By Aaron Earls
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” but sometimes there are still barriers between Him and the youngest in our congregations and communities. Unintentionally, water is poured on nascent flames of spiritual growth, and young discipleship is hindered.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a church member, parent, pastor, or KidMin leader who would say kids aren’t important,” said Bekah Stoneking, a content editor for Explore the Bible Kids and a volunteer in her church’s kids ministry. “But often our actions speak louder than our words.”
Right now, churches are more likely to hold in-person worship services, have adult small groups, and host student activities than they are to have children’s activities, according to a February 2022 Lifeway Research study. There are, obviously, numerous pandemic-related reasons as to why churches have been hesitant to restart kids ministry events, but the point remains that fewer congregations have prioritized the regathering of kids compared to the rest of the church body.Fewer congregations have prioritized the regathering of children and the restarting of kids ministry compared to the rest of the church body, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
But beyond issues related to our specific moment, certain issues often plague the kids area of the church. Congregations accept anyone and everyone to serve in the children’s area. Parents treat kids ministry as little more than free childcare. Leaders don’t prepare a discipleship plan for the youngest churchgoers, or volunteers don’t implement it. And everyone assumes the smallest hands can’t hold and handle the biggest truths.
But for Stoneking and others, churches, parents, and older believers have a responsibility to teach biblical theology to children and students in our congregations—and to do it well.
Kindling spiritual imaginations
As a practicing pediatric physician, Scott James works to make kids healthy. As an elder at his church, he recognizes spiritual health is an aspect of that. James, author of Advent- and Easter-themed family worship books and children’s books like Where Is Wisdom? and The Sower, says his writing theological works for children at large flows from his desire to communicate truths about God to his own children in ways that will kindle their spiritual imagination.
James says we teach theology to children because “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ” (Romans 10:17, CSB). “As we introduce our children to the beautiful message of the gospel and encourage them to trust in Christ, we should make every effort to help them learn and grow in their understanding of—and obedience to—God’s Word,” he said."If Christianity is true, God is real, sin is pervasive, and Christ has done what the Bible says He has done, then we have responsibility to train up our children in the faith as early as possible." — Devon Provencher Click To Tweet
Devon Provencher, co-author of the Big Theology for Little Hearts book series, noticed many solid resources for older children but not as many for the youngest ones. “Young kids are remarkably influenceable and pick up our language early in life,” he said. “If we love our young ones, why would we withhold the most important truths from them? I don’t wait until my kids are older to teach them how to cross a street. If Christianity is true, God is real, sin is pervasive, and Christ has done what the Bible says He has done, then we have full responsibility to train up our children in the faith as early as humanly possible.”
Stoneking notes an emphasis throughout the Bible on teaching children (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Proverbs 22:6, Mark 9:42-49) and the inclusion of stories involving children (2 Chronicles 34:1-2, John 6:1-13). Jesus’ own life and ministry include going to the temple as a child and later welcoming children and explaining how the kingdom of God belongs to them.
She says families and churches shouldn’t miss this opportunity to provide kids with foundational biblical truths. “Developmentally and mentally, children’s brains and bodies are primed to learn,” Stoneking said. “This is the best time. We’re remiss if we don’t harness it.”“Developmentally and mentally, children’s brains and bodies are primed to learn. This is the best time. We’re remiss if we don’t harness it.” — Bekah Stoneking Click To Tweet
Yet, for various reasons, many churches don’t invest in teaching their children theology. “In every other area of life, parents, aunts and uncles, teachers, and others who love children desire and expect the best for their kids. But the way we do children’s ministry often suggests the opposite,” said Stoneking. “Children deserve our intentionality, a discipleship plan, committed teachers and disciplemakers, and classroom and other ministry experiences that go beyond just playtime.”
Fanning flames of truth
So what would it look like for a church to value kids and prioritize their theological education and development? For starters, it would include actually believing they can handle the heat of deep theology.
Provencher says there’s an unfortunate tendency among churches to avoid big theological truths like the Trinity, the gospel, and the incarnation. “While it may be fun to rehearse all the kinds of animals that might have been on the ark, we should not shy away from the core truths of the Christian faith,” he said. “Whether or not they fully understand the gospel, it instills in them the language of the Christian faith which, Lord willing, will one day help them to walk in the faith.”Kids can do hard things, and this includes learning theology. — Bekah Stoneking Click To Tweet
According to Stoneking, many churches often draw the wrong conclusion about the difficulty of theology. Instead of deciding to invest the effort into teaching it well, some just avoid it completely. Theology is hard for adults as well, she notes, but churches still recognize the importance of teaching theology to grownups even if they don’t understand everything.
“If I asked you to solve a long division problem with decimals, you’d probably get sweaty—but second graders are learning that now,” she said. “Kids can learn new languages, solve problems, win championships, and do so many things that I would struggle to do—if I could do them at all. Kids can do hard things, and this includes learning theology. We may have to vary our language and our approach. We’ll definitely need patience and intentionality for the long-haul, but kids are ready. They can do it.”
Not only are kids ready for deep truths, James says they’re hungry for it. “They are far more perceptive than we generally give them credit for,” he said. “Their age or developmental status certainly informs how I communicate weighty matters or big theological truths, but I do my best not to shy away from it.”
James says kids demonstrate their grasp of big concepts “because often their follow-up questions are so profound, they stump me. But that’s part of the fun, because then we get to seek and learn and grow in our understanding together as we dive into God’s word.”
And getting kids regularly into God’s word while they’re young is the best predictor of their spiritual health as adults, according to a 2016 Lifeway Research study.
Pouring fuel on the fire
There are specific actions churches can take to lead the kids in their care into deeper theological truths. For starters, James says churches should avoid compartmentalization in two ways."Be wary of compartmentalizing the Bible in a way that gives children the false impression that the Bible is a series of disconnected stories." — @scott_h_james Click To Tweet
“First, in your teaching, be wary of compartmentalizing the Bible in a way that gives children the false impression that the Bible is a series of disconnected stories,” he said. “Help children see the interconnectedness and unity of Scripture, that it is telling one big story from start to finish, and that Jesus is at the center of it all.”
Secondly, James warns of compartmentalizing kids and students away from the rest of the church. “Age-specific ministries can serve children and families well,” he said, “but I would also encourage churches to be very deliberate about incorporating young people into the life of the church. The body of Christ is richer for it, and the intergenerational blessing flows both ways.”
Provencher says churches and parents should keep in mind teaching theology is, in some ways, like teaching anything else. “Before kids can evaluate something, it must be known, and in order to know it well, they must be exposed to it consistently,” he said. Because of this, he says he and his wife “strive to put our kids in front of theological truths all throughout the day.”
For the church, Provencher says he can’t think of a more powerful way to disciple the next generation than by introducing them to the God who saves at the youngest possible age. “Strive to shape your children’s ministries around the full, rich, and beautiful truths of the Christian faith,” he said.“There is no junior Holy Spirit. The same Spirit in me, ministering to me, teaching me, indwells every believing child." — Bekah Stoneking Click To Tweet
Stoneking says as churches teach theology and build their ministry around God’s word, they should remember the Holy Spirit indwells every believer, no matter their age. “There is no junior Holy Spirit,” she said. “The same Spirit in me, ministering to me, teaching me, indwells every believing child.” Yes, adults and children have different cognitive abilities and vocabularies, Stoneking said, but that doesn’t negate the work of the Spirit. “We obviously need to be considerate of age or developmentally appropriate conversations, but we can trust the Spirit to do His work—in both leading us and giving us wisdom in how we teach, and in opening kids’ hearts, ears, and minds and helping them understand.”
In the end, not just the children, but the entire church benefits from centering kids ministry around teaching biblical theology. “The longer I serve in children’s ministry, the more I laugh and realize how much kid ministry is for me, too. The time invested cultivates the fruits of the Spirit, gives me opportunities to be sensitive to the Spirit, forces me to wrestle with the Word and understand why I believe what I believe, forces me to know the Word and know theology so well I can communicate it to a child, and challenges me to grow,” said Stoneking.
“Teaching theology to kids helps them in their faith development,” she said, “and is a spiritual act of worship for the teacher.”
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.