What is “Bible depth”? It’s bandied around in children’s ministry circles, but what is it really? Bible depth to one person likely means something very different to someone else.
Is it Scripture memory? In-depth Bible study for children? Rarely covered Scripture finally covered? We’ve asked children’s ministry stakeholders—from parents and veteran children’s ministers to researchers and curriculum experts-to describe what Bible depth means to them. Read on to discover these captivating—and very different—perceptions about what Bible depth really is.
Bible Depth is Rich Storytelling and Exploration
When I think of “biblical depth,” I immediately envision adults grappling with the meaning of a passage of Scripture — doing the hard work of considering what the passage would’ve meant to the original readers or hearers (exegesis) and then considering what it then means to us (hermeneutics). So should we expect 4-year-olds to do that? Do we want them to stop acting like 4-year-olds and start asking what the original Hebrew word would be? Rationally we know that this view of biblical depth is something that kids are developmentally unable to do; it’s like asking a toddler to ride a two-wheeled bike.
Another way to consider biblical depth is to think of what happens when we give a passage of Scripture time to work in us. These aren’t just ordinary stories. These stories have the power to shape us and to form us into God’s people. They allow us to meet God-no matter how old or young we are. Biblical depth for children involves a rich and thoughtful telling and exploration of the biblical story.
Suppose we tell about David’s victory over Goliath. We talk with children and wonder about the story together. Together we ask questions like, “I wonder if David was scared?” “I wonder if Saul watched what happened?” “I wonder how Saul felt when Goliath was hit with the rock?” “Where do you think God is in this story?” Instead of telling children “what the story means” or “what they can learn,” the children are invited in to spend time with the story, to go deeper into the situation, and to perhaps see other things there that God wants them to know.
Robert Keeley, Ph.D., is a professor of education and chair of the education department at Calvin College in Michigan. He’s worked with children in churches and schools for more than 30 years and co-serves with his wife as children’s ministry director at his church. His most recent book is Helping Our Children Grow in Faith: How the Church Can Nurture the Spiritual Development of Kids.
Bible Depth is Relationship Through Illustration
To me, Bible depth in children’s ministry means illustrating the most important principles of God’s Word so children can engage with them. Depth must often be determined by children’s ability to understand the principles being taught. The principles must be made tangible by translating or illustrating them so even the youngest of children can grasp these key truths. Take “sowing and reaping”—this concept is easily illustrated with something as simple as seeds and small flower pots. There are opportunities to teach biblical depth in commonly known and lesser-known Bible events in ways that help children engage with the major principles of God’s Word. The amazing instances of God’s triumph, God’s presence as more than a conqueror, and God’s desire to be in relation with us — these are all worthy of illustration for the benefit of our children.
Doctrines, theological stances, and all the debates that go along with many of the key points in the Bible don’t belong in our children’s Christian education. I believe we must focus on the relational nature of God and the fact that he gave his son who died so that we might live. These are key biblical principles to illustrate every chance we get. And probably the most important component: Who—and how—does God see me, the small child?
Esther Owens is a Christian mom of three boys, the wife of a church planter, a native of Haiti, and a blogger.
Bible Depth is Swimming in the Deep End
Lewis Foster, one of the translators of the NIV and NKJV Bibles and longtime professor at Cincinnati Christian University, once said that the Bible is simple enough that a child could wade in the shallow end, yet profound enough that scholars could spend a lifetime exploring its depths. Too often, children’s ministers stick to the shallow end, retelling Bible events with simple applications. Biblical depth in Christian education is preparing kids to swim in the deep end, equipping them with the tools they need to study and understand the Bible for themselves.
We do it by training kids to read the Bible on their own and by using creative activities to teach memory work and research methods such as using a concordance or cross-references. Starting in first grade, kids are learning how to find Scripture passages. Older kids learn about biblical culture and historical background through drama and art projects. Finally, we do it by weaving the big biblical concepts into lessons using definitions appropriate for kids’ learning age level. We do it by using words such as redemption, wisdom, covenant, and grace-and we’re prepared to explain what each means. At each age level, we cover the tenets of our faith: the nature of God, the work of Christ, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the purpose of the church.
When we teach our children to move beyond the buoys of basic Bible truths to explore the riches of Bible knowledge for themselves, we’ll raise up a generation of Bible-literate kids who know what they believe-and why they believe it.
Karen Wingate is a children’s minister in Ohio. She’s served in Christian education for more than 25 years and has written curriculum for more than 20 years. She’s written numerous articles on children’s faith and she blogs at childrenteach.blogspot.com.
What is Biblical Depth in Children’s Ministry?
It takes a friend-adult or child-and perhaps several, for a child to be in the Bible, to be side-by-side with biblical people, playing out the event with drawings, felt, figurines, or the whole body. The friend introduces The Friend, as they are deeply into the moment and sense the mystery. Deep meaning and deep experience go together. There is communion, Spirit to spirit.
Depth isn’t just hearing about the event. Rather it is to be in the event, from inside the child and inside the Bible, then letting the event move outward to actions in sacred space and not-so-sacred space. The child hears more than words; she hears God in the words. He hears more than songs; he hears the Singer. They dance the event…Spirit to spirit.
Depth means the child wants to linger, to be close to the Divine, to listen quietly to the One who may speak in silence, to laugh and play with delight with the Holy Friend. To go deep may mean to go slow. The child comes to know the Spirit, love the Spirit, and bring others to the Spirit. The Bible and child are one, Spirit to spirit.
Don Ratcliff, Ph.D., is the Price-LeBar Professor of Christian Education at Wheaton College in Illinois. He’s authored numerous books and has studied children’s religious and spiritual development since the 1970s.
Bible Depth is Age-Appropriate and Engaging
Genuinely teaching children the truths of God’s Word means they not only learn what you’re teaching them, but understand the importance of living out those truths in their lives. For instance, you can teach a child not to lie because lying is wrong. Or, you can teach a child about the holiness, awesomeness, and sovereignty of God and that God loves us so much God sent his son Jesus to die for our sins. And because of that, we should desire to obey and show God love in return-which includes living a life of honesty because honesty is God’s very nature.
Appropriate biblical depth is as much a consideration as an age-appropriate teaching-style (which includes the language and methods used to convey the lesson). You can teach some deep concepts in simple language. For instance, if I want to teach a lesson to 6-year-olds about the omniscience of God, I could start with, “Today we’ll be talking about the blessings received when we consider the unlimited omniscience…”
Already I’ve lost the kids.
Or I could say, “What’s something you’d like to know that you don’t know? Do you know God knows everything? He knows how many stars there are in the sky! He knows how many hairs are on your head. Let’s try counting our hairs…
“Omniscience is a word that means God knows everything. Can you say omniscience with me? Wow! Think how you could impress your dad or mom by saying you learned about the omniscience of God?” (Kids love learning big words and saying them to other people.) It’s not so much what we say as how we say it.
Create Excitement About Faith
To teach biblical depth, we need excitement about our faith. If we teach in an unexcited, robotic way, parroting what we read in our leaders’ guide, our kids will pick up on that. And we need to use the Bible in our teaching. We need to show kids that we’re not reading the lesson out of a teacher’s manual, but that these truths are coming from God’s living Word. Point out to a child where the Bible tells us to be honest or that God knows everything. God says it better than we ever could.
We need to prayerfully consider how to convey God’s Word in kid-appropriate terms-not backing off from the tough subjects, but breaking the concepts into small, age-appropriate steps.
Linda Weddle is the senior designer of programming for Awana, where she’s worked for nearly 20 years. She’s the author of numerous books and articles. Her latest book is How to Raise a Modern-Day Joseph: A Practical Guide for Growing Great Kids.
Bible Depth is a Balance Between Knowledge and Understanding
There are plenty of people who know the Bible but still hate God.
Do you remember the religious leaders who had Jesus killed? What about Saul of Tarsus before the Damascus road? Knowing what the Bible says isn’t enough.
When we talk about biblical depth, I always ask, “What’s the real goal?” A generation of Pharisees who can quote Deuteronomy while they pass judgment on their spiritually lost peers? Bible knowledge alone must never be our goal.
At the same time, children need a basic knowledge of biblical content to understand the gospel. The goal of our instruction is to empower kids to love God, love others, and follow Jesus every day. Biblical depth should always move them further along in that goal.
There are three ways we can take children deeper into God’s Word. One is to cover the storyline of Bible history and its connection to Jesus. All these events display God’s glory and illustrate our need for a savior. They culminate in Jesus Christ himself.
Second, we can teach the main doctrines that help us understand the gospel. Most churches have these essentials defined in their statements of faith. They include the attributes of God, the atonement, justification by faith, life after death, and the mission of the church.
A final angle is to tackle the practical implications of the Bible. Children need to see how all this Bible information can make a real difference in their lives. This third way could be called applied theology.
When these three converge, it allows kids to grow in their understanding of God, his Word, and his plan for their lives.
Tony Kummer is a children’s pastor, father, blogger, and the founder of ministry-to-children.com.
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