Teaching Theology to Children

How then should we teach the Scriptures to children?  We must remember why God gave them to us in the first place.  Rather than consistently focusing on the child, we must return to focusing on God.  Too many children’s Bible stories are obviously written with the end goal in mind, “how can this story help the child live a good, Christian life?”  These stories perpetuate the mistake of Robert Raikes.  I am not saying that applicability is not important, but it is of secondary importance.  God gave us the Scriptures primarily so that we can know Who He is.  In particular, the Old Testament reveals to us the heart of God the Father and Creator, and His Messiah Jesus Christ, most vividly and as completely as mere mortals are able to comprehend.
Here, then, are the guidelines I would propose in teaching Scripture to children, and in particular, teaching the Old Testament:
First, please don’t make the mistake of thinking of this precious time you have with the children as baby-sitting time.  We are not just trying to keep the children occupied while the adults take part in the “real” ministry.  Humans learn best before the age of six.  After that, their learning patterns are fairly well set.  I don’t want to say that it’s too late to teach people after they reach adulthood, but adults have a much more difficult time learning new things.  Why wait?  We have them in our classrooms NOW!  Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to make a difference in these children’s lives.  I suggest that the “real” ministry is going on in the children’s classrooms, and the adult teachers or ministers are just keeping the grown-ups occupied until the children are finished.
Second, begin by making certain they understand that the Bible is ONE book, ONE story; the story of God dealing with His people.  It begins at creation and ends after the early church is established (actually, it ends at the end of time!).  Yet the ONE STORY still goes on, and we as God’s people are a part of that vast, overreaching history.  Make the child feel part of the story and events recorded in the Bible will seem that much more relevant to them.
Third, make certain the children understand that the WHOLE Bible, Old and New Testaments, are about Jesus.  He is right there in the first chapter of Genesis, and He is there throughout, on every page.  The Old Testament Scriptures are the story of God preparing the world for the coming of His Messiah.  He spent thousands of years preparing for this all-important, culminating event.  Do we dare deprive our children of this preparatory process?  There are plenty of resources available to help you “find” Jesus in the Old Testament, but once you are accustomed to thinking this way you won’t be able to help seeing Him everywhere on your own.  The Bible is HIS story, and that is the primary reason for studying it.
In this area, I imagine my proposition will receive the most objections. Christ appears in the Old Testament most often in types, or pictures as I prefer to call them when teaching children.   It is conventional wisdom that children cannot understand abstract ideas until they reach their teens; that typology and symbology are beyond their comprehension.  This is nonsense.  The same experts who claim that children cannot grasp symbology will strongly advocate teaching infants the alphabet and telling them the names of objects in order to give them a good start on vocabulary.  What are letters or words but symbols of sounds or objects or ideas?  There is nothing intrinsically “A-like” about the three lines we put together and to which we ascribe the sounds we call “A”.  People in other countries may put three lines together in the same way and ascribe different sounds to it.  “A” means “A” because we say it does.  That is symbology.  It is the same with words.  An English-speaking mother will tell her child “eye”; a Spanish-speaking mother will say to her child “ojo”.  Both mothers will point to the same object as they say these two different words in the instinctive understanding that they are speaking a symbol and that the object of that symbol must be pointed out to the child for understanding to be accomplished.  Mothers also know instinctively that this process is not immediate.  For symbols and their objects
to become part of the child’s thinking, it is necessary to repeat the alphabet and the words many times.  Repetition and usage are the keys to any kind of learning.  It is the same with Scripture.  Repeatedly saying the symbol, or type, and pointing to the object of its meaning will make these concepts such a part of the child’s thinking that it will seem to him as if he’d always known them, just as it seems he has always know that “A is for Apple”.  This aptitude for absorbing language and symbols is greatest when the child is an infant and grows less as he grows older.  It becomes more and more difficult for them to learn these concepts as they approach their teens.  Start them young or they will always be at a disadvantage!  Take the words of linguist J.R.R. Tolkien to heart: “Therefore do not write down to the Children or to anybody.  Not even in language. . . . an honest word is an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in a right context.  A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group.  It comes from reading books above one.”  The same is true of Spiritual concepts: Don’t teach down to the children.  Use the correct words for spiritual concepts, explaining as you go, and let their minds expand.
Fourth, make connections week by week, so the children understand that they are not learning a new story from the Bible each week but a small part of the continuing saga.  This is, of course, much easier to do if you teach them the Scriptures in order, but not strictly necessary if you have a good time line to aid you.  Here again, repetition will aid in the children’s process of learning.  Don’t just review last week’s lesson, go back many weeks and connect each to each before beginning each new lesson.  Ask the children what they can remember, for hearing the stories from each other is even more helpful than hearing them from you.
Fifth, do not try to force application where there is none.  Remember, Scripture is not about the child but all about God.  I have seen this done in ways which actually twist Scripture into meaning the opposite of what was intended!  Which brings me to my last point:
Sixth, be completely honest with the children.  I don’t mean that you have to go into detail: just admitting that David took something that didn’t belong to him is enough for a two-year-old.  That David killed a man so he could marry his wife is graphic enough for a five-year-old.  Include the facts that David was sorry for his sins, was forgiven, but yet had to suffer the consequences of his actions.  Emphasize that God brought His Messiah, Jesus, through David’s family as a way of honoring David’s faithfulness.  Don’t try to clean up Bible characters.   Kids need to know that they were real people with real problems, just like them.  It is not helpful to give them super-heroes to emulate; they know they can’t be perfect and this will just discourage them.
Additionally, don’t make the mistake of teaching a Bible story only in order to teach other skills: my biggest pet peeve is the “story of Joseph and the coat of many colors”.   Yes, it’s a great way of teaching pre-schoolers their colors.  Yes, it makes a beautiful picture in a story book.  By all means, tell them that Jacob gave Joseph this wonderful coat, but tell them the truth about it.  Every child knows instinctively that there’s something wrong in this story.  Every child knows that Jacob should not have shown preference to one of his children at the expense of the others.  And what reason do we give them for this shocking display of favoritism by Jacob?  I have seen too many of these stories end with the touching moral: “Jacob loved Joseph just like God loves you!”  If God is like Jacob, how unfair He must be!  What child has not had the fear that Mom or Dad will love one of his siblings more than they love him?  No, be honest with the children–Jacob was deliberately disobeying God by conferring the birthright on Joseph instead of on Judah.  Children deserve to have their discomfort with this story acknowledged rather than brushed under the rug.
Being honest with the children often means reconsidering what you might have thought about age-appropriate material.  Teachers (and parents) often try to protect children from unpleasant or frightening truths by simply not teaching them these things.  This is, in fact, the opposite of protecting them.  Knowledge is power; ignorance is dangerous.  We cannot protect our children from sexual predators, for example, by keeping them ignorant of such dangers.  Yes, it’s not a fun topic and it’s a little scary; but it will be a whole lot scarier for a child to be confronted with a situation for which he has not been prepared.  I bring this up because there are two topics which the Bible discusses a great deal but which tend to be ignored in order to protect children from being frightened.  First, Scripture deals with sex and uses sexual imagery extensively.  Just as there are ways to protect a child from potential molesters without being too graphic, there are ways to teach the Proverbs and other such scriptures without being too graphic.  Small children can understand that it’s wrong for two people to pretend they are married when they are not, for example.  They don’t have to know the specifics of the situation.  Second, Scripture gives us a great deal of information concerning the devil and his angels.  I have known teachers who feel that teaching about demons might overly frighten the children, but keeping children in ignorance of demonology actually makes them easy prey for the evil ones.  I was confronted by a demon myself at age 7, and having had no teaching on such things, I didn’t know what to do.  I have taught children for 15 years now, and have met many children, some as young as 5, who have had demonic experiences.  I’m talking about children who are raised in loving, Christian homes.  The devil wants our children, and we must teach them what to do to avoid his snares.  The best weapon we can give them is knowledge.  The best weapon they can wield themselves is prayer and the assurance that they can come to an adult with such matters and be both believed and supported.  The best way I have found for teaching children about demons is to compare them with germs.  Both are out to get us, both can be dangerous; but there’s an easy way to avoid germs–wash your hands!  And there’s an easy way to avoid demons, as well–pray!
One of the worst trends in teaching children Scripture in the past several decades has been teaching about God’s great love for them without the balance of teaching them of God’s judgment.  Adults seem to be afraid to introduce this subject with children, but it’s exactly what children like to hear about.  Kids love to hear about the bad guys getting what they deserve.  Adults don’t like to hear about God’s judgment because it makes them feel condemned, but kids almost never identify themselves with those being judged.  Tell them the truth about Noah’s flood: yes, eight people were saved, but hundreds of thousands died.  This story is not about a lot of smiling animals on a big, cute boat.  It’s about cataclysmic judgment over the entire earth–valleys were carved, mountains raised up, the weather was changed forever.  The animals, and the people, on the ark were, no doubt, terrified by the ferocity of the storm and the waves.  The kids will invariably identify with Noah’s family and the animals, feeling relieved at their rescue and gratified that the bad guys went down.  Where do adults today get the idea that a loving God would never send anyone to hell?  They got that idea in Sunday School!  Teach children while they are young that God cannot let sin go unpunished.  Otherwise, Christ’s death makes no sense.
Two examples on this last point: I was once teaching a group of five-year-olds about Jesus cleansing the temple.  To illustrate this story, I had been provided with coloring pages depicting animals running out of the temple.  My kids were horrified!  “Jesus didn’t hit the animals, did He Mrs. MariLynn?  He just hit the bad guys, right?”  I painted them a picture of Jesus the Mighty Hero driving all the evil bad guys out of the house of God.  They loved it!  I understand that whoever prepared those coloring pages did not want to depict the loving Son of God whipping people, but that’s what happened and that’s exactly what children want to see!  They need to see Jesus as He really is–the Conquering Hero!  Better than Superman!  They need to know that God can beat the bad guys.  It makes them feel safe and secure in His hands.
One year later, I was teaching six-year-olds the Book of Acts.  As we approached the story of Ananias and Sapphira, I grew nervous about how to present this story.  Would the kids think that God was going to zap them the next time they told a lie?  I was still fairly inexperienced or I would never have thought this.  The children listened to the story and all nodded wisely.  It was then that I realized that children are much closer to God in the area of judgment than adults are.  Adults expect mercy and are surprised and dismayed by judgment–even resentful of it.  Children, on the other hand, expect judgment and are surprised by mercy.  They take the “wages of sin” being death very seriously.  Why take this wonderful quality away from them?  Yes, they can seem mercenary and even blood-thirsty in the joy they take in the bad guy “getting his”, but that is easily dealt with by gently steering this just impulse towards empathy rather than trying to mold them into adults who take mercy for granted and thus miss the whole meaning of the cross.
One last point: I have a suspicion that God added in the gory details of battles and such just for the interest He knew little boys and girls would have in them.  Don’t deprive them of this!  I once tried to steer around the graphic, nasty details of Herod’s death by simply stating that “God said Herod must die for his pride, so he did.”  My kids did not let me get away with that!  They had read the text for themselves (and they were seven and eight years old!)  “Tell us about the worms, Mrs. MariLynn!  We want to hear about the worms!”  Give ‘em the worms!  Let them have the whole truth of the Bible, pretty or not.  If God thought it was important enough to include in His Holy Word, who are we to say, “eeewww!”


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2 responses to “Teaching Theology to Children

  1. Marianne

    You really have some great insights here, and in light of that fact, I thought you might appreciate this quote from St. Irenaeus:

    “If anyone, therefore, reads the scriptures this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the “treasure which was hidden in the field” [Mat. 13:44] [a treasure] hidden in the scriptures, for he was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by human beings prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet, “Shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplihsed, they shall know all these things” [Dan. 12:4, 7]. And Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things ” [Jer. 23:20]. For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is nothing but an enigma and amibiguity to human beings; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition [exegesis]. And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth, for they do not possess the explanation [exegesis] of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God: but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of humans, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known his dispensations with regard to human beings, and prefiguring the kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the one who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear his Word, and be glorified, from hearing his speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behold his glorious countenance [cf. 2 Cor. 3:7], as was said by Daniel, “Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever” [Dan. 12:3]. In this manner, then, I have shown it to be, if anyone read the scriptures.”

    Keep up the good work you do both in the education of children and in your writing.

    “Of all holy works, the education of children is the most holy.” ~ St. Theophan


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