I was honored this month to be asked to write for the fifth installment of the Children’s Ministry Think Tank over at Ministry-to-Children.com. It is one of my favorite recurring features out there in the Children’s Ministry blogging world. I like it so much that I wrote an article about it several months ago called, appropriately enough, Children’s Ministry Think Tank. Each installment has also been featured in The Children’s Ministry Blog Patrol.
The topic for this month is:
“How do you teach the doctrine of sin to children without harming their self-esteem? Especially with preschool children, how explicitly do you teach them about their own depravity? How do parents in your ministry respond to these issues?”
I have included the entire text of my answer below, but I would encourage you to check out the other responses on the Ministry-to-Children.com website. You can get there by clicking on this link to Children’s Ministry Think Tank #5 or clicking on the logo above.
In my response, I indicate that I feel it is foundational that children understand five different things about sin in order to understand the concept. Those are:
- What is sin?
- Where does it come from?
- Who sins?
- What are the consequences of sin?
- What is the solution for sin?
Anyone who has read any of the posts here on this blog probably has figured out that when I start writing, I sometimes get really wordy. When I mentioned that to my wife, she just chuckled. So, apparently my wordiness is not limited to this blog. Anyhow, I had written a section for each of these five components which made my submission to the Think Tank ridiculously long. Tony, from Ministry-to-Children.com, very politely let me know that he had to cut them out of the Think Tank for purposes of length but suggested that I post them as a series here. So, recognizing a great suggestion when I hear, that is what I intend to do. Beginning this coming Monday, and continuing through Friday, we will take a break from some of the regular series on this blog and look at how each of these components of an understanding of sin should be taught to children!
The following is the text of my response as published on Ministry-to-Children.com:
When I first got the e-mail asking me to participate in the most recent Children’s Ministry Think Tank, my first thought was “I hope I am qualified, and I am certainly humbled to be in the company of the other writers in this series.” My second thought focused on the term “self-esteem” in the question. I was inclined to share my opinion on the psychologically created idol of self-esteem. I was all prepared to remind everyone that the Christian life is all about God and not about us. I was fashioning language to express the truths of how big God is and how small we are. I was looking up the verses about not esteeming ourselves (Romans 12:3) and how any esteem we have should come from God (James 4:10). Then I decided not to go down that route and instead answer the broader question “How do you teach the doctrine of sin to children?” I think the answer to that question will implicitly answer any issues of “self-esteem.”
An understanding of sin is foundational to the gospel. Without sin, there is no need for the cross. Without the cross and resurrection, there is no Christianity, and to paraphrase Paul, we are to pitied above all men. So, how do you teach the doctrine of sin to children?
I believe that it is essential that kids understand five different things about sin in order to really understand the concept of sin. Those are:
1. What is sin?
2. Where does it come from?
3. Who sins?
4. What are the consequences of sin?
5. What is the solution for sin?
This post is already much longer than I had anticipated, so I will try to keep this short, but I think there are some practical considerations that should be taken into account when teaching elementary age children about sin.
First, at that age, kids tend to be literal thinkers. Although I think the concept of sin is natural to them (it is evident in their own lives), it is still a concept and the more concrete examples you can provide the better. That said, be careful not to overemphasize behaviors as sin and remember that sin is more about heart attitudes than the actual behavior which they manifest.
Secondly, repetition is key. The more you can reduce the concept to small “sound bites” and repeat those, the more likely they are to retain them. For example, an explanation of sin can be quite lengthy. This article is proof of that! But, if you boil it down to the minimum, sin is “Doing what we want to do instead of what God wants.” Use that phrase, or whatever you come up with, over and over. Have the kids repeat it with you. Even something as simple as “Everyone sins. Everyone!” can help to drive the point home when repeated over and over.
Thirdly, find ways to help kids internalize these ideas. Don’t just tell them that everybody sins, explain to them what sin is and have them come up with ways that they sin. Make a game show out of it. I can hear it now…. “Welcome to a brand new edition of ‘EVERYBODY SINS!’ Join us as we find out how normal everyday people have sinned this week.” The topic is serious, but the presentation can be fun and help the kids to internalize the concepts using examples from their own lives.
Next, I don’t think you can do justice to the idea of sin in one 30 minute teaching. Consider doing a series. You might consider a five part series dealing a little more in depth with each of the sections addressed above.
Finally, above all else, don’t underestimate kids. Don’t discount their ability to comprehend because they are small. I have a blog in which I address various issues related to Children’s Ministry, and I find this point coming up in virtually every article I write. If I could impress one thing on people about working with kids it is this – “they are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for!” The ideas they grasp, their simple take on complex concepts, their ability to comprehend, and their openness to ideas astound me more and more every week! Let me give you an example from my personal life. My son, who is now eight, was learning about sin and the cross. One night when he was four, my wife and I were having a particularly hard time with our teenage son, and I had lost my patience and started to yell. My five year old came up to me and said, “It’s OK Daddy, the devil made Josh’s heart black for now, but God wants to make it red again. He just needs to ask God to do it!” I’ll say it again…don’t underestimate their ability to comprehend!
I have not gotten any feedback from parents as of yet on this issue, but I am a father of four children and in a position to talk about it from that perspective. I do know that many parents are somehow able to divorce the ideas of the Bible from their own kids in their minds. Parents don’t like to accept that their kids are sinners. How can that innocent little bundle of joy that they just brought home from the hospital actually be a depraved being steeped in sin since birth? If you’re going to teach kids about their sin and that everyone sins including their parents, you should be prepared for some feedback.
If you’re planning on doing a lesson or series with your kids on sin, it might be worthwhile to suggest to your pastor or leadership that the whole church have a bit of a refresher course on the topic. There are too many churches where the issue of sin and the consequences of sin are not giving nearly enough attention.
I think a lot of parents who do teach their kids about sin put too much focus on behavior. “You know lying to Mommy and Daddy is a sin.” or “Hitting little Billy is sin.” I know that I have been guilty of this in my own childrearing. I think we can help parents both on this issue, and in parenting in general, by steering them to issues of the heart. Finally, parents must understand that no matter what we teach kids at church on Sunday, ultimately the Christianity which their kids will likely live out is the Christianity they see their parents living Monday through Saturday!