier pressures and competition do not contribute to this reality. Jesus taught using emotion. Maybe all the parent can do is build anticipation, excitement, and emotion in the child towards the event where the elder (spiritual parent) teaches the truth from the Word. It’s frustrating as a grandparent to go to a church and find the older folks are getting together for fun and outings. Wrong; we should be supporting the families with children, and especially in a culture where often both parents must work to pay the bills. I doubt that Paul had S.S. classes in mind when he instructed the older to teach the younger.

  20. Yes!!! You echoed our thoughts exactly. It feels kind of snooty to say that the Sunday School classes are woefully inadequate compared to the training of parents who take discipleship seriously at home. But it’s accurate! Bible stories, songs, and games don’t come close to the depth that we try to provide at home. Thanks for writing such a timely article.

  21. Number 3 got my attention the most, and that’s where Christian adults often have their differences on. This was also an issue when I was kid now looking back when I noticed the biblical miracles were not occurring in the present-day world. Whether the stories are to be taken literally or symbolically, it’s important to convey the meanings behind the stories and how they apply to our lives today.

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