Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Why I'm not a major fan of competition in Sunday School

First - I'm not one of these people who thinks children should be shielded from competition - that races should have no winners, and that everyone should get a prize. There is a place for competition.

But I'm not sure that that place is Sunday School. At least, not as a general rule.

Typically in Sunday School, children get rewarded for things like learning memory verses. They may gain a point for attendance or bringing a Bible. Maybe there's a 'best boy' or 'best girl' for the day - or even the year.

Of course, the reason for this is incentive - to encourage the children to learn verses (a good thing in its own right), or behave well (necessary for the teacher's sanity and a good learning experience).

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But what is reward and competition actually teaching the children - especially if a big emphasis is put on it?

Is it teaching them that Christianity is about moral performance? About being a good church kid who ticks all the right boxes? Does the same child always win the best boy/girl prize? Does it make them feel spiritually superior? Or the others feel inferior?


Is it teaching them that what matters is outward appearance? I once read an article by a woman who got the 'Godliest Girl' prize in a church club (how can you possibly judge that?!?). She is now an atheist.

Is it teaching them that if their parents chose not to bring them often, and therefore they can never get an attendance prize, they are a second-class citizen in church? What if they spend alternate weeks at another parent's house?

Is it teaching them that what is important is academic ability? So some children find that what they are struggling with in school is what matters in church too - and they can't measure up. Do they think that being academic and intellectual makes you a better Christian?

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Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying you should never give incentives. But I think these should be low key and not about comparing themselves with others.

For example, we used to give the children tasks to do at home, for which they earned points. If they did it, they got a point; after three points they got a prize*. After three points you were back at zero - it wasn't a competition with the others, simply an incentive to do the thing.

Recently we have been learning verses. Learning them over several weeks, in order to get them into long term memory - I see no point in learning a verse each week, keeping it in your short term memory to get a sweet next week, and then forgetting it to learn a new one!

So after they all know the verse well, I then offer a prize*. But I don't want to test them until I know they all can do it**. Why are we teaching verses? Not so that some children get glory by displaying feats of memory, but so that all the children learn God's word.

In Sunday School, I really like games with elements of chance - like board games, which anyone can win. It puts all the children - able and less able - on an equal footing. Actually, I remember a very bright kid getting so frustrated, because he was used to winning everything, and now he wasn't! Good life lesson

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In conclusion, we need to make sure that any prizes or competition we have don't make some children feel superior or inferior, or put too much emphasis on outward performance. Christianity is about grace, after all - we're not trying to raise Pharisees :-)

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This post was inspired by what I was reading this morning:

The Lord says:
‘These people come near to me with their mouth
    and honour me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
    is based on merely human rules they have been taught [...]

Once more the humble will rejoice in the Lord;
    the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
Isaiah 29 v 13, 19
It was also not meant to be so long :-)

* A choice of a small prize, like a pencil, a bouncy ball, a cocktail umbrella (this last one surprisingly popular - with the boys!!!)

** Which is why this term we haven't yet done memory verse prizes. One of our new younger children has barely spoken a word. How would he feel if all the others got a prize except him? Would that encourage him to feel part of the group?

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