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Child-size Apologetics: A New Approach

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 Jeremiah 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. Countless books are read 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).

Placing Knowledge Over Faith?

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 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.”

Making Space for God Encounters

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.

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.

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 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 (, is a children’s pastor in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.

17 thoughts on “Child-size Apologetics: A New Approach

  1. Brent Hardaway

    I really would ask the author to seriously rethink his position. Let me just start by saying that the notion that “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” is the exact opposite of how people think. We instinctively know that anybody can make a claim against any belief like “The Bible is a bunch of fairy tales”. What makes people think that our faith is “wimpy at best and devoid of truth or power at worst” is when we refuse to answer those charges, giving the impression that our faith CAN’T be defended.

    Let me give an analogy. The country of Monaco CAN attack the United States militarily. They have no chance of winning – unless the U.S. shrugs it’s shoulders and says “We don’t need to defend ourselves.” That is the position that this article is essentially advocating.

    If that weren’t enough, we need to defend (and teach our kids how to do it) because scripture COMMANDS it. (1 Peter 3:15, 2 Cor. 5 – “We demolish arguments and every pretention that sets itself up against the knowledge of God”. Several times in Acts, Paul and Apollos debate or persuade the the Jews though the use of arguments.

    The author seems to think that the problem is that we’ve given kids too much information and not allowed them ‘experience’ God. Actually, the exact opposite is true. We’ve given them virtually nothing but the experiential model for years and years. The author claims that we can correct bad theology later. Oh, really? Just when do we bother to correct it? We have over 40% of evangelical millennials endorsing same-sex marriage and about 1/2 of high school evangelicals thinking that Jesus sinned.

    Of course, children are only able to absorb and understand so much. We can’t teach them to comprehensively present the cosmological and moral arguments, or the historical reliability of the NT. Sure, many of their peers may not have doubts about God’s existence. That starts to change in adolescence. We can and should, however, start introducing them to these discussions as there is opportunity. Questions like “Who made God?” may be a good starting point.

    I would just like to encourage any readers favorably disposed to this piece to look inside themselves and ask “Is my aversion to a rational defense of the faith really grounded in my piety, or does it just involve work that I want to avoid?”

    • CC Collins

      You make a good point. I strongly believe that if we are not able to defend what we believe, then we can doubt it ourselves. It is what happened to me: I could not defend my beliefs to myself. I walked away from God, the Church, Faith. (Graciously, God brought me back–but I’ll always regret those 14 years in the wilderness and the sinful life that filled those years–although I know that God has a purpose in everything, including that).
      I see many agree. I especially like Neil Mammen’s 2016 post–about what we experience when we get “out there” and our beliefs are challenged. We need an unshakable foundation under us.

  2. Thank you, Brent. That comment in the article had me shaking my head too. We should teach our kids to defend our true faith because it can and should be defended and it will likely be attacked at some point. We should always be ready to give the reason for the hope that is in us (with love) when people ask…or attack.

  3. freddyfly

    1 Peter 3.15 you bet! The Bible never seeks to prove God’s existence it simply assumes it. In the beginning God. We don’t argue to the bible we argue from it. We don’t look at a sunset and conclude there must be a God. If it wasn’t for God there wouldn’t be a sunset to look at. God is never the conclusion he is always the premise. We argue from the impossibility of the contrary, ie transcendentally. Deny the Biblical God and you have no basis for science, logic. morality, human dignity or whatever. Unbelievers borrow from the Biblical worldview inorder to make sense of life, if they were consistent with their worldview they would be reduced to absurdity. Anti theism presupposes theism. The proof of the truth of the Biblical worldview is that without it you couldn’t know anything! Only the Biblical worldview provides the preconditions for anything to be the case. Children and adults need to learn to defend the faith Biblically ie presuppositionally.

  4. Transformational? This is rather worrying to me. I can show you enough Hindus and Muslims and especially Mormons who’ve had transformational experiences. As an Indian growing up in Africa and the Middle East surrounded by Hindus and Muslims, I’ve seem more transformational cultists like Hare Krishnas and Muslim fanatics than you can shake a stick at.

    Friends this is very dangerous advice and I respectfully ask the author of this article to contact me, for I fear he is suggesting parents do the very thing that will destroy kid’s lives and their faith and is reminiscent of Mohammed.

    If kids do not have a faith that is built on truth but on some “transformational experience” or “emotion” – when they get to college they’ll have new emotions created by their atheist teachers and peers. As a result they’ll have a new transformation. Most Youth pastors focus ONLY on transformational faith NOT on a reasoned faith and that I think has been the curse of our youth brought upon them by our Youth Pastors.

    Less than a year ago my then 8 year old asked me: How can I believe all these things I learn in Church and from you about Jesus? I’m just trusting you.

    I replied: Honey, never ever trust me when it comes to your faith in God! That’s never going to be enough. For one, I could be wrong. Similarly never trust your Sunday School teacher. Sunday School teachers are notorious for being wrong. YOU have to find the Truth yourself (not your OWN truth but THE Truth) and the only way you can find THE truth is to do research, use facts, logic, science history and Philosophy. Nothing else will do. And if you find out I’m wrong, then you should tell me right away.

    She’s become a powerful evangelist and apologist so much so that she challenges her Sunday School teachers when they say silly things like: God can do anything.
    Her answer: No he can’t. He can’t make 1+1 = 3. He can only do that which is logical & rational because that’s His very nature.

    As far as a faith that needs to be defended being wimpy, forgive me but I can’t accept that. It makes no logical sense. Every math theorem must be defended, every PhD thesis must be defended, every Scientific paper must be defended, every new proposal must be defended. Even the ancient prophets of Israel had to defend what they said: If they prophesied something and it did not come to pass they could be executed as a false prophet. And Joseph, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Daniel all had to defend themselves and their faith and as a result of what they said even the Rulers of a majority of the Civilized world worshipped God.

    But we should not stop there. Even Jesus had to defend what he said. Remember when he healed the paraplegic? He first said: Your sins are forgiven. At this they mocked him. So he said: Yes, anyone can say your sins are forgiven, but to prove that I can forgive sins: Take up your bed and walk.
    He defended his divinity and his authority to forgive sins. God did that too in the OT when He compared all he had done to the idols who could do nothing.

    When people came to Mohammed and asked him to prove that he was a prophet of God, to prove that the angel Gabriel had really spoken to him to prove that this new religion of Islam was really from God he said: I don’t need to prove anything to you. I don’t need to defend myself. Allah will defend himself. Effectively: If you don’t believe this you are not worthy to receive it.

    So whom should we emulate? Mohammed or Jesus?

    • Christine Yount Jones

      Thank you so much for your insightful comments. I know everyone will benefit from your perspective!

    • Dee Halley

      God can do anything. He made a donkey talk. Jesus made a few fish and bread multiply to a great many. That is not rational or logical but a miracle.

  5. Maybe the author has a low view of defending the faith as if we are getting beat up. Maybe the author doesn’t realize that when he/she says that we should know and understand why we believe and should be able to respond to misconceptions about Christianity, that what they are describing IS apologetics!

  6. Kevin Wells

    By many accounts, it is the lack of evidential, philosophical, and presuppositional apologetics training, that makes it so easy for professors to separate young adults from their faith. One popular aopologist (J. Warner Wallace, possibly) tells of his frustration that most of his youth group members would leave the faith “before Christmas break their freshman year” after he had facilitated such great, emotional and engaging worship experiences, lockins, ski trips etc. Different approaches are appropriate for different ages and curiosity levels, for sure, but we must show our children that the features of the world and of humanity confirm God’s story as related in the bible.

  7. Agreed with all the posters- while lifestyle evangelism is a great open doortoconversatuin, the follow up discipleship piece is seriously lacking in this authors perspective.

  8. Alex Verastegui

    While I agree with some points of the commenters, I think the author of this article is trying to say that as a church we have placed TOO MUCH of an emphasis on a “Head knowledge” of God and not on an “Experienced knowledge.” It seems like many have been commenting that the author is advocating for doing away with apologetics in Children’s Ministry, but that is not what I read. Rather than do away with apologetics we, as a church, should help educate children in what it means to love and live like Christ. The best testimony we can give, is often times given with our lives than with our mouths.
    It should also be taken into account that many apologetic concepts are not well taught by lay-ministers because they do not know how to explain it to a certain age-group. I have found that I need to change my vocabulary and examples when I talk to my preschoolers than when I talk to my 5th graders. My 1st graders do not like asking questions…yet…but my 5th graders are ready to tackle big questions about who wrote the bible, why and how.
    There is not One-Size fits all to apologetics in children’s ministry. I do agree with the author that we need to start teaching kids more than a “head knowledge” of God. How I will do that is going to take some prayer and reflection.

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Child-size Apologetics: A New Approach

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