4 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Teaching Kids the Bible
Published: February 8, 2021
Kids’ misunderstanding also provides significant insight into mistakes we’re making when we teach them about the Bible. Here are four mistakes to avoid.
“The first book of the Bible is called Guinness. God created the world. When he got tired, he took the Sabbath day off.”
“All the Egyptians got drowned in the desert. After that, Moses climbed Mount Cyanide and got the Ten Commandments.”
A Sunday school teacher spent half an hour telling her kids about the powerful kings and queens of the Old Testament. “But there is a higher power. Does anyone know what it is?” she asked. “Sure,” said one little boy. “Aces.”
We all get a chuckle from kids’ remarks about the Bible. Their “misinterpretations” can be hilarious, and their confused sequence of events often gives us a humorous new perspective on circumstances.
But kids’ misunderstanding also provides significant insight: These amusing renditions remind us that what we intend to teach isn’t always what kids learn. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest mistakes we make when teaching children—and how to fix them.
4 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Teaching Kids the Bible
Mistake #1: Figurative language confuses concrete thinkers.
A young girl visiting her grandmother, who was recuperating in the hospital after open-heart surgery, anxiously asked, “Grandma, did they really open you up and see inside?” “Yes,” said Grandma, trying to reassure her. “And the doctor fixed my heart good as new.” “Grandma,” the girl asked with wonder, “did they see God inside?”
Apparently, when the little girl had recently asked her Sunday school teacher where God lives, the teacher answered, “In your heart, my dear, in your heart.”
Kids take your explanations literally. Adults are comfortable with symbolic speech, and we frequently use symbols, metaphors, and other figurative wording to convey information and emotions. We do it so often that we do it without realizing it: “What’s up?” “This headache is killing me.” “God lives in your heart.”
Kids are wired to be spiritually curious, and so as a way to help them grasp the importance of our faith and God’s impact on our lives, we resort to detailed, abstract language. But children reason concretely, and this language isn’t lost on them. Rather, it sticks like glue. When kids hear figurative speech, they absorb it in a literal and concrete way. When we don’t teach with children’s perspectives in mind, they hear a confused and misleading message.
Tell it like it is.
Use great concrete object lessons to help kids understand abstract terms. Whenever possible, incorporate tangible examples and images so kids can clearly see what you’re talking about. When you’re tackling an abstract or hard-to-understand point, break it down into the most concrete terms possible, and check frequently for kids’ understanding by asking follow-up questions. For instance, bring a heavy piece of wood to let kids get a feel for how heavy the cross Jesus carried might have been.
Mistake #2: We gloss over the hard stuff to protect kids—and we confuse them.
Someone once said, “When children think, they must be allowed to think about everything. If there are some things we don’t allow them to think about, soon they won’t think about anything.”
One of the most memorable early stages in every child’s development is when he or she begins asking the incessant question “Why?”
- is water wet?
- can’t I stay up?
- is grass green?”
When kids think critically and ask “Why?” you have the perfect opportunity to teach them some amazing things about God. At every turn, the events in the Bible beg children to ask the question “Why?”
- God make such a big flood?
- David kill that man?
- they kill Jesus?”
For several reasons, we tend to dumb down biblical events and lessons. We make animals talk like humans and add butterflies to the Resurrection to protect kids from harsh reality. This isn’t necessary—or even helpful—for nurturing kids’ faith. Kids are capable of knowing God and extracting significant meaning from biblical events—despite our efforts to simplify or soften the content. We only need to listen, ask good questions, and accept their childlike perspectives as a guide.
Kids need context to understand the Bible—even the unpleasant stuff. I visited with a second-grade Sunday school class—typical children from typical homes with caring parents. Curious about how Bible lessons—even some of the more unpleasant ones—affected these kids’ spiritual development and influenced their images of God, I asked them to answer basic questions to discover their candid thoughts.
- What kinds of things happen in the Bible?
- Do you have a favorite event in the Bible?
- What makes the stories in the Bible true?
Everybody had an opinion! The kids I questioned had obviously soaked up the Bible like thirsty sponges. Most of them knew several events from the Bible, though they often confused the characters and sequences (“Noah’s wife’s name was Joan of Ark” and “The great flood happened when Grandpa was a boy”). They also frequently inserted contemporary circumstances as substitutions for ancient ones (“Bombers blew up the pontoon bridge Moses built over the Red Sea”).
Despite inaccuracies in some details, the kids demonstrated they understood the core of the lesson when they had the context. They understood why David killed Goliath—and they could see how God would protect them, too, when they felt scared or threatened. They knew that many people died during the great flood—but they saw that God gave Noah an important purpose and that he would do the same for them.
Tell it all.
Don’t pick and choose which parts of a lesson you share with kids; rather, tell the lesson in an age-appropriate way that preserves the context.
The truth, in age-appropriate terms, gives kids context for meaning. Many of the kids’ favorite events came from the Old Testament—and they contained evidence of violence. I wondered how kids felt about this violence.
I found that despite kids’ claiming the stories as true and their uncanny ability to recall gory details, kids really seemed numbed by the violence. What to do about the violence in the Bible—violence sometimes seemingly condoned by God—has always been a troubling point for children’s Bible publishers and children’s ministers. What I found is that violence is nothing new to children. In our culture it’s always nearby. We have to explain to our children why we butcher an animal before we eat it. The same children will be exposed to the violence of the American Revolution in the fourth grade. Those were violent times when David and Saul faced the Philistines and when Jesus was crucified by Roman authorities. To ignore these stories is to turn a blind eye to biblical content. You don’t have to cover every gory detail and give kids the blow-by-blow, but to help them grasp the core and meaning of what happened, they need the whole story.
Mistake #3: We forget how important our role is as the storyteller.
Teachers (or storytellers) have a profound impact on their listeners. Kids’ favorite Bible stories fall into two categories: Great Adventures (think David and Goliath, Samson the strong man, Jonah and the big fish, and Moses and the plagues) and, significantly, Adventures Told by Favorite People. The kids absolutely loved to hear about the Bible when a familiar adult shared a meaningful story. Notably, almost all the kids strongly associated a Bible story with the person they’d heard it from—a favorite teacher, parent, or relative. The storytellers had a profound impact on the stories they told. Kids told me all about how people like Grandpa or Miss Rhonda could make a Bible story fearful or comforting just in how they told it.
Teachers help determine whether kids think the Bible is fact or fiction. “Are Bible stories true or make-believe?” I asked the kids. Unlike Dr. Suess’ rhymes or the Little Golden Books’ tales, children responded with unwavering certainty that the Bible is truth—not fiction.
“Of course the stories are real,” one child exclaimed to me. “That’s why they’re in the Bible.” I found that difficult to contradict. None of the kids I questioned had the slightest doubt as to authenticity of the Bible, despite their own propensity to add or subtract from the story in accordance with their perception of reality (“Pontius was a pilot,” “Moses had a pontoon bridge,” and “the Samaritan put the stranger in a Motel 6”).
Tell it well.
As the person sharing these important stories with children, savor your role. Tell the stories well-with gusto and passion. Don’t turn some of the most exciting histories in the world into a boring history lesson. Engage your kids; get them involved in the story. Follow these expert tips to become a better storyteller.
Mistake #4: We forget that kids’ perceptions of God are evolving from concrete to abstract.
To test the theological astuteness of 7-year-olds, I asked them to talk to me about Jesus’ death. The result was a surge of responses with every conceivable explanation from, “He’s not dead; my mother says he’s still living” to a novice understanding of resurrection, “My dog died, but I got another one, so Jesus can come alive again, too.” Since kids agreed that Jesus is still living, I asked whether any had seen him. The responses varied—”He’s a spirit; you can’t see spirits” and “When I pray I can feel him near me.” Kids are expressing more than just their vivid imaginations in these responses. What they’re really talking about is a developmental movement from concrete thinking to abstract thinking—something that happens with all kids when they’re developmentally ready.
We make connections between ourselves and God through what we know happened in biblical people’s lives. By sharing their stories with our children, we communicate our beliefs and practices. How can we talk about Passover, baptism, or even Easter without sharing the story of the exodus from Egypt? How can we understand Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert without remembering Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness? If we’re to speak of God who promises us grace and peace, how can we leave out the story of Noah and the rainbow promise or the covenant with Abram? Kids may not immediately deduce the symbolic or abstract theological meaning at the time they hear one of these events. But when they know these stories and as they evolve from concrete to more abstract thinking, kids begin to integrate the meaning.
Kids have definite perceptions of God. I asked kids to talk with me about God: What did they believe? Who was God? These kids have very concrete perceptions of life and reality. Their world is made of absolutes. Generalizations don’t have a lot of meaning. Reality is what they can see, feel, touch, and taste. They had little difficulty telling me that God was like a person. God lives somewhere. He has a home. He talks. God gets hungry and angry and even lonesome. God acts like a parent. These are kids’ perceptions. They fit a child’s perspective.
Tell it for all time.
Talk with kids about how they view God. You’ll learn how they feel about God—and you’ll get to see their thinking as it evolves.
Children’s faith growth is a journey, and their images of God expand as they struggle with life’s complexities. We can contribute to their spiritual growth by accepting their immature perceptions and continually challenging them as their ability to think abstractly develops. We move them, slowly but consistently, from their perceptions of God as concrete person toward God who reveals himself as “spirit and mystery”; it’s always a progression, never a leap.
Peter Christian Olsen is the author of Youth at Risk: Ministry to the Least, the Lost, and the Last. He’s been a Christian educator for 25 years, and is a children’s and youth counselor in New Braunfels, Texas.
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