And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
My earliest childhood memory is a pre-kindergarten Sunday school class. I suppose I was four years old—maybe even younger. Our church was an old, imposing building that smelled like someone's attic. The windows in our classroom were huge, and I loved the way the sun shone in. I was mesmerized by those little particles of dust that dance in the sunbeams in a dusty room.
I clearly remember one Sunday sitting in that room and learning the song "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam." Our teacher eagerly pointed to the huge streams of light coming in the windows, and she tried to make them an object lesson.
The only trouble was, none of us understood anything about metaphors. All I could think of when we sang that song were those shiny little specks floating in the shaft of light, and I couldn't figure out why Jesus would want me to be one of those. I loved the song, but I have to admit it made no sense to me.
That memory is so deeply etched in my mind that even today when I hear "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," I am immediately transported back to that old room with the big windows, and those little flecks of sunlit dust come to mind.
My own kids are now older than I was then, and one day several years ago it suddenly occurred to me that the earliest memories they would carry to adulthood had already been formed. Nearly everything they are learning now will stay with them for the rest of their lives. That's a scary thought for a parent.
Most Christian parents will admit to being somewhat intimidated by the weighty responsibility Scripture places on us. Our task is outlined in simple terms by verses like Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go" and Ephesians 6:4: "Bring [your children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."
Understanding our solemn duty as parents ought to provoke a certain amount of fear and trembling. Then again, it needn't paralyze us. Teaching spiritual truth to children is a joy. No one is more receptive, more hungry to learn, or more trusting than a child. Chances are, you'll never find more eager disciples than your own children. Don't squander the opportunity.
Let me suggest five practical principles to remember as you teach your children spiritual truth.
1. Understand that children can grasp the essence of almost any truth.
Among all the biblical admonitions for parents to teach their children the Word of God, not once is there a disclaimer or warning of any kind. There's no PG rating on Scripture—none of it is inappropriate for younger audiences. All Scripture is for all ages.
Don't hold back teaching your children because you think they aren't ready. Though they may not fully understand some of the more difficult spiritual concepts, children can grasp the essence of almost every truth. In fact, they are better equipped now to assimilate spiritual truth than they will be when they are older.
That's why Jesus called for childlike faith: "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all" (Mark 10:15). What makes a child's faith different from an adult's? Simply that children refuse to be troubled by what they cannot understand.
Face it, few of us understand the concepts of infinity, eternity, or omnipotence any better than we did as children. We may speak of those ideas with more sophisticated terminology now, but our finite minds still cannot grasp the complete reality. Don't be afraid to admit that to your children.
When my youngest son, Jonathan, was in kindergarten, he was fascinated with the truth of God's omnipresence. He constantly tried to think of someplace God can't possibly be. "Dad, does God go to the Cubs' games?" he asked. I explained to him in simple terms what David said in Psalm 139: "Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Thy hand will lead me, and Thy right hand will lay hold of me" (vv. 7-10). I assured Jonathan that if God is in all those places, He must endure the Cubs' games, too.
And then I admitted to him that I'm just as baffled by this truth as he was. So was David. He wrote, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it" (v. 6).
Amazingly, Jonathan was not the least bit troubled by my admission of ignorance. On the contrary, he seemed greatly comforted to know that he was not alone. He accepted the truth with the purest kind of faith.
2. Avoid figurative language and unexplained symbolism.
Often adults—like the woman who taught me the sunbeam song—mistakenly believe an allegory or figure of speech will clarify some great truth. With children, those things often only obscure the truth.
Unfortunately, the language most frequently used in children's evangelism suffers from this flaw. "Invite Jesus to come into your heart," we tell children. What child doesn't think of a red, valentine-shaped organ with a little door? It is actually easier and more precise to explain faith as complete trust and unconditional surrender. Most young children can grasp those ideas sooner than they can understand the metaphor of a door in their heart.
Children think in vivid imagery. When we talk, for example, of a heart dark with sin, the mental picture they see is quite literal. Ask a group of children to tell you what the song "Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain" means. You'll begin to understand just how literally they think.
Nothing is wrong with using symbolism or figurative language to illustrate truth to children. Many excellent children's stories, fables, and fairy tales demonstrate how effective allegory can be. But all the symbolism must be carefully explained. Younger children especially do not have the ability to interpret figurative language independently.
3. Clearly separate reality from fantasy.
Children today are bombarded with fantasy and make-believe. Saturday-morning television, super-heroes, and fantasy toys have all reached unprecedented levels of popularity.
Even Sunday-school curriculum feeds our kids huge doses of fantasy. Some of the finest material available includes stories of personified forest animals and other imaginary creatures.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with that approach. Fantasy can be a legitimate and valuable tool for teaching children. But don't neglect to draw the line clearly between what is reality and what is fantasy. If the lesson includes both a tale about Ronald Raccoon and the story of David and Goliath, make sure your kids know which story is make-believe and which one is actual history.
I'll never forget a conversation I had a few years ago with a three-year-old girl. "The Incredible Hulk" was her favorite television program. David Banner, the character who turns into the Hulk when he loses his temper, was the only David she knew anything about. She sat through an entire Sunday-school lesson thinking he was the David her teacher was talking about. In the version of David and Goliath she recounted for me, David "hulked out" and ripped the giant's head off! It took me a while to sort the story out for her.
4. Find out what your children are thinking.
Debrief your kids after Sunday school. It's great fun, and you'll find out exactly which truths they are learning and which ones are going over their heads.
One of the most interesting people I have ever known was a four-year-old named Holly. My wife and I used to watch her for several hours each day while her mother taught half- day kindergarten. Holly and I quickly became close friends, and we had many profound conversations.
Holly was exceptionally well behaved and had an extraordinary interest in spiritual things. One day, however, she seemed determined to be naughty. I don't remember exactly what she was doing wrong. It was nothing serious, but it was out of character for her. After having to speak to her about her behavior several times, I asked in frustration, "Holly, what's wrong with you today?"
"I don't know," she sighed. "I just can't seem to get my life straightened out." Her tone was so solemn and sincere that I had to suppress the urge to laugh. "Well, what's the problem?" I probed.
"I think it's the Disciples' fault," she said in dead earnest.
Thinking she was talking nonsense to try to cover for herself, I spoke in a tone that said I was irritated: "Oh, come on, Holly. How could the Disciples have anything to do with whether you misbehave or not?"
Her eyes got wide and she leaned forward as if to let me in on a deep secret. "They were very evil men."
Now I felt caught. I didn't want to dismiss the conversation without... Read More