Nurture Children in the Way of Jesus
In this series we’re addressing five principles for effective ministry to children. We’ve discussed blessing children with Jesus’ love, relating to them at their level, and involving them in our lives. We now turn to the fourth principle: nurturing children in the way of Jesus through teaching.
Before we discuss the content of that teaching, let’s be reminded of our motive: we teach to glorify God by loving children in his name. Motivated by God’s redemptive love for children, we seek to help them become and then grow as disciples of Jesus. We teach both through modeling and instruction. In this article we’ll focus primarily on teaching children about Jesus’ life and love.
I remember well attending Sunday school as a young child. I loved the stories from the Bible about David and Goliath, about Jesus walking on water, about Jonah and the whale. But what I didn’t learn clearly was the gospel of salvation by grace alone, received through faith in Christ alone. And thus my formative religious training was about biblical characters and events, but not about the joy of Jesus’ life and love for me.
Because of this teaching deficit, I fell prey as an older teen to a false gospel—a gospel of behaviorism and legalism that was not really the gospel (good news) at all. But thank God he is faithful and relentless in pursuing us. He did not abandon me to deficient teaching, and by his grace I came to understand and embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And so I make an impassioned plea to Christian parents, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, children’s ministry workers and others who teach children: teach them the one, true authentic gospel. Teach them about Jesus and his redeeming life and love. Take them to the cross, the empty tomb, the resurrection, the ascension and promised return of Christ. Lead them through your teaching to their Savior, to his grace, and to a life in his service as stewards of that grace.
Does this sound too complicated for a child to understand? Not at all! The gospel is simple enough for a young child to understand. If we are clear and consistent in our teaching, the message of God’s unconditional love always comes through. The entire Bible, when understood in the light of the gospel, conveys the over-arching message of Christ and him crucified and raised for us.
When we teach about David and Goliath, we can use that story to direct children to love and depend on their Savior, despite the Goliaths in their lives. When we teach about Jonah and the big fish, we can use that story to speak of following Jesus faithfully and about Jesus’ death and resurrection to secure our salvation. In short, we teach the whole Word of God to reveal fully the living Word, who is Jesus.
Where is the cross?
One of my seminary professors is fond of evaluating his students’ sermons with this penetrating, diagnostic question: Where is the cross? I recommend using the same question to evaluate teaching curricula and individual Sunday school lessons. Where in this teaching is the cross?
As teachers and even as parents we have children for only a few precious hours each week (and even each year). What will you teach them through those hours? My plea is that you teach them the gospel about Jesus.
And as you teach, remember not to "dumb down" the gospel for children. Certainly we want to communicate at their level of cognitive development—using words they understand and teaching techniques that capture their imaginations (for more on this see the March Odyssey article "Building Believing Children"). But teach them the full gospel.
From time to time some wonder if a young child can understand enough to be a disciple of Jesus. (They usually frame the question as "Can a child be saved?" or "When is a child old enough to be baptized?") My answer is that Jesus invites children to him—why not be his tool to help them come, to help them meet Jesus, and to help them follow Jesus?
A young child can understand being sorry for harming others (repentance); the need for forgiveness that cannot be earned by trying to be good (grace); trusting God to rescue them rather than relying on themselves (faith); and living life in that trust through actions that express love for God and for people (Christian ethics).
These are key gospel concepts that form the key components of our teaching. All sorts of biblical stories make these points in powerful, memorable, child-friendly ways that even young children can understand and embrace.
We are blessed in this day to have an array of teaching resources at our disposal. I suggest that you visit a good Bible bookstore and spend a few hours looking at some of the teaching curricula.
Many stores will let you take some resources home to preview them before deciding on a purchase. Many of the curriculum publishers provide free samples online that you can download to preview. As you evaluate these, remember the diagnostic question: where is the cross? Jesus does not have to be the primary character in each lesson, but he should be the primary goal.