Tag Archives: History of Children’s Bible Education

Teaching Children The Book of Philemon


In past posts about teaching difficult Scriptures to children, I’ve been concentrating on Old Testament books. But there is a book in the New Testament which is consistently passed over in most children’s curriculum. Paul’s letter to Philemon brings up the question of slavery, an emotionally-charged and controversial subject that most are not willing or able to tackle in a Sunday School class, or in any other forum I suppose. I propose that the difficultly many have in presenting this book lies in a lack of historical knowledge in placing this scripture in proper context. Here is my attempt at teaching this problematic book to children with a simple history lesson to aid in a proper understanding of it.

Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches, but four of the books Paul wrote he addressed to individual people. Can you name them? (I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, Philemon) These books are really short; Philemon is only one chapter!

When this letter was written, Paul was in prison in Rome waiting to see Caesar. Paul was allowed to live in a house which he rented there in Rome, but he was constantly under Roman guard and in chains, not allowed to leave the house. He could not go out into the streets and preach to the unbelievers of Rome. He depended on his friends to bring people to him so that he could teach them in his home. One day, a run-away slave named Onesimus found his way to Paul’s house. We don’t know if he sought Paul out or if someone brought Onesimus to Paul. But we do know that after talking with Paul, Onesimus became a believer in the Messiah. Paul calls his new friend “my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.”

Now Onesimus had a problem, though. He had run away from his master. In Rome at that time, slaves who ran away were considered a great threat to the government. You see, about 100 years earlier there had been a great slave uprising. A slave named Spartacus had run away and had become a great leader among other runaway slaves. He had managed to gather an army of tens of thousands of slaves, who marched against the Roman army to gain their freedom and end slavery. This slave army was defeated and 7,000 of the leaders, including Spartacus himself, were crucified–hung on crosses that lined the road leading into Rome for miles. This was done as a warning for the slaves to never rise up against their masters again! Since that time, any slave who ran away was sentenced to die, unless his master would take him back and protect him.

What was Onesimus to do? His life was in danger every day that he was separated from his master. Fortunately, God is a good God! It so happened that Onesimus’ master was a good friend of Paul’s! His name was Philemon, and a church met in his home in Colossae. Paul wrote this letter to Philemon for Onesimus to carry with him on his journey back to Colossae. In it, Paul says of Philemon, “your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because, you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”

You might ask yourself, if Philemon was such a good man and a Christian, why did he own slaves? It’s hard for us in America to understand how different slavery was in ancient times and in other countries because our own American system of slavery was so horrible. In America, slaves were kidnaped from their homes in Africa and sold. They were treated as if they were property and not really human beings. But slavery in ancient times worked differently. Most of the time, it was an arrangement made between the slave and master. Perhaps you owe some money to someone and can’t pay it back. Or perhaps you have for some reason lost your home and your land and have no means to feed and clothe your family. How would you get money? You could sell yourself to someone and work off your debt. You would agree to work for someone for a certain amount of time and then when that time had passed, you would be free to go. In the meantime, you could be saving up your money so that when you were free you could buy a home and maybe even start your own business.

Here’s another way to become a slave: perhaps your family is very poor and cannot afford to send you to school. They could give you to someone as an apprentice. This means you would be learning a trade from your master, like carpentry or iron-making. Your parents would have an agreement with this master–he would give you food and clothes and a place to live while he taught you all you needed to know about his business. In return, you would have to work for him for a certain number of years.

Now, there were also slaves who were from other countries whom Rome had defeated. These people had not made an agreement with their masters! However, since they were a conquered people, they had no home to go back to. If they were to be freed, they would be poor and homeless with no means of supporting themselves and their families. This was a big problem with no easy solution. Simply freeing all the slaves would not solve anything. It would just put a lot of people out on the streets with no place to live and no way to earn a living. I’m not saying that this was a good system. Owning people against their will is wrong. But it was the system that Christians had to deal with at that time as best they could. Protecting their slaves and treating them well was one solution. Giving them their freedom along with land and money to help them start out on their own was another, if you had the land and the money to do this.

We don’t know if Onesimus was a slave by his own agreement with Philemon, an agreement with Onesimus’ parents, or because his country had been conquered by Rome. We do know that it was not safe for Onesimus to wander around without his master’s protection! Any Roman soldier who caught him could put him to death. Onesimus knew he needed to go back to his master. Paul asks Philemon to take the run-away slave back as a brother in Christ, not just as a slave. The name Onesimus means “Useful”. Paul makes a joke of that name when he tells Philemon, “He was Useless to you before, but now he is Useful to you and to me.” In fact, Paul says, he really wanted Onesimus to stay with him in Rome and help him, but he knew he couldn’t do this without Philemon’s permission. “He is more useful to you as a brother in Christ,” Paul tells his friend. I believe he is hinting to Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom and help him find a way to live on his own. “Remember that you owe me your very life,” Paul added. “I’m certain you’ll do as I ask.” Paul was being a little forceful, wasn’t he?

We don’t know what Philemon did. But we do know that 30 years or so later there was a Bishop, a church leader, in Ephesus named Onesimus. Ephesus is not very far away from Colossae. What do you think happened?

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Teaching Children the Truth of the Scriptures: Part Two


Here’s the second installment in my re-posting of my original blog entries. I would really appreciate feedback and comments. I would love to be able to learn from the ideas of other like-minded educators.

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, is 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, 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 25 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. We can give them weapons they can wield themselves: 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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Teaching Children the Truth of the Scriptures


This is a re-posting of my first blog entry, with a few little changes. I began this crusade for better Bible instruction for children many years ago, and I am making little headway! Now that my blog is being read by more people, I wanted to re-emphasize the reasons I began it in the first place–to improve teaching methods for Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools. Our children are the future of the church! They need to be prepared to lead. They need to be taught truth!

Deuteronomy 11:18-19. “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul. . . . And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” When God commanded that His words be impressed on our hearts and on our children, the only words there were to impress were those in the Pentateuch. How far we have diverted ourselves from this simple command of teaching God’s word in its entirety, difficult parts, “boring” parts and all.
Up until about 240 years ago, the Bible was taught to children in the same way it was taught to adults: it was read to them. Most children in English-speaking nations, in general, learned to read by reading the Bible. Families were all together in church services–children heard the same sermons as the adults, and the parents would talk to them about the message afterward. I’m not advocating going back to that way of teaching, and we have many more resources available to us which we should take advantage of. But it served human-kind well enough for thousands of years, and I am not sure that adults of today who learned under modern methods of teaching are better educated than those who came before.
Along came the Industrial Revolution. In the 1780′s an upper-class gentleman in England, Robert Raikes, noticed that children of the poorer classes were no longer attending school or church, but were being forced to work in factories to help support their families. He became concerned about what kind of adults this generation of uneducated children would grow up to be, and so he conceived of a “Sunday School” to be held on the only day the children had off of work. This was the beginning of the concept of Sunday School that we have today. Unfortunately, it was Raikes’ primary goal to teach the underprivileged to read and to be good, moral citizens of Great Britain. Their spiritual enlightenment was secondary in his mind. Therefore, he chose to teach the children only those Bible stories which he could adapt to his agenda of moral values, leaving out any details that might detract from his goals. For example, he might teach them about the patriarch Jacob by expounding on his faithfulness and how he was blessed by God, leaving out the parts where Jacob lied, deceived people, and ran away like a coward. The Bible stories were presented as isolated tales rather than as part of a vast history, so that anyone attending his schools would come away with the impression that the Bible was like Aesop’s Fables: a book of unrelated moral tales with unreal, perfect characters.
As the years passed, printing in color became easier and cheaper, and colored story books for children became all the rage among the wealthier Victorians in the mid- to late-1800′s. Bible stories, with beautifully colored wood-cuts, were popular presents for Christmas and birthdays. Naturally, the stories in these books were chosen for their illustrative qualities, and the narratives themselves were often questionable. When the wealthy Victorians got wind of the Sunday School movement among the poor, they grabbed onto the concept with their own twist-–illustrated Sunday School cards and papers. Again, these stories were presented as isolated, moral tales and chosen for their illustrative qualities. The Bible was cleaned up and disinfected so that the children would never know that David committed murder and adultery; that every living thing on earth, except those in the ark, died in Noah’s flood; that when Ehud stabbed Eglon, Eglon’s fat stomach closed over the hilt of the knife. In other words, the Bible began to be unreal and unhistorical, and those whose only knowledge of the Bible came from Sunday School grew to have a warped and one-dimensional idea of what the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is all about. A warped view of the Bible means a warped view of God, and there was a great falling away from the faith as the children taught in this way grew to adulthood.
Darwinism took hold, and the Bible began to be seen by many, even by Christians, as unscientific, even mythological. By the 1950′s and 60′s, the Bible was being taught more and more as a lot of unrelated, moral fables rather than historical truth–-as a way of teaching children how to behave rather than teaching them to know their Creator and Savior. Even those churches which remained fundamental in doctrine often used inferior Sunday School material which failed to emphasize the historical accuracy of the Bible. Lessons were still chosen for the cute crafts and pretty coloring pages that could be created to enhance the stories, and so the less “pretty” stories were ignored. Think of the vast amount of material which is never presented in Sunday School, or in other venues of children’s education: most of the Judges, most of the Kings, most of the prophets. Fascinating, enlightening stories which children would love, which never-the-less would be difficult to illustrate tastefully or to create appropriate hand-work for. The adults raised in these Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools thought they knew what was in the Old Testament and so never bothered to read it for themselves. The Old Testament began to be seen as irrelevant to adults, to be set aside with books of fairy tales.
Many of us who now attempt to teach the Scriptures to children today received our earliest Bible instruction in the 1960′s style Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools. You might argue that they were better than nothing and that no other curriculum was available to be taught at that time, and that is certainly true. But the tragedy remains. Ask any adult of our generation a question about the Old Testament and see if they can answer it. Look it up and make sure YOU know the right answer yourself! How many adults today are fully literate in Old Testament theology? I have known many intelligent, well-educated Christians who are very knowledgeable in the New Testament Scriptures but have only the most rudimentary grasp of the Old. I have even heard arguments for abandoning the study of the Old Testament Scriptures since they have been “replaced” by the New! I sincerely believe that this attitude comes from a Sunday School mentality of Old Testament study. Since people are being taught the Old Testament as a collection of isolated morality tales, they can’t understand how these Scriptures can be relevant to adults. They don’t understand what they are missing, because they have never really been taught Scripture as a serious, historical document.
How then should we teach the Scriptures to children? I’ll share my ideas on this tomorrow.

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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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Teach Your Children Well–Even the Little Ones!


Deuteronomy 11:18-19.  “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul. . . . And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.”  When God commanded that His  words  be impressed on our hearts and on our children, the only words there were to impress were those in the Pentateuch.  How far we have diverted ourselves from this simple command of teaching God’s word in its entirety, “boring” parts and all.
Up until about 240 years ago, the Bible was taught to children in the same way it was taught to adults: it was read to them.  Most children in English-speaking nations, in general, learned to read by reading the Bible.  Families were all together in church services–children heard the same sermons as the adults, and the parents would talk to them about the message afterward.  I’m not advocating going back to that way of teaching,  and we have many more resources available to us which we should take advantage of.  But it served human-kind well enough for thousands of  years, and I am not sure that adults of today who learned under modern methods of teaching are better educated than those who came before.
Along came the Industrial Revolution.  In the 1780’s an upper-class gentleman in England, Robert Raikes, noticed that children of the poorer classes were no longer attending school or church, but were being forced to work in factories to help support their families.  He became concerned about what kind of adults this generation of uneducated children would grow up to be, and so conceived of a “Sunday School” to be held on the only day the children had off of work.  This was the beginning of the concept of Sunday School that we have today.  Unfortunately, it was Raikes’ primary goal to teach the underprivileged to read and to be good, moral citizens of Great Britain.  Their spiritual enlightenment was secondary in his mind.  Therefore, he chose to teach the children only those Bible stories which he could adapt to his agenda of moral values, leaving out any details that might detract from his goals.  For example, he might teach them about the patriarch Jacob by expounding on his faithfulness and how he was blessed by God, leaving out the parts where Jacob lied, deceived people, and ran away like a coward.  The Bible stories were presented as isolated tales rather than as part of a vast history, so that anyone attending his schools would come away with the impression that the Bible was like Aesop’s Fables: a book of unrelated moral tales with unreal, perfect characters.
As the years passed, printing in color became easier and cheaper, and colored story books for children became all the rage among the wealthier Victorians in the mid- to late-1800’s.  Bible stories, with beautifully colored wood-cuts, were popular presents for Christmas and birthdays.  Naturally, the stories in these books were chosen for their illustrative qualities, and the narratives themselves were often questionable.  When the wealthy Victorians got wind of the Sunday School movement among the poor, they grabbed onto the concept with their own twist–illustrated Sunday School cards and papers.  Again, these stories were presented as isolated, moral tales and chosen for their illustrative qualities.  The Bible was cleaned up and disinfected so that the children would never know that David committed murder and adultery; that every living thing on earth, except those in the ark, died in Noah’s flood; that when Ehud stabbed Eglon, Eglon’s fat stomach closed over the hilt of the knife.  In other words, the Bible began to be unreal and unhistorical, and those whose only knowledge of the Bible came from Sunday School grew to have a warped and one-dimensional idea of what the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is all about.  A warped view of the Bible means a warped view of God, and there was a great falling away from the faith as the children taught in this way grew to adulthood.
Darwinism took hold, and the Bible began to be seen by many, even by Christians, as unscientific, even mythological.  By the 1950’s and 60’s, the Bible was being taught more and more as a lot of unrelated, moral fables rather than historical truth–as a way of teaching children how to behave rather than teaching them to know their Creator and Savior.  Even those churches which remained fundamental in doctrine often used inferior Sunday School material which failed to emphasize the historical accuracy of the Bible.  Lessons were still chosen for the cute crafts and pretty coloring pages that could be created to enhance the stories, and so the less “pretty” stories were ignored.  Think of the vast amount of material which is never presented in Sunday School, or in other venues of children’s education: most of the Judges, most of the Kings, most of the prophets.  Fascinating, enlightening stories which children would love, which never-the-less would be difficult to illustrate tastefully or to create appropriate hand-work for.  The adults raised in these Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools thought they knew what was in the Old Testament and so never bothered to read it for themselves.  The Old Testament began to be seen as irrelevant to adults, to be set aside with books of fairy tales.
Many of us who now attempt to teach the Scriptures to children today received our earliest Bible instruction in the 1960’s style Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools.  You might argue that they were better than nothing and that no other curriculum was available to be taught at that time, and that is certainly true.  But the tragedy remains.  Ask any adult of our generation a question about the Old Testament and see if they can answer it.  Look it up and make sure YOU know the right answer yourself!  How many adults today are fully literate in Old Testament theology?  I have known many intelligent, well-educated Christians who are very knowledgeable in the New Testament Scriptures but have only the most rudimentary grasp of the Old.  I have even heard arguments for abandoning the study of the Old Testament Scriptures since they have been “replaced” by the New!  I sincerely believe that this attitude comes from a Sunday School mentality of Old Testament study.  Since people are being taught the Old Testament as a collection of isolated morality tales, they can’t understand how they can be relevant to adults.  They don’t understand what they are missing, because they have never really been taught Scripture as a serious, historical document.
How then should we teach the Scriptures to children?  I’ll share my ideas on this tomorrow.

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