The Biblical Mandate
God places great value on our passing his instruction on to succeeding generations. He told Israel not to forget what they had see, but to 'teach them to your children and to their children after them' (Deuteronomy 4:9). He required diligence in that instruction: 'Teach them to your children talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates' (Deuteronomy 11:19-20). And Paul repeats the theme when he tells us 'Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord' (Ephesians 6:4).
Yet many observe that our children frequently do not remain in the church, and if they do, they don't know very much about the faith. Children who have been in church every Sunday can't describe essentials of salvation: sin, judgment, forgiveness, faith, atonement, justification. They can't name the books of the Bible, the apostles, or other important facts. They are unable to describe the primary functions of the church or the traditional spiritual disciplines.
"Tell Us Some Stories!"
Recognizing the love kids have for storytelling, those who prepare children's curriculum for Bible study focus on the narratives of Scripture, which can be especially powerful in conveying God's redemption story if used properly. The main problem with most prepared children's curriculum, and with educational programs used by most churches, is that the narratives are not given proper context: they focus on the faith, obedience, or attitude of the human actor in the story; how we should emulate (or not) the various characters; or some other secondary, peripheral or other theme that might not even exist in the text. The story of Cain and Abel might focus on anger and brotherly love, rather than on obedience to God in worship. Noah and the ark might focus on Noah's skill in shipbuilding and animal husbandry, but neglect explanation that the flood was God's judgment on sin. And lessons on events in Jesus' ministry might emphasize his love and compassion, but omit his demands of righteousness and obedience.
This leaves our children without the whole picture -- or with an easily distorted picture -- of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus and of our need for redemption and God's gracious provision. For the church that desires complete biblical instruction for its children and youth, several steps can be taken to ensure that its content is complete and biblically sound and that it is faithfully and lovingly conveyed.
To ensure effective children's curriculum:
- It must be comprehensive. Most children's curriculum repeat the same stories year after year, leaving kids with a stale knowledge of Noah's Ark but will little understanding of God's redemption story. By contrast, a two-year plan could easily accommodate teaching the complete Old Testament and New Testament story. Moreover, a plan to teach the basics, with other important materials, by grade six can be very effective. Any good education plan will be intentional about what material will be taught and on what timetable.
- It must have Godward focus. Most narrative focus on things other than that for which they were intended. Good curriculum will teach three things about each story: what it says about the condition of man, what it says about the character of God, and how it fits into the overall redemption story. Curriculum that focuses on other themes is in danger of treating God as cosmic magician or entertainer, performing great deeds for our amusement, or of treating stories as life lessons akin to Aesop's Fables.
- It must include memorization. Children have great capacity to learn vast amounts of data, which they will, at some point, be able to assemble into meaningful understanding of redemption and of their own need for salvation.
- It must include application. All teaching should aim to affect at least on of the following: belief, attitude or behavior. Much teaching will involve all three. Children and youth should be taught in each lesson that God expects them to be different, in some way, as a result of what he has taught us.
- It must be challenging. Teaching for both children and youth must challenge them intellectually and morally. It must not be abbreviated, the difficult subjects must not be diluted, and the unpleasant topics must not be avoided. If we tell children for more than six years that Jesus says "you are my friend" but they later learn that Jesus actually says "you are my friend if you obey my commandments" we have done them no service, and have created an integrity problem for ourselves. As youth get older and are able to use logic and rhetoric, they no longer will depend solely on narrative but their education should also include didactic instruction.
- It must be taught. Teachers must teach. They must believe the word, obey the word, live the word. And learners must learn. They don't decide what they want to learn about and how it applies. Jesus said to "teach them to observe all that I commanded you," not what they want to hear or what will make them happy.
Children and youth are capable of much more learning than we typically think. We should be good stewards of the mental and moral instruction and take advantage of the ability to teach them during their formative years. Our teaching should be intentional, it should be planned well, and it should be diligently executed.