To memorize or not to memorize — that’s a controversial question for children’s ministers. And for some, it’s an extremely uncomfortable question. As Thom and Joani Schultz state, “The practice of children’s memory work has itself become sacred, religious. It’s been done for so long that no one dares to question its validity or its price.”
Some experts such as Frank Smith, author of Insult to Intelligence, assert that “learning by rote is the hardest and most pointless way to learn.” Yet God’s Word itself features the psalmist’s words: “I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Isn’t that a worthy goal? Cramming verses into children seems like a great shortcut to ensure their sinlessness. But is that really what that verse promises?
A Hebrew scholar will tell you that the word “heart” means “mind, will, and emotions.” God’s goal for children-and all of us-is to have his Word so infused in our every thought, choice, and feeling that it guides us into his way of living. Can that be done with current Scripture memory programs? Here’s what children’s ministers and noted educators say.
BEYOND MEMORIZING Any Scripture study builds a foundation for Christian living. Former children’s minister Mary Van Aalsburg says when you start immersing children in God’s Word at a young age, they keep growing in it. Scripture memory, when pertinent to children, equips them for difficult situations, according to child psychologist and Sunday school teacher Kim Gaines. It also gives them emotional support and guidance in making decisions and spreading the gospel.
Yet current Scripture memory programs that rush kids from one verse to the next without focusing on meaning or retention are actually detrimental to kids’ spiritual growth. Geoffrey Caine, author of Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, says meaning should be memorization’s goal. Caine says that a program that stops at rote learning is “one of the primary reasons so many of our students cannot think.”
Rote memory is low-level learning based on stimulus and response says educational psychologist Jane Healy, author of Your Child’s Growing Mind. “Religion has more meaning than that and should have a learning base rather than a duty base,” she says. In her book, Healy says a learning base requires meaning-“the cement for the [memory]system.”
Too often children’s ministers require memorization but never check if kids understand the words, says Van Aalsburg. Children who are forced to memorize adult-language versions of Bible passages won’t be able to apply principles to their daily lives.
The fact that memory programs appeal to the most basic thinking skills without true understanding is not the only weakness. An accurate view of God and Christianity is also at stake. If children associate God with performance-oriented drills and perfect recitations, they’ll view God and their faith as tedious and obligatory. Also at risk is their intrinsic motivation to continue in God’s Word. “The more you make children memorize without reason,” Caine says, “the more you actually turn them off and they’ll learn to hate it.”
MEMORY PROGRAMS THAT WORK Bob Choun, Christian education professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, says Scripture memory is “essential” but that the term “memorizing” must be redefined. “Word-for-word memorization is ridiculous,” he says. “Teachers must be more free and accepting.” To be effective, Scripture memory programs must:
- Use short, simple, age-appropriate Bible passages.
- Make memorization interesting and fun so children will want to do it.
- Emphasize a passage’s concept, not its exact words.
- Rephrase wording into kids’ own language so it’s applicable to their lives. Choun suggests paraphrasing verses so children have to think about them, and having teachers share what the verses mean to them.
- Appeal to each of the three types of learners-visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Put the verse on an overhead projector, say it aloud, and encourage role-playing. Children comfortable with rote memorization should be allowed to do that, but teachers should also ask about the passage’s meaning.
- Provide “levels of challenge” for different ages and children. Don’t force kids out of their individual memorization pace. They should be challenged but never shamed or left behind.
- Reinforce and model Bible verses. Each week, review the previous weeks’ verses. And encourage parents, siblings, and the entire church family to model the verses.
- Connect with real life. Caine says “memorization has to connect with something.”
- “If it’s lived in their life and other people memorize, kids will want to, too,” Caine says, “because there’s a context where something is familiar and loved.”
- Most importantly, make sure children understand what they memorize; otherwise time and energy spent on memory work will be wasted.
Stephanie Martin is a free-lance writer and editor in Colorado.
MODEL MEMORY PROGRAMS These children’s ministers have found effective ways to help children memorize Scripture.
- Put it to music. Cheri Walters, a music minister in California, says, “Putting Scripture to a tune helps keep it in our minds and brings it back to people in times of stress.”
- Get kids working together. Bob Choun, Christian education professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, says interactive learning is effective because kids can see and benefit from one anothers’ learning methods.
- Use Scripture everywhere. Debbie Gravell, a Christian education consultant in Connecticut, incorporates her memory program naturally into the whole children’s ministry. She has one theme each week, reinforcing it through prayer, songs, and lessons.
- Involve adults. Dave Jobe, an associate pastor of Christian education in Washington state, pulls in moms and dads. Each Wednesday, groups of three to four families meet to learn one verse, which gets reinforced through songs, stories, crafts, and games. And each Sunday, that week’s verse is in the church bulletin and on a marquee outside the sanctuary.
- Equip families. Mary Jane Davis, a pastor of family ministries in Pennsylvania, encourages memorization in homes. Families participate at home and report back on a quarterly basis. To provide continuity, each week’s passage is incorporated into the Sunday school curriculum and church sermons, songs, and responsive readings.