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Framing the Faith

Jill Williams

Is your teaching in one ear and out the other? Maybe -- or maybe not.

Children's ministry looks a lot different to me now than it used to. Over the past few years my understanding of the purpose behind children's ministry has changed -- dramatically. The goals I set and the approaches I take in teaching aren't what they used to be. And -- this may make you cringe -- I'm beginning to realize that no matter how well I teach a lesson, much of what I say to a child in Sunday school may actually go in one ear and out the other. But that's not because teaching is a waste of time or kids aren't learning. It's because as much as the amazing truths of our faith are difficult for adults to grasp, they can be even more difficult for children.

If you grew up going to church, think back to your Sunday school days. Maybe you remember a handful of specific things from memorable lessons. You could probably recount some main events of the Bible. But you likely didn't grasp the deeper truths of Christianity until you were older -- things such as grace, forgiveness, and sacrifice. That's not because your teachers weren't effective. It's simply because developmentally kids learn on a spectrum that begins with concrete concepts and develops into deeper understanding of abstract ones. Kids build that bridge from the concrete to the abstract over years. They do it using the tools of discovery and repetition in sync with their brain's development.

Many of the most important concepts in God's Word are highly abstract. So when you wonder whether kids are getting the message, they are. It's just that kids will absorb what they can when they're developmentally ready.

But don't be discouraged -- you have very important work to do that's essential to all kids "getting the message" as they grow and develop. While kids may not fully grasp many of the awesome and life-changing things you tell them about Jesus until later, you have the important task of providing them the tools to help them build a framework for the faith they'll later step into.

Examining the Framework

Christian tradition, or our statement of faith, is one basis kids can stand on as they begin their faith journey. Ironically, I've found this important information is often overlooked when it comes to children's ministry because we're home-blind to it; we tend to assume that kids will automatically absorb the basics of our faith along the way, even if they're never directly articulated to them. These are basic truths such as, "God's grace, not our good works, is what assures us eternal life" and "Jesus is the only way to God." But if we fail to carefully instruct kids on the details of our beliefs, how will they fully understand what Christians really believe? And could this lack of understanding contribute to the fact that so many Christian kids grow up and leave the church when their faith is challenged?

These two questions became very real to me in conversations with college students about their experiences growing up in church. It was during these discussions that I realized people's views of the church and of Christianity itself varied greatly -- from confusion to superficial understanding to detailed comprehension. I began to wonder if we as Christian educators are missing something when it comes to teaching our kids.

My curiosity led me to create the Christian Truths Survey, based on the foundational Christian beliefs of the Apostle's Creed and on three main categories related to our faith: salvation, the Trinity, and general biblical truths (note the distinction between biblical truths and Bible trivia). I designed the survey to gain insights about 185 elementary-age churched kids' understanding of our faith, and I enlisted the expertise of pastors and experts in children's education and faith to build it. The questions ranged from factual questions (multiple choice and true/false), such as, "True or False: People can get to heaven by doing good things" to open-ended questions, such as, "How do we receive salvation?"

Ultimately, what began as an exercise in curiosity developed into a project with surprising results that really did change the way I think about children's ministry. Perhaps it'll change your views, too.

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