Wonder whether kids are listening when you teach? Fear your words go in one ear and out the other? When it comes to faith, here’s how to ensure kids are getting the message.
Is your teaching in one ear and out the other? Maybe—or maybe not.
Children’s ministry looks a lot different to me now than it used to. Over the past few years my understanding of the purpose behind children’s ministry has changed — dramatically. The goals I set and the approaches I take in teaching aren’t what they used to be. And — this may make you cringe — I’m beginning to realize that no matter how well I teach a lesson, much of what I say to a child in Sunday school may actually go in one ear and out the other. But that’s not because teaching is a waste of time or kids aren’t learning. It’s because as much as the amazing truths of our faith are difficult for adults to grasp, they can be even more difficult for children.
Faith: How to Ensure Kids Are Getting the Message
If you grew up going to church, think back to your Sunday school days. Maybe you remember a handful of specific things from memorable lessons. You could probably recount some main events of the Bible. But you likely didn’t grasp the deeper truths of Christianity until you were older — things such as grace, forgiveness, and sacrifice. That’s not because your teachers weren’t effective. It’s simply because developmentally kids learn on a spectrum that begins with concrete concepts and develops into deeper understanding of abstract ones. Kids build that bridge from the concrete to the abstract over years. They do it using the tools of discovery and repetition in sync with their brain’s development.
Many of the most important concepts in God’s Word are highly abstract. So when you wonder whether kids are getting the message, they are. It’s just that kids will absorb what they can when they’re developmentally ready.
But don’t be discouraged — you have very important work to do that’s essential to all kids “getting the message” as they grow and develop. While kids may not fully grasp many of the awesome and life-changing things you tell them about Jesus until later, you have the important task of providing them the tools to help them build a framework for the faith they’ll later step into.
Examining the Framework
Christian tradition, or our statement of faith, is one basis kids can stand on as they begin their faith journey. Ironically, I’ve found this important information is often overlooked when it comes to children’s ministry because we’re home-blind to it; we tend to assume that kids will automatically absorb the basics of our faith along the way, even if they’re never directly articulated to them. These are basic truths such as, “God’s grace, not our good works, is what assures us eternal life” and “Jesus is the only way to God.” But if we fail to carefully instruct kids on the details of our beliefs, how will they fully understand what Christians really believe? And could this lack of understanding contribute to the fact that so many Christian kids grow up and leave the church when their faith is challenged?
These two questions became very real to me in conversations with college students about their experiences growing up in church. It was during these discussions that I realized people’s views of the church and of Christianity itself varied greatly — from confusion to superficial understanding to detailed comprehension. I began to wonder if we as Christian educators are missing something when it comes to teaching our kids. I wondered how we’re ensuring kids are getting the message about faith?
My curiosity led me to create the Christian Truths Survey, based on the foundational Christian beliefs of the Apostle’s Creed and on three main categories related to our faith: salvation, the Trinity, and general biblical truths (note the distinction between biblical truths and Bible trivia). I designed the survey to gain insights about 185 elementary-age churched kids’ understanding of our faith, and I enlisted the expertise of pastors and experts in children’s education and faith to build it. The questions ranged from factual questions (multiple choice and true/false), such as, “True or False: People can get to heaven by doing good things” to open-ended questions, such as, “How do we receive salvation?”
Ultimately, what began as an exercise in curiosity developed into a project with surprising results that really did change the way I think about children’s ministry. Perhaps it’ll change your views, too.
The Right Tools
Elementary-age children have the potential to hold deep conceptions of God and can have a greater personal faith than most adults assume they can, according to researchers in the International Journal for Psychology and Religious Education.
What this means is there’s not necessarily a correlation between children’s cognitive development (perception, memory, judgment, and reasoning) and their spiritual development. My survey results agree with this: There is a significant difference in how kids age 10 and older scored compared with those 9 and under when it comes to understanding the more abstract details of our faith. Older kids scored higher in my survey when it came to questions focused on salvation, the Trinity, and biblical truth. While 85 percent of 10- and 11-year-olds demonstrated understanding of these things, almost 73 percent of 8- and 9-year-olds could. Specifically, 83 percent of 10- and 11-year-olds understood salvation concepts, while 70 percent of 8- and 9-year-olds did.
* Building Faith: Much more may be going on spiritually in children than is evident on the surface. Even so, how you teach younger elementary children-and your expectations of what they can comprehend — have to be different than with older children. Research shows that older children have a grasp of facts and may be ready to go deeper with more abstract concepts. With younger kids, however, focus on stating the basic tenets of the faith again and again in different ways so kids hear repetition and a reinforcing message — or the framework.
The Right Words
I figured that many people grow up with confused understanding of biblical events and a few moral lessons as the sum of their experience of Christianity. This was for a few reasons. First, many curricula focus on teaching traits such as honesty, obedience, and love. Though God desires all of these from us, this approach seems to aim to improve children’s character rather than increase their knowledge of God. The lessons expect children to “do good” and “be good” rather than giving them a sense of their true condition and utter need for God. In addition, my discussions with peers and experts seemed to reinforce the argument that many practicing Christians may not have a concrete, accurate understanding of the basics of Christianity and are therefore more at risk of walking away from their faith. And because today’s families are more transient than past generations, kids may travel through many different children’s ministries with many different philosophies — and fewer opportunities for consistent teaching and learning that sticks.
Kids understood a lot about who God is, though they struggled most with the abstract, Trinity-focused questions. Seventy-four percent of 12-year-olds demonstrated comprehension of the Trinity, while 64 percent of younger children did. Despite lower scores on the abstract nature of God, the survey revealed a very encouraging point to note: Kids could accurately use the terminology they’d heard used to describe salvation, even if they didn’t fully grasp the meaning of the words. So for instance, they knew terms such as grace, savior, and Holy Spirit, even if they couldn’t give a textbook definition.
* Building Faith: Language is a key component of our faith’s framework for children who are learning about Christianity. By providing kids with the correct language and using that language frequently, you can give them a context for concepts they’ll grow to understand later. For teachers, it’s critical to acknowledge the importance of using faith-accurate language and to use it correctly, based on Scripture and tradition.
The Right Approach
The results of the survey data confirmed for me that our role as Christian faith educators is to provide a standard for content and a language for experience. Here’s a radical idea: Children don’t have to graduate from our ministries knowing all the content of the Bible, all the events that took place. They should, however, walk away with a plum line by which to measure their growing knowledge and experience. It’s our responsibility and honor to provide them with this tool. Shifting our mindset and re-evaluating our goals and definitions of success in ministry may prove necessary. Where before we may have felt a sense of failure if kids confused the facts of Noah’s experience or thought Job was really Moses, it’s important to remember that it’s not Bible trivia we’re teaching, but Bible truths. So if kids walk away thinking, God stayed with Noah, and he’ll stay with me when I’m afraid, too, you’ve scored a major win for your ministry. Our mission is relationship with Jesus — not trivia.
* Building Faith: We don’t create faith — we frame it. Don’t get me wrong; becoming a “framer” doesn’t mean lowering your standards. In fact, the opposite is true. Framing faith for the kids in your ministry means you challenge yourself to learn anew the language and truths of our faith. It means you try even harder to articulate those complex truths in a way that’s kid-friendly and biblically and theologically sound. This is a huge task — and good reason for children’s Christian educators to be some of the best-trained people of your church.
Follow these principles, and you’ll when it comes to faith, you’ll help ensure your kids are getting the message.
Jill Williams is the director of children’s ministry at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.
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