Archive - April, 2015

Great Story-Telling and Sound Doctrine

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Many years ago, I watched a movie that, in a sense, took my breath away. It had beautiful imagery, a storyline that gripped your heart as you were swept into the characters’ thoughts, feelings, joys, and sorrows. Soon ,I found myself even cheering the characters on as the story unfolded. That’s the power of great story-telling…and the danger also. How so? Because this particular movie told a story alright, but it was a story that, when examined by a discerning eye, was glorifying sin, unfaithfulness, and adultery!

The example points to the following: Great storytelling can be a great gift, or a great danger. This should especially be kept in mind when we use storytelling as a means to convey the narrative of the Bible to children.

A Gift

Great storytelling can bring the Bible alive, as it were, and encourage the mind and heart to be in awe of God as we see His ways and purposes unfold. Great storytelling can promote love and trust in the living Savior. It can stir up longings to follow Jesus and walk in His ways. In short, great storytelling can be used to convey and explain essential doctrines of the Christian faith by communicating them in a compelling, exciting, memorable, and comprehensible manner for children. The stories of the Bible “sweep them off their feet,” as God’s majesty and saving work is displayed. What a gift!

A Danger

Great storytelling can convey skewed, confused, or even false doctrine. How? By presenting the story in a manner that is so pleasing to the mind and heart—gripping a child’s emotions—that it leaves a lasting, but faulty impression regarding the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Doctrines such as the true nature of God, the essence of sin, and the meaning of the cross become lost, distorted, or confused. Adults and children may so well love the way the story is being told, they no longer see and assess it in light of the truth. And, depending on the extent that the storytelling deviates from the clear words of Scripture, it can be downright dangerous.

So, teachers and parents: Yes, look for Bible resources that offer your students and children great storytelling, but make sure that the story being told really is great— that it aligns with the truth of Scripture!

Here are 5 things to look for in evaluating story-based Bible resources:

  • How much creative license does the author use in retelling the Bible story? In light of Scripture, could the events have actually happened this way? When pondering what might have happened, does the author use appropriate language such as, “Abraham might have been thinking…” “Esther may have said something like,…”
  • Does the way the story is told contradict clear biblical teaching in any way?
  • Does the story attempt to explain the message (the truth of the text), or does it tend to change the message?
  • Does the storytelling use child-friendly language that is careful to keep the biblical integrity of the text?
  • Is the story told in a way that takes into account the whole counsel of God? For example, a Bible story may be used to emphasize the love of God. However, is His love conveyed in such a way that does not negate the totality of God’s nature—His holiness, justice, power, etc.

With the above in mind, here is a very brief example that illustrates the above concerns. First read the actual text of Jonah 1:1-2(ESV):

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (ESV)

Here is how this same passage is communicated in a very popular and well-written (in regard to storytelling) children’s storybook Bible:

God had a job for Jonah. But Jonah didn’t want it. “Go to Nineveh,” God said, “and tell your worst enemies that I love them.”

How does this way of telling the story measure up to the “5 things to look for”? Is this a regular problem throughout the resource, or a “once in a while” occurrence? If it’s the latter, a parent or teacher can easily correct and explain this. But if it’s a regular problem throughout the resource, you may want to reconsider whether the resource is appropriate for your children.

Again: Yes, look for Bible resources that offer your students and children great storytelling, but make sure that the story being told really is great—that it aligns with the truth of Scripture!

(Image courtesy of digidreamgrafix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

Don’t be a Misleading Messenger

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I believe that God is able to bring about true repentance and belief in young children. Pastor Dennis Gundersen believes this, too. But he also wants to caution us and point out some important realities, especially regarding children growing up in Christian homes:

How common will it be to hear a profession [of faith] from a child who is being reared in a Christian home, especially in a home where biblical instruction and exemplary godly faith is presented to him frequently, perhaps even daily, God giving your family grace! Should we then actually be surprised to hear him say that he believes the things his parents believe?…

In such a family climate, can it then be considered a remarkable thing that a child says he believes the gospel which has been held before him and taught to him for so long, in so many ways and with so many appealing evidences of its power? I think we would be shocked if he were to say that he did not believe it…So, it would be foolish to conclude that a child is saved merely because he makes the bare acknowledgement that these things are true.

Please then, parents: be wise enough to not speak assurances about eternal safety to your child’s soul based on such shallow grounds. Love your child enough to not be a misleading messenger to him, in ways that you would never mislead another adult professing the same beliefs. Is this not the most common deception, after all, among adults and children alike?—to presume that because I know and believe these facts, that I am saved. How many are among those multitudes who are presuming that a mere acknowledgement of the gospel, which never affects the heart and life, is enough? And of all persons, a child is perhaps the least equipped to know his own heart in this matter. Don’t help him fool himself.

(Your Child’s Profession of Faith, copyright©2010, pages 51-53.)

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Bible Literacy in the Classroom— 8- to 12-year-olds

One of the greatest gifts a teacher can give students is to train them in how to study the Bible for themselves. By the time students have reached eight years old (third grade), they should be encouraged and expected to interact with more and more text during the lesson, including reading passages aloud. Their Bibles should be open more often than not. They should be able to quickly look up two or more passages of Scripture during a lesson and/or be able to examine larger portions of text. Doing this will require careful thought and preparation on the part of the teacher.

Teacher Tips

  • Be strategic in how many passages you assign the students to read aloud. If you have many texts to look at in a particular lesson, you may want to assign students to each look up a passage before the lesson begins, and then call on them to read their assigned passage during the lesson.
  • Use guided questions and explanations to help the children properly interpret the text
  • Have the children observe a text and note key words, phrases, patterns, and simple context, and then ask them to summarize the meaning of the text.

Here is an example: the parable of the unforgiving servant from Matthew 18:23-35. Because this is a parable, this story is best read in its entirety before asking any questions. Consider these options:

  • choose one or two students
  • assign 1 or 2 verses per child
  • you read it

Each option has some distinct advantages. Whenever possible, it is definitely preferable to have the students actually reading the text. However, for a long text such as this, there are also some disadvantages:

  •  Slow or quiet readers may cause the listeners to lose focus
  • Constantly changing readers may be distracting and lose flow of story
  • Too many difficult words to stumble over
  • Children may not be able to give the story the necessary/helpful tone

In this case, because of the above disadvantages it might be advisable for the teacher to read it. But there are ways that you can still encourage the children to follow along in their own Bibles. For example, in your lesson preparation, highlight several key words from the passage. Then explain to the children that, as you read the text to them, you are going to stop at several points, not saying the word that comes. They are to follow along in their own Bibles and, when you stop, they are to call out the next word. (This is another reason to have everyone using same Bible translation.)

Also, ahead of time, write out any unfamiliar words and their definitions on a whiteboard. An example would be to write out the following:

ten thousand talents = millions of dollars

a hundred denarii = a few dollars

After the text has been read, it is important to lead the children through a systematic series of questions in order for them to understand the structure and meaning. Also, whenever possible, ask questions in a way that requires them to really look at the text so that they really have to interact with it.

Examples of questions to ask from Matthew 18:23-35:

  • In this parable we have three main characters or people, who are they?
  • Look at verse 26. What does the word “imploring” mean?
  • According to beginning of verse 27, why did the king forgive the servant? What specific word does the Bible use to describe the king’s feeling toward this servant?
  • Why is verse 28 surprising? How would you compare the debt of the first servant to the debt of the second servant?
  • Who does verse 29 sound like?
  • Did the first servant respond like the king?  Why not?
  • What did the king do to the first servant when he found out what happened?
  • Look at verse 35. What is the warning in this verse? Who is the king in the story like, us or God?  Who are we to be like, the first or second servant? Are we more like the second servant sometimes? Is this pleasing to God?

As you can see, these questions are meant to take the students step-by-step through the passage. In a long passage, it is helpful to state specific verses you want the students to look at since it breaks up the text into smaller pieces that are easier to examine. Also, the questions then move beyond the story and are aimed at the heart—each individual heart. The text is not just giving information; it is challenging our own attitudes and actions.

You might also want to ask the students if they can think of other verses in Scripture that address the same theme. For example, ask the students: Can you think of other verses that talk about how we are to be forgiving? (e.g., in the Lord’s prayer, Ephesians 4:32) This challenges them to recall prior information learned and see how it relates to other texts, emphasizing a unity in the Bible’s message.

At this age, it is also important to teach the students about “context” where appropriate. For example, in this text, we could ask the question:

Why did Jesus tell this parable?

Look at the two verses that come before the story, verses 21 and 22.

Many people think that children of this age cannot handle serious Bible study. But our children can handle the “meatiness” of Scripture if we cut it up into bite-sized pieces and teach them how to chew it carefully.  What a wonderful feast to offer them!

(Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

When the Truth Hurts

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In my opinion, one of the main reasons teachers and parents hesitate to teach young children about the wages of sin is to protect their self-esteem. We don’t want children to feel bad about themselves. But that begs the question: Are they (and we) supposed to feel good about sin? Will avoiding the issue of sin help our children? Or will it tend to give them a foolish and dangerous image of themselves? Will they desperately seek the Savior if they don’t first understand and grasp the danger they are in?

Here is a real-life example: A teacher was alarmed because, after teaching a lesson about how we are all sinners and are helpless to save ourselves, one young child in the class broke down in tears. The teacher felt bad about the incident and wondered if we should be teaching this hard truth to children this age. Here is a way to approach this concern:

First, we must not hide this important truth from our children…it is essential if our children are to be saved. The reality of our sin and God’s judgment are essential truths of the Gospel message.

Second, the fact that the child wept about being a sinner and felt a sense of helplessness is actually a very good sign that there is a sensitivity to the terribleness of sin. The Holy Spirit may genuinely be at work in the child’s heart, bringing about godly grief and repentance.

Third, this is a great opportunity! I counseled the teacher to contact the parents about what had happened (they were believers), and use this as an opportunity, not to try to make the child feel better about himself—giving him the mirror of self-esteem and saying, “Look, see? You’re okay just as you are.” Instead, give the child a window through which to see a wonderful Savior, who stands ready to save you from all your sin!

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Be Explicit—Make the Connection

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Here is a really good reminder from youth minister Cameron Cole:

Biblical and theological knowledge have inherent value, but they carry far more weight when students understand their significance in the context of their whole life. In Matthew 4:4, Jesus teaches, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Christ points to his words of truth as necessities for life. When we simply teach kids doctrine with no practical application, we reduce Christianity to an academic exercise rather than the fuel of each day.

Given where students are developmentally, most of them cannot make the connection between biblical concepts and their life without a person explicitly explaining it. Furthermore, kids in this instant gratification culture want to know how matters relate to their life right now. This is not a cry for moralism or “relevance” (in the trendy sense of the word), but it does mean that kids need to know why the sovereignty of God affects their college decision and how the incarnation informs their use of social media. 

(From “5 Essential Phrases for Every Talk to Youth,” www.thegospelcoalition.org )

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A 3-Question Character Evaluation

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In years gone by, parents and teachers used to speak of “character development” in children. Books and curriculum were written to help encourage children toward godly character traits. Unfortunately, some of these resources tended to give children a mistaken view of godly character—one devoid of the Gospel and the need for true saving faith. Good little boys and girls on their way to eternal destruction! As parents and teachers, we must take the greatest care to constantly point our children toward the Gospel, with the desire that they would embrace true saving faith in Christ, and then grow in spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity=godly character. What might this look like in their lives? What kind of character qualities does true faith increasingly produce? Using Micah 6:8 as a backdrop, “…and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Randy Alcorn poses three questions to consider. Although these questions are not comprehensive in nature, they touch on some basic character qualities that should increasingly be evidenced in the lives of true believers:

Are my children learning to act justly? That is, to deal honestly and fairly with others, and to respect, care for and intervene on behalf of the weak, vulnerable and oppressed? (Or are they compromising in matters of morals and integrity, and passively accepting society’s mistreatment of those for whom God says we should speak up?)

Are my children learning to be merciful? That is, to discern with sensitivity the personal and spiritual needs of others in family, school, community, society and world, and reach out to them in love and compassion? (Or are they part of a clique that snubs the non-cool, or so absorbed in their own activities, interests and possessions that they don’t see or care about the hurting people around them?)

Are my children learning to walk humbly with their God? That is, to know him personally, to have a consistent daily time devoted only to Him, and to exercise a humility that recognizes His lordship and their servanthood for Him and others? (Or are they too busy to spend time with God, and too self-proud and self-sufficient to realize they desperately need God’s help to do all that is worth doing?)

(From “Training Our Children,” www.epm.org)

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Will Our Children Grumble about the Government? + Free Lesson

ID-10015357Every American tax payer knows what today is: Times up, your income tax returns and any money you owe is due. And if your children are like my own, they have heard a lot of grumbling from their parents about taxes and the government in general. Give me 10 minutes and I can give you 100 reasons to grumble about our government and leaders! But, is that how God would want us to view the government? Does the Bible give us a different perspective in how we should respond to paying taxes?

To help you and your students explore a biblical perspective on government (and even taxes), here is a free lesson from our curriculum,Your Word is TruthA Study for Youth on Seeing all of Life through the Truth of Scripture. Although written specifically for ages 13 and up, its content can be adapted for older elementary ages, too. Download the lesson, visuals, and journal pages here.

(Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

Obedience and the Gospel

With the growing emphasis on wanting children to be “gospel-centered,” there seems to be some confusion about the role of God’s law, rules in general, and obedience. Some would even argue that we shouldn’t emphasize obedience in children lest they fall into a salvation by works mentality—that ugly enemy, legalism. But in doing so, are we inadvertently reaping a generation that is increasingly unconcerned about obedience and holiness in the Christian life?

Here is a really helpful article by Owen Strachan, “Is it Anti-gospel to Teach Kids Self-control Before Conversion?” Consider carefully to his words to parents and the church in general:

…we should not make the mistake of thinking that obedience–even pre-conversion obedience–is antithetical to the gospel. It most surely is not. It seems to me that we are to follow the flow of Scripture in training our children. They learn the need to obey, the requirements of God’s holy standards, and we train them to do so (working from the Old Testament on up). But they quickly discover that they cannot ultimately fulfill the requirements upon them and must know Christ as savior if they are to be counted righteous before the holy judge (this is the miracle we discover in the New Testament). After their faith and repentance takes root, they are now empowered in an unprecedented way to obey and give glory to God. The Holy Spirit in us, through our union with Christ, provides a power and a motivation never before possible (this is what Paul and the apostles labored to help early Christians understand).

So: teach your young kids good habits. Teach them good manners. Train them in self-control. Model what being a Christian is like, and encourage them to follow your behavior. Instill in them that obedience is the cornerstone of being a child. Discipline them when they fail on this point. And consistently–though not mechanistically or fearfully–hold out their only true hope for life and faith, the message of free grace in Christ.

Your children will thank you after their conversion that you trained them in good habits, even as they will recognize that only the gospel truly sustains holy living.

(Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

I Spy God Almighty!—Family Activity

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It’s only 8 a.m., but already I have seen and heard mighty deeds of God.

  •  A red-winged blackbird sat outside the living room window and sang his marvelous song.
  • Rain is falling from the sky, gently watering the thirsty ground.
  • The long-dormant grass is coming to life again.
  • I gave my dog her antibiotic—a “wonder drug” that is curing her infection.
  • I have enjoyed a hot cup of coffee.

And, of course, I could go on and on. But to do this I need to first be on the lookout for the power and might of God in the everyday things of life. Too many times we simply miss out on what these “ordinary” things are meant to show us, namely, glimpses of the almighty power of God.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made… (Romans 1:20 ESV)

I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. (Psalm 77:12-14 ESV)

Here is a super-simple and fun activity to do with your children this week. It’s called, “I Spy God Almighty.” Encourage your children to be on the lookout for things that God has done through His almighty power. When they see, hear, or experience something that demonstrates God’s might, they should call out, “I spy God almighty!,” and then share what particular thing they saw. For added benefit, you could keep a running tab over a designated period of time, and then use the list as a means of prayer and praise to God.

(Image courtesy of Stoonn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

Going for Deep and Wide

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Here is a little assignment: What would you say best characterizes your church’s ministry to youth? What key words are used to describe its purpose, mission, and activities? (If you don’t know this off the top of your head, go to your church’s website and look for a link to youth ministries.) Now read these words from Pastor Kevin DeYoung in his post, “Reaching the Next Generation: Challenge Them With Truth”:

In his book on the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers, Christian Smith coined the phrase “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to describe the spirituality of American youth. They believe in being a good moral person. They believe religion should give you peace, happiness, and security. They believe God exists and made the world, but is not particularly involved in the day-to-day stuff of life…

Challenging the next generation with truth starts with honest self-examination. We must ask, “Do I know the plotline of the Bible? Do I know Christian theology? Do I read any serious Christian books? Do I know anything about justification, redemption, original sin, propitiation, and progressive sanctification? Do I really understand the gospel?” We cannot challenge others until we have first challenged ourselves. The “average” churchgoer must think more deeply about his faith. Many Christians need to realize, like I did one night in college when confronted with some of my own ignorance, that they don’t really know what they believe or why they believe it.

You’ve heard it said that Christianity in America is a mile wide and an inch deep. Well, it’s more like half a mile wide now. Christian influence is not as pervasive as it once was. I’m convinced that if Christianity is to be a mile wide again in America, it will first have to find a way to be a mile deep. Shallow Christianity will not last in the coming generation and it will not grow. Cultural Christianity is fading. The church in the 21st century must go big on truth or go home.

(published at The Gospel Coalition)

(Image courtesy of Susie B at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

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