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Thursday, 19 June 2008

Teaching Creation in Sunday School

This is a guest-post by Evolutionary Biologist Douglas Hayworth, and is the eleventh installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series.

In my previous post, I discussed issues related to teaching science in a homeschooling setting. For that topic I focused on middle- and high-school levels, where the main challenge is finding curriculum that does not promote young earth creationism (YEC) or some other version of the faith / science conflict thesis. I now turn my attention to that other realm of teaching and learning in which most devoted evangelical Christians regularly participate: Sunday School. In so doing, I will shift my focus from older to younger children for several reasons, which I trust will be obvious as I proceed.

Sunday School Begins with Creation.
Most Sunday school curricula for grades 1-4 comprise a repeating one- or two-year cycle through the stories of the Bible. Lessons 1-4 at the beginning of the sequence are usually creation, Adam and Eve (the fall), Cain and Abel, and Noah (the flood). After going through this bible-story cycle several times, children graduate to middle school where Sunday School curriculum is almost always topical or creedal (catechism) in format. If creation and the garden of Eden story are ever discussed again, it is within the context of discussing the creation/evolution issue or as it relates to specific doctrinal statements in one's catechism. I suspect that some churches never again revisit the Genesis stories with their teens and adults. Fortunately, some good resources do exist for discussing creation "issues" and theology with teens and adults (e.g., Allan Harvey's lesson plans). Whether churches will take advantage of these resources is unclear.

My main concern relates to the formative elementary-school years. I fear that the creation-evolution controversy has so dominated the landscape that it has diverted attention from the most important lessons of the Genesis story. In fact, YEC organizations are so well funded and clever in marketing their message that they have convinced many churches to use their children's Sunday school materials. As a result, children are preconditioned not only to adopt the conflict thesis but also to understand the Genesis stories in very narrow theology terms. Creation is reduced to meaning "in six days" and "no evolution" when it ought to evoke our deepest and most profound thoughts about our existence, of God's sovereignty and intimacy, of his transcendence and immanence, and of our calling as his image-bearers.

Don't misunderstand me. What our children need in Sunday school is not a counter-offensive aimed at correcting YEC's scientific or theological flaws. That would keep the attention on all the wrong things. What our children (and friends) need is a presentation of Genesis that sparks the imagination like a good fairy tale or children's story. Genesis is the opening chapter of God's great story, not the preface to an instruction manual or science textbook. Fortunately, children may be better prepared to understand the Creation narratives than adults because they are less concerned about distinguishing between "fact" and "meaning".

Tell the Story. Explore the Story.
The creation, garden, and flood narratives are certainly MORE THAN mere stories, but they are NOT less than that. Just as the four gospels cannot be understood properly (or the differences between them reconciled) unless each author's individual theological purpose (i.e., "story-telling purpose") is appreciated as the primary framework, so, too, the creation narratives cannot be understood without keeping in mind the story-telling context. And aren't we all agreed (evolutionary, progressive and young-earth creationists alike) that the point of Genesis chapter 1 is that God created everything that exists? It is irrelevant whether it took six days, a blink of an eye or billions of years. Keeping the "story-telling" theme in the forefront helps to keep focus on God's message (i.e., the moral of the story) rather than theologically insignificant details.

So, call it a story and tell it like a story. Describe Genesis as God's story to the children of Israel through Moses. Then explore the story as the moral tale that it is. Use the "framework" model to outline the creative works of days 1-6. (Even if one takes the six days as literal, the framework is still the best way to understand the significance of those days.) For a craft, don't have the children draw the events of each day on separate pages (as is commonly done). Instead, have them add the days' events sequentially to one picture; then ask them if there is any part of the world that is missing. For the garden story, ask the children to think about what the various elements represent? Tell them that "Adam" means "man" (it is an individual's proper name only secondarily). What does the serpent represent? What do the trees represent? What do Adam and Eve's disobedience represent? Ask the children how they are like Adam and Eve. Do they like to learn about different animals and learn their names? Do they ever do things they know are wrong? Do they feel ashamed when they do wrong?

Give the Simple Back Story. Don't Over-answer Questions.
When questions arise, provide a little more of the back story. Explain how the pagan people in Abraham and Moses' day worshiped the sun and moon and believed in many gods that battled one another and created humans to be their slaves. These pagans also had garden-of-Eden stories that attempted to explain why humans always struggle to do what is right yet constantly fail. Genesis is God's retelling of these pagan stories in a way that corrects their wrong ideas. It is perhaps an understatement to suggest that our Sunday School teachers may need some training about the back story themselves.

Most of all, don't provide more answers than children need at their level, and don't strong-arm them by giving definitive answers. We evolutionary creationists shouldn't try to explain how we know that the creation stories aren't literal, and YEC's should not try to insist that a literal interpretation is the only valid and "safe" Christian interpretation. Children (and our Sunday School teachers) need to know that there are some things about which they must suspend judgment until they are older or more widely read. When children ask about reconciling evolution and the creation account, remind them of the story (literary context) and then explain that adult Christians differ on how exactly they make sense of the two ways God reveals himself to us. However, we all share a trust in a faithful God, a God who has a message of purpose and love for all of us Adams and Eves.

Tell the stories and let God speak for himself.


Unknown said...

I agree with much of this post, especially in letting the imaginative power of the story have precedence even over our powerful urge to be evangelists for seeing evolution as part of God's creative action. However, I do have one quibble. You state: "Describe Genesis as God's story to the children of Israel through Moses." Part of the potential problem here is that you've introduced an extra (and extra-biblical) story (the idea that Moses wrote down the first five books of the Bible). Is there any vital need to introduce this nonbiblical detail that supports a viewpoint that dismisses the validity and results of historical (and literary) criticism? Why not just call it "God's story," which, while still being somewhat iffy from a critical perspective (because there were people that wrote this down at a certain time and place, a time and place that we can make good educated arguments about), not only doesn't cedes ground to intellectual habits of YECers but also places emphasis on the whole "moral" of the story of it being God who created in very intentional ways?

Anonymous said...


Another stellar post. I'm a visionary, so it's the kind of thing that turns me on. How soon will I be in the position of doing this? How soon will someone who starts teaching in this way get kicked out of the church? We'll get to that later. I don't want to sound combative, but allow me to analogize somewhat and say that what we need now is a consolidated plan of attack; the one presented here is well thought out and perspicacious.

My favorite quote:

Creation is reduced to meaning "in six days" and "no evolution" when it ought to evoke our deepest and most profound thoughts about our existence, of God's sovereignty and intimacy, of his transcendence and immanence, and of our calling as his image-bearers.

Funny I had never seen it in quite that light, but that is exactly the emphasis of the stories' presentation in so many Sunday school, Christian schools, and homeschool settings.

Well, the Moses thing can be tricky. I mean, Jesus Himself referred to Genesis 1 as coming from "Moses"; of course, that term was simply the Jewish way of referring to the Pentateuch and was not a tacit endorsement of Mosaic authorship. In short, it was an accommodation - see the comments at Gordon's site for an interesting demonstration about the pitfalls of discussing accommodation!

I would agree that it would be nice to get younger people thinking about literary/historical criticism if it weren't for Jesus' statement and the resultant need to justify such accommodating language to tiny youngsters. Perhaps a more robust curriculum plan would have things graded out a bit, such that we could call it "Moses" in the good tradition of Our Lord Jesus up until middle or high school, whereupon we begin to explain it more. Just thinking out loud here.

HayDad said...

Kyle and Stephen,

Sorry I've not got much time to comment this morning, so this will be short. With regard to grounding the story as being given to Israel through Moses, why do you call this "extra-biblical" as if that were a bad thing? Don't we always give that general context for every NT book we study, even those whose human author is not directly stated? Surely the original time and culture context (at least in a general sense) is important. I think it's absolutely critical to remind learners (adults and children) that the Creation narratives were "told" to humans LONG after the events they describe. They're not summaries of Adam's and Noah's personal diaries.


Mel said...

Thanks, there are some great ideas here in how to present the creation story to young children.

Jimpithecus said...

Douglas, good post. I especially like the part about the formative years being so critical and having been co-opted by the YEC crowd. That is certainly the truth in our church. The last time we had a Sunday school class on evolution, it ended with me being silenced as if I was speaking heresy (because to them I was). I came very close to leaving the church at that point. You certainly are a visionary in this regard and I admire that. I have not had quite that sort of boldness and when asked recently if I would like to talk about science questions, I politely declined. As I said in an earlier post: They just don't want to know. And they surely don't want their cherished beliefs upset. It is very frustrating.

Steve Martin said...

Thanks for your thoughts here. Your suggestion to “tell the back story” but not to “over answer questions” is very wise. Many times I’m hesitant to tell the back story, and then when I do, I tend to go into too much detail – which probably isn’t that helpful when we are trying to provoke imagination. (And I agree with Stephen above – great quote!).

Question: At what age-point do you tell the back story? I have only taught at the Junior-High level and that is certainly appropriate. Doing that at younger age range (say the 4 – 6) has to be a lot tougher.

I definitely sympathize with your situation. Frankly, I don’t think I could remain in a local church that insisted that YECism = the gospel. I’m not saying that the church leadership needs to accept all of modern science, but insisting on a specific (and narrow) interpretation of the first book of the bible (& the last for that matter!) really taints the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. (And there is a difference in believing this narrow interpretation, and attempting to force it on others). I’m very fortunate that I’m part of a local church community where this is not a problem.

Cliff Martin said...

Steve writes, I’m very fortunate that I’m part of a local church community where this is not a problem.

On this side of the St Lawrence, there are many places where you would be hard pressed to find a community of faith open to evolutionary science that is remotely evangelical. While I appreciated this post, I smiled all the way through contemplating somebody actually doing this! I do not know of an evangelical church within 60 miles of where I live that would condone it.

HayDad said...

A couple of related responses:

First to Steve: I think that some of the back story can be given even to elementary school children. In the very least, one should mention introduce or “describe Genesis as God's story to the children of Israel through Moses.” You may not be able to flesh that out for young children, but at least you will have planted the intellectual seed that encourages them to recall the story in the appropriate context.

Second to Cliff: You may be right that my suggestions would never be adopted or condoned by any evangelical churches you (or I) know. If so, isn't that the saddest thing of all? All of my suggestions were thoroughly “orthodox” weren't they? I expressly said NOT to teach that the creation stories are only figurative or to talk about how evolution is compatible with Christian belief (at least until junior high). How is it heretical to introduce or “describe Genesis as God's story to the children of Israel through Moses”? Isn't it heretical to do otherwise?

If you asked your church CE (Christian education) board to consider my blog post (or some similar proposal), I'm sure that they would reject it. However, I think as individuals we can adopt and incorporate some of my suggestions when we find ourselves involved in teaching Sunday School. Many of us are “closet EC's” in our churches, allowing us to function normally (e.g., teach Sunday School) because no one really knows that we hold “aberrant” views. Even if our church uses YEC-biased Sunday School materials, we can (to varying degrees) temper that presentation with some of my suggestions. In any case, that has been my experience in at least two churches that I have been part of.


Cliff Martin said...


Don't misunderstand me. I thought your approach to Sunday School presentation of these issues was excellent. My "smile" was not a smirk, just an awareness that your ideas are likely 10 or 20 years from being applicable in most of our churches. I wish, as you do, that we could teach our our Sunday School children this way now!

Anonymous said...

I share the concern for Sunday School education at all levels. We
have managed to survive an adult
presentation of the framework model
by the late Meredith Kline without
breaking up the church but have ignored the youth. I sent a link
to our current pastor to see if there would be interest in working
with this level.

A truly excellent series.

Jack Haas

Anonymous said...

Wow! God chose evolution to create? If this is the case, He is a horrible creator. "It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble." Luke 17:2 I forgive you but please change.

Anonymous said...

My issue with Macro-evolution (what I understand to be between species) is that if it were the way God created the universe then death would have had to come before sin! Micro evolution (what I understand to be within species evolution) is undeniably fact!

Anonymous said...

I'm new to your writings, but if creation happened via evolution, at what point did humans receive a soul? Or do you believe animals have a soul? If God breathed into man and He became a soul, at what point in man's evolution from a monkey to a man did that happen?