In the sunday school classrooms in which I taught years ago, each weekly lesson had a main idea that we repeated over and over. Platitudes such as “God loves me,” “I am special to God,” and “We are kind to one another” filled the teacher’s manual. Curiously, we did not see “God is angry at the wicked every day.” Unfortunately, twentieth century American Christians more often take our cues from Frobel and Montessori than from the Word of God. If we are to train up a generation of God-fearing Christians, we must change both the methods and content of what we teach our children. Yet, how can we communicate the immensity of the Word of God without overwhelming our little people? There is a tension between simplifying complex concepts and trivializing life-changing doctrines of the faith.
We must begin by choosing our Bible story books carefully. As a former editor, I have had the opportunity to evaluate dozens of new Bible story books. Frankly, most are abysmal. Before choosing a Bible story book, look to see if the writer uses words like “sin” and “judgment.” If the illustrations pass your family standards, be sure to emphasize that they are an artist’s representation of a real story.
We must fight against the “cartoon-ization” of the Bible and its message. Although there is nothing wrong with the medium of animation per se, if our children do not understand the difference between the account of Jonah and the story of Nemo, we will continue to see the generational breakdown that has characterized the last few generations of American Christianity.
Recently, our five-year-old, when questioned about hearing the biblical account of the annunciation, was asked, “Did you hear your name, Gabriel, in the story?” “Yes,” he answered, “but that wasn’t about me. That was about the real Gabriel. You know, like on Charlie Brown?” Oops. We have obviously failed to communicate well with our son.
When my second son was only four, his favorite Bible picture book included what I thought was a gruesome picture of David grasping Goliath’s severed head in one hand and enormous sword in the other. In my sentimentality, I prefered to present David as a little asparagus fighting a big pickle. But did that give an accurate picture of God’s people and the end of his enemies? (Admittedly, not all four-year-olds find consolation in pictures of decapitated giants, but it appealed to Luke’s highly developed sense of justice coupled with a perverse masculine gruesomeness he retains to this day.)
How much better is Jamie Soles’s “Bad Guys” songs in which the refrain is: “So may all your enemies perish, but let the righteous shine like the sun. We are the friends of God and He will save us because we worship his Son.” Certainly it is a much more accurate representation than the Noah’s floating zoo found in most children’s Bibles.
Think about the language we use with our children. Biblical language is always the best choice. Don’t shy from big words—justification, omnipotence (the boys love this one)—but give careful explanation for each.
While good story Bibles have a place, don’t forget to go straight to the source, even with young children. Often the content is not difficult for young children. Rather it is the length of the reading that poses a problem. Take that reading in smaller chunks. Focus on the narrative portions, but don’t turn every narrative into an opportunity to apply a moral lesson. And don’t shy away from the “small print.” By that, I mean don’t skip over the minor biblical accounts because you don’t know how to turn them into mini sermons. All Scripture is profitable, even the puzzling account of the visit from the woman of Tekoa to David.
One of the problems with sermonizing small selections of God’s Word is that we fail to communicate the true meaning of the text. What child doesn’t thrill to think of God’s voice calling: “Samuel!” into the darkness of the night? We forget to mention that the message God gave Samuel was a horrible prophecy against the household of the very man Samuel had mistaken for the Lord. I never heard “the rest of the story” told with the flannelgraph, did you?
We must trust the medium God gave us—the written word. With printed words, we must form pictures in our heads based on what we understand. When a child hears “Adam knew his wife, and she conceived” the picture in a child’s mind is very different from the picture in that of a married adult (I Corinthians 13:11). This is a blessing that both protects a child’s innocence while allowing the best teaching to happen.
The Bible is an amazing book that we should eagerly and accurately share with our children in Deuteronomy 6 style.