What do we think of when we mention theology and teaching children together in the same breath? There are many schools of thought on this. On one end of the scale there are those who say “Jesus loves you and that’s all you need to know”. They believe children don’t need theological discussions at their age - just let them enjoy everything God can give.” At the other end of the scale are those who want to give the kids every theological point in every children’s talk, and teach Biblical truths in a way the children cannot understand or are upset by. Only last year I heard of a leader who told children that they are enemies of God and they must repent to put it right. The theology was correct - but the way it was taught for the age and stage of these mainly unchurched children was completely over the top.
Neither of these ends of the scale is good. The first is what I call “tweeology” - warm and fuzzy with no substance. The latter I call thugology. It is also dangerous and can damage children in it’s delivery. I believe there is a case for teaching our kids good theology, in a way that they can understand, that prepares them for living in the real world as they grow physically, emotionally and spiritually.
In saying I want good theology for our children I am aware that some might think I just want to hammer Biblical truths into their heads. This is not the case. I come from a church background where I was taught how bad I was and very little about the love of God. My brother was held up as an example of what not to be to his peers, because he dared to go against the man made rules of the church (He left the ‘Church’ for good - not surprisingly.) It’s worth noting here that I no longer attend that particular flavour of church! My heart’s cry for kids is for them to have solid teaching - no tweeology, but no thugology either!
1 Peter 3:15 says:
……. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.……….
My questions are : Can our children and teenagers do that? Can many of our young leaders do that? And if they can, can they do it in a way that doesn’t appear thug like to the person they are telling?
We spend a lot of time looking at the theology of children – and that is great, but how much time do we spend on making sure we are teaching good theology to our children? Because I perceive “tweeology” to be the greater issue here, this will be what I spend the most time discussing.
I believe, that in an effort to make things accessible and politically correct for the children, in many cases all we have succeeded in doing is watering down vital parts of the gospel.
Over the last 10 or more years I have been told over and over again that we should not use the term “Father” when talking about God because we may upset those who, for whatever reason don’t have a Father. I firmly believe that we have done the children a huge disservice in teaching like this. Having been in children’s work for over 21 years, I have the pleasure of talking to young adults who have grown through this style of teaching. Those people where the Fatherhood of God was taught sensitively and well, say that being taught about God being their Father was their “saving grace”. The knowledge that God was the best dad ever, even when their own dad wasn’t around, helped them to grow in their faith with confidence. Those who had this vital piece of teaching withheld – for all the best reasons, often still struggle with relating to God in the intimate way that a father and child should relate. I know of two children’s workers who didn’t have a father at home, and both would agree with this. One was taught about Father God and one wasn’t. The one that wasn’t regrets the fact that he wasn’t taught this, and has spent many years trying to relearn how he can relate to God as father. The one that was taught about God as Father says this was what brought him to God and stopped him from slipping away again - in his words “It’s what saved me” Both teach about a loving Father God where ever they go.
Within that frame work of teaching, we have correctly tried to find a way of teaching about God’s love and Jesus’ death by teaching that God/Jesus is our “special friend” or a “friend that doesn’t fall out with us”. I would like to ask; when do we move the children on from this aspect of God and teach
them more? Being such an ancient Kids worker, I now have the children who were first taught in this way coming through as leaders, and find that many of them still have only that basic understanding of Jesus as friend. They have no realisation of redemption, forgiveness, and sanctification. (Yes I know they are big words!)
The knowledge that God loves them is a vital component in the teaching of children, and a good premise to start from. But sometimes we shy away from all the amazing truths surrounding this fact - the “what” “why” and “how” of that love. We think that we can teach the finer points later, only to find that later never comes. Conversely, going to the other end of the scale (The one my sunday school started from!) and start with the idea of being just a worm, sunk in the depths of depravity with an urgent need for repentance is not helpful either! Yes - repentance is necessary, but so is gentleness!
As the leaders who have only been taught the “Jesus loves me and that’s all I need to know” tweeology have grown into adulthood, they believe that they “chose to follow God”, whereas in reality – God chose them. Their faith is based on how God makes them feel, not on the reality of repentance, redemption, sanctification or even forgiveness. They often have no understanding of who they are in Christ. The true realisation that they have authority and have been forgiven has not been fully understood. Not knowing the full extent of God’s love has had huge implications in their Christian walk and is bourn out by the fact that I spend a lot of time counseling children’s workers about self image, guilt and assurance. If you don’t know the truth, then the devil’s lies are harder to refute! But we are expecting them to teach the truth to our children….
Like the Fatherhood of God issue, I believe our children are again being robbed of a true and full relationship with God by teaching in a tweeology or thugology way.
Children can understand these big theological issues using the right teaching techniques. We often teach children aged 5 -7 years old and have been amazed and humbled at their understanding when we have taught them. One young lady showed her understanding of sanctification by saying “I’ve already got Jesus in my heart - how can I get him in further?’ A prayer on a prayer wall showed how a child had understood repentance “Dear God, I am so so so so so so sorry”. I must note here that we don’t go heavy on the “degenerate little sinner” idea with the children - we just point out what stops us being really good friends with God - and that Jesus can be our rescuer.
As a child I was given the passage about the whole armour of God to learn off by heart, but no one taught me that these were my tools, given to me to use, always at my disposal. How much more could we give our kids if we together physically put each item on - explaining what protection each item gives! I have an amazing picture in my mind of a very small five year old holding a full sized sword, and then having it swapped for a Bible whilst being told that the Bible was even more powerful. The look on her face as she held that Bible and the realisation hit her was awesome.
We do a simple puppet sketch on justification where another character in the story takes the blame for something the puppet has done. In brief, the story closes with the character who has taken the blame saying to the puppet who fears they will get punished now others know; “It’s ok, I’ve already done the punishment - you won’t have to. Say sorry and mean it, and then say thankyou - and mean it!” The day after we did this and told the children to share the story with their parents for discussion, a parent approached us saying “could I speak to you for a moment”. Our heart always sinks when we hear those words, but this time we were greatly encouraged as he said “ yesterday I spent a whole hour in a seminar wrestling with the theology of justification. Afterwards my daughter taught me in five minutes, using words she could understand what justification is - and she was taught it by a large white rabbit! Thankyou!”
It is often those people who have only have a basic understanding of their faith who are now responsible for teaching the next generation. I hear stories mis-told, vital facts left out or misquoted, passages taken out of context and misunderstood. The greater issue is that of tweeology with these leaders. But on the other side, those who have been taught heavy theology without the balance of love and a true understanding of who they are in Christ are hammering the children either into a fearful relationship with God or out of the church completely.
In the distant past, revivals have begun with a young child claiming that people need to repent – do our children even know what this means now?
From knowing true forgiveness there flows the knowledge of no more condemnation, the ability to forgive and accept forgiveness, and the assurance of heaven.
As our children grow physically – we move them from milk to soft food to meat. Every parent will know that when a child is faced with a huge chunk of meat – we lean over and cut it up for them – we don’t take it away and give them a sloppy milk meal instead.
I’m all for teaching the gospel in an understandable way, but we do need to make sure that we start adding meat – by cutting it up, not mushing it up!
In Latvia, where I see the full message of God’s love and sacrifice taught, and leaders who don’t shy away from teaching all of God’s truth, I find young men and women who are secure and unwavering in their faith. Coming to faith is called “repentance” there, and that phrase is explained clearly. I see young people studying God’s word, fasting and praying, expecting great things from God and seeing them happen.
No, it isn’t all perfect over there – but God is moving! And I believe the fact that the children are given the full truth – cut into little pieces – is part of the reason why.
The Bible states in John 8:32:
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Let’s set our children free!