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 write in Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church: And How to Fix It, “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.
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
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
To be effective, Scripture memory programs must:
- Use short, simple, age-appropriate Bible passages.
- Make memorization interesting and fun so children will want to
- 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
- 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
- “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
Stephanie Martin is a free-lance writer and editor in
MODEL MEMORY PROGRAMS
These children’s ministers have found effective ways to help
children memorize Scripture.
- Put it to music. ChŽri 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’
- 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
Thom and Joani also wrote a book called “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church