I recently read a statistic about the overwhelming number of kids that grow up in church then leave as soon as they graduate high school. It got me thinking. Why are kids leaving the church in droves? Should we just blame it on the evil influences of culture? Are those of us who work in Children’s Ministry failing to give them enough information? Are we not praying for them enough? Is it just inevitable? What are we doing wrong? Most importantly, what if anything can we do to fix it?
One problem I have observed with many kids in our society is that they are taught WHAT to think and not HOW to think. We live in a time and a culture where many people just do not possess the mental skills to critically think through an issue and come to a conclusion on it. This failure to teach our kids how to think is a serious issue in the secular world where indecisiveness seems to be a virtue. But, it is critical in the spiritual realm where we must teach our kids that faith in Christ is not a blind faith but a considered faith. Faith is not a leap so much as it is a choice. In order to teach them these truths, it is critical that we teach them more than just who Jesus is or how to accept him – we must teach them how to question their faith and determine for themselves what they truly believe.
Both in Children’s Ministries and with our own kids as parents, we often focus on filling our kids’ minds up with information. We tell them the stories of the Bible, we encourage them to memorize scripture and we try to lay a foundation of facts. Sometimes we try to fill their hearts up with emotions. We teach them about the love of God and how to love other people. And, while all of this is necessary in the spiritual growth of our kids, I wonder sometimes whether we are missing the forest for the trees. Are we teaching our kids in a “just the facts” dragnet style? Are we emphasizing moral lessons to the determinant of the gospel? Are we teaching our kids what to believe without encouraging them to question their beliefs and figure out why they believe what they do? In my spiritual walk, I have found that two things solidify God’s truths in my mind and heart more than anything else. The first is teaching God’s truth to others. The second is critically working through challenges to my faith. Those challenges come both from other people and from me. A faith that is untested tends to wither and die. A faith that weathers the storm of critical analysis grows stronger and more enduring.
So, how do we encourage our kids to think about God and analyze their faith even at a young age? How do we teach them the critical skill of questioning their faith and working through the answers? How do we teach the essential skills of critical analysis? Here are twenty-two ideas for elementary age kids:
- Encourage questions. Every week in our Children’s Ministry we have some time for small group discussion or a craft for the kids to complete related to the lesson. Over the last year or so, there have been a number of times when we have asked the kids to draw or write something about their own lives related to the topic we discussed that weekend. And, every week, there are a number of kids who can’t think of anything to write or draw. By way of example, last weekend we learned about having faith in God when we are afraid. I had at least two kids explain to me that they have never been afraid of anything. By far the easiest week we ever had was when we asked kids to write down their questions about heaven. Rather than struggling to come up with questions, most of the kids were struggling to decide which question to ask. The point is clear – kids have plenty of questions! That is true in everyday life, and it is definitely true when it comes to matters of God and spiritual things. We should always encourage kids to voice their question. You never know when the answer may be the one the forever deepens the faith of a child.
- Draw questions out of kids. So, we’ve seen that kids have plenty of questions, but there are a some kids who just don’t want to ask them. Whether they are shy or embarrassed or whatever the reason may be, as workers in Children’s Ministry we must establish the kind of environment that not only encourages questions but draws them out from those kids who are reluctant to ask them. Ask kids what is on their mind. Leave time for questions and answers. Call on kids who may be reluctant and ask them to give you a question. Have reluctant kids ask the children who are less reluctant what they learned that weekend.
- Let kids know that it is OK to ask questions about God. Remind kids that our God is a big God, and he can take our questions. There is no question that catches God by surprise or changes his love for us. There is no question that God cannot answer. We serve a God who encourages us to test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:21)! Not only does God not object to questions, we must teach our kids that God actually loves their questions. Meditating on their faith is a means of worshipping God. Really trying to understand God’s word brings him glory, and God loves it!
- Model asking questions in your life. Kids learn best by example. We must model asking hard questions about God and about our faith. We must share with them how we have worked through our own questions about God. We can even suggest questions for kids to think about.
- Be prepared to answer their questions. When we’re working with kids to teach them how to think through their faith, it is critical that we be prepared. That means we must actively engage in the same kind of critical analysis in our own lives and in our own walks with God so that we can lead kids through the process.
- Try to lead the child to an answer rather than just giving it to them. It is easy to just answer a question – especially if you’re in a hurry. It is harder, but much more edifying, to help a child work through their question prompting them when necessary. For example, if a child asks you about the trinity, ask them what they know about it before launching into to your own answer. If a child asks you about a moral decision, ask them what verses they remember from the Bible which might be applicable. If you have to just give them an answer in the end, that’s OK. However, when the opportunity exists to lead a child to the answer rather than just give it, you should make the most of that opportunity.
- Never minimize a child’s question. Sometimes kids ask questions which seem simple or trivial or which are an annoyance in the grand scheme of trying to teach your lesson. That said, you must never minimize their questions. The question was important enough to them to ask it, and you should treat it with the same level of importance in answering. If you don’t, you risk building a culture where the kids do not feel free to ask questions.
- Try to figure out if there is a bigger question behind the question which was articulated. Another reason not to minimize any question is because the questions that children ask sometimes mask bigger questions which are on their minds. They may not feel comfortable asking the question that they really want the answer to, or they may not even know how to express it. Your job as the adult is to try to figure out what the bigger question might be and help your child to think through that issue.
- Be willing to admit when you don’t know the answer. Kids are pretty astute. If you try to fake your way through an answer, one of two things will happen. You will either teach them some flawed theology that could stick with them and harm their spiritual journey, or they will see right through you and no longer trust you to answer their questions. If you don’t know the answer to a child’s question, use that as an opportunity to work through that question alongside the child. What a wonderful opportunity to teach them exactly what critical thinking and evaluation of a question looks like! Teach them how to brainstorm answers, and use the Bible to come up with the right answer.
- Ask hypothetical questions. This encourages children to apply what they have learned. Give them age appropriate scenarios and ask them what they would do. If they’re wrong, don’t just tell them they’re wrong and move on. Encourage them to think through the issue and explain why they gave the answer they did. Encourage them to explore the other sides of the hypothetical question.
- Ask questions where the answer is not always God or Jesus. Kids will default to these answers at church, and with good reason! Most of the answers to the questions they are asked at church are either Jesus or God. Obviously our lessons will focus on God, but we must go out of our way to ask questions in such a manner that the kids will have to think about their answers.
- Ask open-ended questions. Simple yes/no questions and factual questions serve a purpose, but in order to get kids thinking, it is important to ask open ended questions. Don’t just ask who saves us, ask kids why they think God saves us. Don’t just ask who spent three days in the belly of a big fish, ask the kids why a fish? Don’t just ask where the tower was when God confused the people’s language, ask the kids what life would be like if everyone understood everyone else. Don’t just ask how many people Jesus fed with the bread and fish, ask why Jesus used the bread and fish rather than just creating more food. All of these types of questions force kids to think about their answers.
- Encourage kids to consider other perspectives. Ask them how other people they know might handle a situation. Ask them what they would say if they had to defend the opposite position on an issue you are discussing. Ask them why they think some people don’t believe in God. Teaching kids to identify and think about potential issues in their way of thinking (right or wrong) helps them to critically analyze what they believe and to arrive at a considered opinion rather than leaping to a conclusion or basing there conclusion solely on feelings.
- Encourage kids’ imaginations. Imagination spurs on the thought life. Encourage kids to draw pictures and make up stories. Show them a picture and ask them to tell you a story about. Help them if you must, but encourage them along the way to come up with their own story. In encouraging their imaginations, you are encouraging them to think and to think outside the box. You are encouraging them to pay attention to details. All of these skills are useful in learning how to think.
- Ask kids what they think something means before you tell them. Read kids a Bible story and encourage them to tell you what they think it means. Offer the kids a scripture verse and ask them to explain it to you. All of these exercises move us from teaching kids what to think to teaching them how to think!
- Teach kids to keep an open mind. Most kids, most people in fact, think they are right most of the time. It is important to teach kids how to keep an open mind. Once a child decides they are right and there is no reason to even entertain dissenting opinions, they have closed themselves off to thinking and analyzing their beliefs and positions critically. Truth is truth, and it can stand up to rigorous examination. There is no danger in keeping in an open mind. Ultimately we hope that our kids will have strong convictions and an open mind based on their own analysis of the evidence.
- Teach children that there is right and wrong in the world. In the post-modern, relativistic world that we live in, and that kids are subjected to every day, it is important that they realize that there is such a thing as right and wrong. However, it is not enough just to tell them this truth, you must show them why it is true. We must teach them that truth exists because God exists and that the Bible is the revealed truth of God.
- Work to move kids from the milk to the meat of Christianity. Dealing with children either as parents or in Children’s Ministry is an act of discipleship. All too often, we underestimate what kids are capable of. I think this leads to a tendency to teach knowledge rather than the acquisition of knowledge. Give your kids room to amaze you. Reiterate the elementary principals of the gospel, but work some meat into their spiritual diet. These issues will often lead to more thoughtful and deeper questions from the kids than the more elementary principals. I guarantee a talk about the Trinity will generate more questions than a lesson on how to accept Christ into your heart. There is room for the latter, but we must not ignore the former.
- Encourage children to talk about their doubts. Even kids have doubts. We must encourage kids to talk about them. Doubts left to fester can eventually undermine a child’s faith. Encourage kids to deal with their doubts quickly. Doubts are a great way to teach kids the art of how to think. If a child has a tragic event happen and doubts the love of God, ask them what they know about God’s love from the Bible. Point to examples of God’s love in their life. Point to examples of God’s love in helping you through difficult times.
- Teach them to actively listen. In order to think critically, we must be able to listen to other people. This entails a lot more than just hearing. Encourage kids to not only repeat what you have said but to tell you what they think you meant. Teach kids to hear people out and think about what they are saying. Explain to kids that you can’t listen to what someone is saying when your using all of your brain power to come up with your response before they are even done. This can be particularly hard with younger children who do not have a long attention span. However, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t encourage it! Make a game out of it. Be deliberate and repetitive about asking kids to tell you what they think about what they have heard. Ask them what they think about something one of their teachers or their piers said.
- Teach kids to love and to use their Bibles. In other words, teach them to think biblically! As Christians, we do not worship the Bible, but we worship him who the Bible teaches us about. Show your kids how to read the Bible. Teach them how to research issues and moral question in their Bibles. Show them how to use a study Bible. Talk to them about tools like concordances and word studies that can help them understand their Bibles. They may never use one, but just knowing they exist helps to plant a seed in children. Go to your local book store and buy age appropriate study tools and show them to your kids. The number of tools for even young children is amazing. I have seen children’s study bible, children’s bible dictionaries, children’s devotionals and so much more. Get kids into the habit of using these resources when they are young. Instill in them an understanding that the Bible is God’s revelation given to us to help us with our everyday lives. Help them apply the Bible to their everyday lives. Even with kids who are not old enough to read, you can teach them verbally how to use their Bible to answer their questions or decide on the right path.
- Encourage children to pray about their questions and their doubts. We must encourage kids to take their questions and their doubts to God in prayer. This may mean leaving a question hanging until the next week so that the child can pray about it. The next weekend, ask them if they have been praying about the question, and ask them what they have learned in their prayer time. Even with the skill of knowing how to think, it is important for kids to understand that God knows all and they should take their questions and their decisions to him.
Many thanks go out to a number of my personal friends and fellow workers who share the calling to minister to God’s children. Thanks for your input and your suggestions.