Forget heated debates and impassioned explanations. It’s time to re-imagine apologetics for a new generation of children.
A few weeks ago, my 10-year -old son came home from school with a huge smile on his face. “John’s a Christian now!”
“Wow! That’s really cool! Tell me about it.” I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear. Maybe that Jeremiah had learned about the Four Spiritual Laws in his small group at church and walked his friend through those. Or maybe that he’d memorized the verses along the Romans Road and used those on John. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you’re grounded in your faith and share the gospel?
What Jeremiah told me, though, had nothing to do with laws or a road. He said he’d simply told John a story-God’s story. God had created a perfect world that was broken, and humans chose to disobey God. Today, sin keeps us from being friends with God. He told John about God sending Jesus to fix what humans broke by taking our punishment for sin so that we can be friends with God forever. John didn’t ask my son for proof. He didn’t even argue about the validity of what my son shared with him. They were friends; John knew Jeremiah and trusted him. After a few clarifying questions, John declared, “Well, I want to be a Christian then.”
Yeah, I was pretty proud of my son.
A New Outlook
The premise of Diary, a reality show on MTV that follows celebrities through their so-called “everyday lives,” is that we make assumptions about how these celebrities live-only to find out how wrong we are. The show’s tagline is “You think you know…but you have NO idea.” I think the same principle applies to how we assume children communicate their faith with one another. Ironically, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child.
In our desire to make sure that the kids we minister to own and hold onto their faith in the midst of a culture of spiritual pluralism, we turn to the world of apologetics. When applied to children’s ministry, apologetics has traditionally been about making sure children are learning the right information in Sunday school so they can adequately defend their faith against inevitable opposition by the unchurched world. We’ve also ensured children learn proven techniques to share their faith, which included more information that could simply be memorized and used at a moment’s notice.
We’ve all read the statistics, though. More and more children are walking away from church when they reach their 20s…the years we tried so desperately to prepare them for by equipping them with a defensive apologetics of information.
Maybe it’s time to re-imagine apologetics for a new generation of children by taking a fresh look at the process of spiritual formation in children-through the lens of today’s culture.
Transformation Over Information
Transformation is a church buzzword. We want lives to be transformed. We look to the Holy Spirit to do the work of transformation in the children and families in our communities. We read books about transforming children. Yet, when you take a look at most of the children’s ministry curriculum out there, it’s about educational objectives: What information do you need to get into children? Where are the transformational goals? True, some curriculum is beginning to focus on life-change goals, but even those see knowledge as the catalyst to life change. From this perspective, information is the foundation for faith.
However, such a view runs contrary to the very verses we use to convince people of the importance of our children’s ministries: “Then he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ ” (Matthew 18:3). “I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15).
What happened? When did we place a higher value on knowledge over faith and transformation? Don and Barbara Ratcliff put it this way in their book, ChildFaith (Stock Publishers), “We’re impressed that God doesn’t want our children to be prepared for a test but rather for a relationship. Yet sometimes parents teach their children about God, spirituality, or faith as if they must pass an exam. Too often the church has taught children Bible trivia, or worse, merely tried to entertain them but has neglected the important place of the spiritual and the relational.”
Am I suggesting that we stop teaching biblical content to children? Of course not. I’m suggesting that we put a higher priority on transformation. That can seem like a scary thing for us as children’s ministers because we aren’t the ones in control of life transformation; the Holy Spirit is. We have to trust that the Holy Spirit loves the children in our ministries more than we do.
So how do we begin putting transformational goals above informational goals?
Here’s a starting point from the Ratcliffs: “Affirm [children’s] comments, even if part of what they say lacks theological sophistication. Mistaken theology can be corrected later; the important thing is that the child understands that it’s wonderful for them to have had a meaningful spiritual encounter with God, nature, or people.”
Journeys of Experience
After my son told me about sharing faith with his friend, I asked, “Where did you hear all of this?”
No hesitation. “From you and Mom, from going to church, from reading the Bible and praying.”
“When did we tell you all that stuff?”
“Well,” he said, “I hear it all the time.”
A new view of apologetics for children understands that spiritual formation takes time and reinforcement. Children don’t become grounded in their faith based on an isolated experience or even a handful of experiences. Transformation is the process of a life journey of experiences that include home, church, and personal time with God.
Experiences with God are crucial to grounding a child’s faith. At LifeChurch.tv in Edmond, Oklahoma, the central content development team put together a unit surrounding apologetics for their children that emphasized children experiencing God.
“You can argue points about creation, the legitimacy of the Bible, and even Christ-but it’s hard to deny what people have encountered in their own life,” notes Kendra Golden, a member of the content team. “Kids are facing so much counter-Christian media, if I can just get them to taste and see for themselves, it won’t matter if they forget the logical arguments. It’ll be too late. They’ll already know God.”
Those experiences don’t just happen, however. We’ve got to make space for children to encounter God. In Children Matter (Eerdmans), Scottie May recounts how one mother noticed all the great things her children were learning at May’s church, but wondered, “When do children meet God?” Scottie May realized that while her church had come up with engaging ways to teach the Bible, they hadn’t left space for kids to experience God. In response, May and her team introduced symbols and practices such as silence, an altar, and music that helped children focus on God’s presence. These elements created space for children to encounter God.
As children experience God on a consistent basis throughout their lives, God becomes real to them, and their faith becomes their own. Instead of parroting coached answers to questions few are asking, children are able to share with others out of their experiences with God. Additionally, children will be able to confidently navigate doubts and questions about their own faith as well as the questions and doubts others might have about faith.
A Faith That Needs No Defense
Traditionally, it seems the main premise of apologetics is to vigorously defend the Christian faith. I’ve always wondered why some think they need to defend it. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek to understand our faith more fully or correct misconceptions of Christianity, but being on the defensive implies that our faith is somehow weak and unable to stand on its own.
Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. In his affirmation to Peter, Jesus stated this about his church, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16:18).
When we unintentionally give children the message that their faith in God needs to be defended, we imply a faith that’s wimpy at best and devoid of truth or power at worst. Yes, we’re called to equip and empower children to stand firm in their faith, but the strength and confidence they need comes from a source more powerful than information and knowledge. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere-in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
So what does the new apologetics look like, one that values transformation over information, an empowered faith that needs no defense, and understands how children express their spirituality? Simply put, I believe that kind of apologetic originates out of a spiritually formed person-regardless of age. Most of us agree-a spiritually formed person is someone who follows the greatest commandments: Loving God and loving others (Mark 12:29-31).
When we think of apologetics in this way, we move from an apologetics of debating information to an apologetics of love. Eric Bryant, navigator with the leadership team at Mosaic Church in Los Angeles and author of Peppermint-Filled Pinatas: Breaking Through Tolerance and Embracing Love (Zondervan), puts it this way, “Kids are quicker to believe (as Jesus suggests), but even they need proof. The greatest proof is love.”
Henry Zonio, author of the Elemental Children’s Ministry blog (elementalcm.com), is a children’s pastor in Thunder Bay, Ontario.