How to make the B-i-b-l-e the best book for kids!
Poll a thousand Sunday school teachers and you’ll find a thousand teachers who want to pass on their love of the Bible to children. Each week, all across the planet, these teachers spend countless hours in preparation to introduce children to Scripture’s richness. That’s the indisputable truth!
And, yet, if we took a closer look in some — not all — of those classrooms, we might find that in our eagerness to share our passion for God’s Word, we’re sending kids the wrong message about the Bible. Press on to discover three ways teachers can present distorted views of Scripture — and how you can avoid these inaccuracies.
WRONG MESSAGE #1: The Bible Is a Trivia Book
Do you know the definition of trivia? Here’s what dictionary.com reveals: Trivia is “matters or things that are very unimportant, inconsequential, or nonessential.”There isn’t a Sunday school teacher on this planet who believes the Bible is unimportant, inconsequential, or nonessential! Yet it’s one of the most common beliefs we transmit to children. How could this happen? It’s through our teaching techniques and discussion questions.
There’s an adage in management that we can only “expect what we inspect.” Children are intuitively aware of this adult trait. They’ve learned that the reason parents ask more questions about brushed teeth and cleaned bedrooms than they do about the names of all the Pokémon species is that parents value hygiene more than trading card games. When we use review games or debriefing questions that focus on the details of the story (“Name the 12 disciples”) over transformation (“What does it mean to follow Jesus?”), our children respond by assuming that adults value the Bible as a collection of divine minutia.
THE SOLUTION = Ask Questions That Promote Comprehension and Transformation
Michael and Heidi Martin of TruthQuest Ministries say, “The most important questions are ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ Knowing the facts about the Bible is great, but unless a child understands why it applies to life, it won’t really have the impact we desire.” When we ask questions that promote comprehension, children pick up our conviction that the Bible is telling an important story. When we ask application questions, children come to understand that we’re inviting them to take their place in that story.
Aaron Reynolds, the author of The Fabulous Reinvention of Sunday School (Zondervan) and former Promiseland staffer (at Willow Creek Church in South Barrington), goes a step further and reminds us that the questioner is just as important as the question. Reynolds says, “When done really well, a small group leader is our best link to a parent, our best link to the heart of a child, our best link to understanding if the principles and application of the biblical teaching is sinking down to their toes and getting lived out.” Relational context, then, shapes the outcome of biblical assessment. Bible quizmasters and “game show hosts” may extort rote answers from children’s memories, but they also reinforce the “Bible-as-trivia” outlook. Disciplers, mentors, and small group leaders ask “why?” questions that reveal their conviction that the Bible is valuable for training in righteousness.
WRONG MESSAGE #2: The Bible Is a Collection of Fables
No matter how high a view of the authority of Scripture you have, it’s possible that your teaching methods accidentally telegraph a low view of the Scriptures to your learners. We affirm that the Bible is the account of how God responds to sin and its effects — broken friendship with God, each other, and ourselves; in a word: “salvation.” On the other hand, Christian educators tend to break the Scriptures into manageable pieces that can be taught in an hour. Each of these pieces is then assigned a moral: “Avoid pride,” “God wants us to serve others,” or “Be patient.” These morals or “teaching points” aid teaching.
Michael and Heidi Martin note that a topical teaching point “helps lay a foundation for a biblical mind-set.” And Dr. Martha Wright of Child Evangelism Fellowship points out that “the point” is like the bull’s eye of a target…if we don’t have this goal to aim for, our teaching will be unfocused and most likely ineffective.
These points, however, can have a double edge. The same teaching technique that focuses classroom learning can potentially dislodge a biblical narrative from its broader biblical context. The story of the week is valued for its utility to convey a moral but possibly at the expense of explaining the place of that account in our salvation story. Reynolds challenges practitioners with this question: “Is it a value for us to show the whole scope of the Bible and its overarching story, or are we content to present an endless potpourri of unrelated Bible stories?”
Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with one-point learning, but “the point” cannot be the starting point when constructing a lesson. The Bible is simply not a collection of short stories waiting to be outfitted with morals. When teachers force applications upon Bible stories, they do so at the expense of the child seeing the grand plot of the Bible. Children will view the Bible as Aesop’s Fables — lots of good stories that tell me how to live — just far more encyclopedic. The Bible does more than give advice for living; it tells the story of how to connect with the Author of Life.
THE SOLUTION = Stress Biblical Continuity
It would be a mistake to discard the benefits of one-point learning. Yet the strategy is to ensure that these “one-points” join into a constellation that directs a child to encounter Jesus instead of allowing the points to add up to an atomized presentation of Scripture. Wright emphasizes the importance of presenting the biblical narratives in chronological order, from Genesis to Acts, to help children understand how these stories interrelate. Child Evangelism Fellowship trains their teachers in basic biblical hermeneutics (the science of interpreting the Scriptures) to ensure that every biblical passage taught contributes to the central plot of the Bible. This discipline prevents the teacher from starting with a desired application point and forcing it on a passage.The Martins offer Jesus as a source of continuity for children: “We relate everything back to the gospel, pointing out that we need to follow Jesus. The Old Testament points to Jesus as much as the New Testament does.” Reynolds has had success with the use of fast-paced dramas, such as The Old Testament Rewind and Long Story Short (both from Willow Creek Church), to help children regain a panoramic view of the central plot of the Bible.
WRONG MESSAGE #3: The Bible Is at Odds With Science
The majority of today’s churchgoing children experience a conundrum. The two most prominent institutions in a child’s life are the public school and the church, and each of these authority figures offers different explanations regarding our origins. Observant children see this apparent conflict between God and science and realize that they must decide who’s telling the truth — church or school. There are two possible conclusions. Both are destructive. The first is that the Bible is incorrect regarding Creation and therefore can’t be trusted to tell the truth regarding other matters. The second is that science can’t be trusted. The first error leads to anemic faith; the second to anti-intellectualism and a faith that retreats from the mysteries of the world God created.
THE SOLUTION = Create an Open Discussion of the Tension Between God and Science
All our interviewed experts agreed that children’s ministers must engage children on this topic. The Martins built the topic of Creation vs. Evolution into their TruthQuest curriculum to be discussed every two years. They also affirm science’s worth and argue that it’s Darwinism, not the Bible, that’s out of step with science.
Wright is careful to affirm the role of science in her conversations with children, “One thing I would want children to understand is that science is not the enemy,” she says. “God has allowed man to discover amazing things through our scientific research.”
Our experts varied, however, on what that conversation should look like. The Martin’s curriculum affirms a literal six-day Creation and disallows Darwinian evolution. Wright emphasizes the role of faith and the foundation of Scripture: “God has revealed himself to us through his creation. He requires us to have faith in his Word and his works,” she affirms.
Reynolds, also a Creationist, stresses that our credibility will be lost among preteens if we refuse to acknowledge tough issues such as this. He allows for presenting uncertainty to children. He writes that his team wasn’t “afraid to say that there are things that we don’t know for sure. Are the seven days of creation literal 24-hour periods or longer periods of time?” Reynolds recommends affirming scientific theories that seem to validate the Creation account. Reynolds offers a strategy appropriate for a children’s pastor in any congregation: “We got clarity from church leadership as to what our stand on [origins] was, so we wouldn’t be out of unity with the church as a whole.”
Three possible miscommunications can be flipped into three vital opportunities to present the Bible as the relevant and reliable Word of God. And with these few adjustments you can be assured that you’ll pass your love affair with the Word of God on to a new generation.
Larry Shallenberger is pastor of children and student ministries at Grace Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the author of Divine Intention: How God’s Work in the Early Church Empowers Us Today. Visit larryshallenberger.com for more information.