Thursday, July 5, 2012

Why Most Children's Bible Study is a Waste of Time

As we celebrate Independence Day in America, I'm once again reminded of how blessed we are. American parents live freely to teach their children the values that matter to them in peace. As a parent, I want my children to love studying the bible.

Many adults love studying the bible's laws, principles, prophecy, and stories. I want my children to grow up loving these things, too. But how do you teach the bible to very young children, in a meaningful way?

Not all bible passages are created equal. Long genealogies teach us that historical portions of Scripture really do provide real-life, historical accounts of events that actually happened. But a 4 year old and 2 year old couldn't really care less about that. Why should they?

And some accounts of events aren't rated "G." In fact, some aren't even close. The bible narrative contains violence, sex, and any number of things that would make a marvelous Harlequin novel apart from the whole "Jesus" thing.

For five years, I've wrestled with the search for some way of organizing our family's time in the bible so that it's meaningful. So that I don't leave anything important out. Do you face a similar struggle with young children?

So, what's the problem?

In America, we have access to literally thousands of "bibles" written for children. Why not just pick one? They have stunning pictures of giant whales, huge boats, and everything necessary to stir a kid's imagination. What's the big deal?

Every book, devotional, plan, and curriculum I've seen over the last 5 years has at least one of three problems:

1. It treats the Bible like a magical fairy-tale storybook.

"Oh, look! Isn't that a big boat! Let's go watch Barney now." My children have many books on the shelf. Everything from "Green Eggs and Ham" and "Hop on Pop" to "The Story of Jesus." What's the difference between these 3 children's books, in the mind of a child? "Jesus" is just another character, like "Clifford" or "Big Bird."

Most children's devotionals and bibles turn God's rescue plan into a fairy tale. They eliminate the seriousness of the endeavor of bible study. I want my children to enjoy bible study, but not at the expense of knowing the true character of God. The bible is not a book of children's stories.

Don't think that has an impact? I regularly visit with folks on a college campus that believe the bible is just a collection of fairy tales. Many of those folks grew up in Christian homes, where their parents believe the bible is the Word of God. What happened?

2. It leaves out essential parts of the Bible narrative.

Parts of the bible are very graphic for young children. I understand that. But certain parts are essential. You can't gloss over creation. You can't skip the Exodus, or the ten commandments.

Why not? Well, the bible says that the law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. If bringing them to Christ is my goal, how can I skip the tutor God has given us so we can get to the next exciting bible drama?

3. It focuses on the character of the children reading it, instead of getting to know its Author.

I want my children to live Godly lives. No question about that. But what's the point of them doing "the right thing," if they never know Jesus? They'll follow all these "rules," look like perfect little Christians, and lack the essential ingredient they need from bible study. They'll grow up knowing how to act like "Christians," but they won't know Jesus at all.

Sure, they'll know about this Jesus, that lived long ago. How He was an amazing teacher that taught the Golden Rule, and to "be kind" and "love one another." But so did a lot of other religious leaders, right?

I talk to these folks all the time, too. I want to do everything in my power to keep my sons from becoming one of these. Why? Because that is a wide path that leads to destruction.

A Singular Focus

The bible study I do with my children must focus on one thing: Who Jesus is. In creation, in the law, in the accounts of "exciting" events, in the sermons, in the crucifixion, in the resurrection, and in the events that followed. Right on through who Jesus is today.

"Jesus answered and said to him, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'"
John 3:3

Not only can you not enter Heaven apart from being born again - you cannot even see the kingdom of God.

And my boys won't be born again by developing Godly character. They won't be born again by interesting stories about a giant fish, or lion's dens, or enormous boats filled with cute, colorful animated animals.

Only by knowing Jesus will my kids be born again. And when they see Him, they'll be like Him. That's just a bonus.

"And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”
Jesus, in John 12:32

When Jesus is lifted up above all the things this world wants to teach my children, He will draw them to Himself.

So as I study with my kids, I ask 2 simple questions:

Who is God?
Who is Jesus?

Godly character occurs supernaturally when God gives you a new heart. Until then, I'm trying to put lipstick on a pig when I teach my kids to do good things. Does that mean I don't teach them to make wise choices? Of course not.

But our bible study is the place to provide context. Why do we make good choices? Let's get to know Jesus. The more you know Jesus, the more everything else comes into focus - supernaturally. The more you know Jesus, the more you'll develop Godly character - supernaturally.

And that's no fairy tale.


  1. Amen. Honestly... you really don't need "curriculum". If you study the Bible yourself and are living that example in front of your children then do we honestly need curriculum? This year Ashley and I had decided to do Kay Arthur's inductive Bible study youth curriculum. And that is because she teaches inductive skills way better than I ever could. And guess what? I have been teaching children's church without any curriculum for years. I teach verse by verse on a child's level incorporating inductive skills so they can learn to study the Bible for themselves. In ever chapter we study Jesus as the main focus in both old and new testaments. So why can't you do this with your children at home? This would help with your frustration over curriculum, right? I agree with your post here. And as I said on facebook... curriculum is just a guide. Take it or leave it. Well-written post here!

    1. Thanks, Yvette. I always appreciate your expertise, especially when it comes to homeschooling.

      The problem I've had with going without curriculum is finding a logical way to divide things up in bite-sized chunks for little attention spans.

      I came across a plan I hadn't seen before last night:

      It has 12 sections, 30 days each section. Each day's reading is between 5-15 verses in a logical sequence, and it seems to be pretty thorough (without the graphic "R" rated stuff but with the emphasis on the BIBLE itself).

      We'll probably finish the A Beka series and then start something similar to this, going slowly through the bible ourselves.

      You're right in what you said on Facebook, though: I'm extremely grateful for the mammoth amount of help and resources we have available. It's just that I have to guard against letting those resources be the teacher.

      Good stuff! Thanks for sharing.

  2. As children's pastors, my husband and I use a multimedia curriculum to lead our classes. The lessons are valuable ones, wrapped up in slick graphics and amusing stories, meant to make them more palatable to youngsters. And I can attest that the kids do enjoy them.

    But I sometimes wonder whether they are having any lasting impact on the children. I often find myself saying things like, "Come on, guys. We studied this last week! Who can tell me what Jesus said about this issue?" Why don't they retain what we studied? They repeated the bible verse (with actions for the kinetic learners). They sang the songs. They laughed at the stories and played the games. All these activities were meant to reinforce the lessons we were trying to convey. So, why is it like pulling teeth to get them to recall these lessons later?

    Are they playing dumb, because it's not cool to pay attention to sunday school? Are the lessons and verses actually locked up tightly inside their little hearts, ready to spring into action when real life lays out the appropriate stimulus? Or are they really not getting it? If not, how can we reach them more effectively?

    1. Thanks for your comment, and you asked great questions.

      I'm no expert. I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I'm constantly reminded that this battle we face for our kids is a spiritual one. And what they need most is to fall in love with Jesus, so they'll flee to Him. He'll take care of the rest. It's a spiritual battle.

      Charles Spurgeon said (and I paraphrase) that when he preached, he would read the text and head as fast as he could to the cross. He contended that no matter what the text, it pointed to Jesus and what He did on the cross.

      When I read to my kids, I'm not like: "Who is Abraham?" "Wh0 is Jonah?"

      It's "Who is Jesus?" What does this tell us about who God is? As we continue to show Him to them, He will supernaturally open their hearts to repent and believe the Gospel.

      Pray and preach the Gospel. Show them who Jesus is, and keep showing them what makes Him so special.

      Paul said that we shouldn't be conformed to this world. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of our minds. That renewal comes when we see Jesus clearly. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world." Let our kids see the light of Jesus, and darkness will be easy to spot.

      Much prayers for your service. Show those kids Jesus. Could there be any more exciting calling than that?

      Thanks for sharing in the discussion. :)