“And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children […] Teach them to you children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6, 11:19)
“And that from a child though hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation…” (2 Timothy 3:15)
Can children under 13 be Bible students?
Can they actually open up the Bible and dig through it to learn about God?
A Barna poll published under the title Evangelism is Most Effective Among Kids came to the fascinating conclusion that the “primary window of opportunity for effectively reaching people with the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is during the pre-teen years.” It is during these years that children develop their long-lasting theological and moral frames of reference, the study continues. “Consistently explaining and modeling truth principles for young people is the most critical factor in their spiritual development.” In other words, we have an immense effect on our young children’s Bible literacy, and their impressionable, young age is fruitful soil.
While my children were toddlers, I thought I would wait until they were “old enough” for me to teach them with the actual Bible. Teenage years seem perfectly appropriate since they are older and able to read, write, and think critically. But helping our children own their faith and know their way around the Bible shouldn’t begin when they turn 13. In fact, remembering that our elementary aged kids will become our tomorrow’s teenagers should embolden every mother in becoming actively proactive in equipping their children with the tools of Bible study they so desperately need in our day and age.
Jesus Speaks: Let All Children Come
Children under 13 are capable of making important spiritual decisions. The same Barna poll concluded in 2004 that nearly half of all Americans who accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior did so before reaching the age of 13 (43%). They continue to state that “people who become Christian before their teen years are more likely than those who are converted when older to remain ‘absolutely committed’ to Christianity.”
From the Old to the New Testament, children of all ages have been diligently taught, equipped, trained in the words of the Scripture. Paul credits Timothy for knowing the Bible as a child. Joseph taught Jesus the Lord’s own precepts. God commands familial teaching-learning sessions of His laws in Deuteronomy. Jesus even sternly warns his very own disciples to not hinder any child from coming to Him.
I wonder, are we somehow hindering our own children from coming to Jesus by presuming their littleness can’t possibly be filled by the gospel words? Moms, are we allowing our awareness of personal limitations and perceived inadequacies to hinder us from courageously opening the Bible and leading their little hands and minds through it?
From Bible Story Books to the Actual Bible
There are many beautiful, colorful, Bible story books for children out there. They are creatively designed and written to speak about the truths of God. My family and I own various copies of such books. We’d often choose one from our kids’ pile and gather around to read and talk about it. Its simplicity of vocabulary and cheerful pages make for many fun family storytelling nights.
But I wonder if these fun, colorful, simple Bible books constitute the full extent of Bible content to which we, as Christian parents, are exposing our children in our homes. It’s not that these storybook tools are bad. The best of them can be quite helpful in showing the big picture of the storyline of the Bible. It’s just that they are meant to be a supplement, not a displacement of exposure and familiarity with the God-breathed scriptures.
Used appropriately, these tools can enhance the biblical truth, but they should never replace the actual Bible. Children love stories, and we should use storytelling to teach them God’s Word. They also can memorize, and we should use this skill to help them internalize God’s Word. But even beyond that, as invaluable as story-telling and Bible verse memorization are for kids, it is also possible to help them begin to study the actual Bible as well.
A Practical Way to Begin Teaching Your Kids the Bible.
My little children are not Christian yet. In opening the actual Bible and sharing it with them, their father and I are praying that they will be engaged in the story, empowered to understand it, invited to see the reality of our lived-out faith, inspired to pursue God, and certainly equipped to know how to look for God on their own in the years to come.
(The tips and suggestions below are designed for kids approximately 1st grade and older. Of course, a child’s ability to study the scriptures develops as they develop in literacy. I’m using these with my three daughters in 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade.)
- Set a time that works with your family. Every Saturday morning, my three daughters (7, 9, 11) and I gather around in our PJ’s and casual weekend mood for our now much anticipated Mother-Daughters Bible Study. We celebrate this “girl” time by making a big deal of it, talking it up ahead of time, and observing it, most often, with hot chocolate, milk, and coffee.
- Choose your materials. For our study, I chose the ESV Scripture Journal because it allows for writing definitions, themes, charts, thoughts, questions, next to the biblical text we are studying. Each daughter received her own copy of the Bible and personalized it with her name, drawings, colors, stickers. In addition, each one received their own pen and highlighter. These gifts cheer up the girls and certainly keep the time unique and special!
- Create a guideline of questions. With the help of my husband, I created a girly bookmark with some very basic questions we want our daughters to learn to ask themselves and use as a guide for discussion.
- Circle the words you don’t understand from the text (consult a dictionary—we own a Children’s Dictionary, but you could use your phone instead). As a mother who speaks English as a second language, I understand very personally the importance of words explained and meaning pursued beyond the surface of basic wording of any text. Be prepared to spot ahead of time words that are repeated the most and/or carry significant weight in understanding the main points. Come up together with a simple synonym that best explains the word and have them write it on top of the word in the text for future reference. Teach them that the Bible is relatable and written to be communicated to people.
- Underline words or sentences you don’t understand. As you read together through the text, there will be words and passages they will not understand. And that’s to be expected. Anticipate and recognize the passages that will pose challenges to their little mind. Don’t get stuck in elaborate explanations either. Instead, acknowledge such passages as part of the Bible’s more complex story, and move on. The point is that you are helping them get through the passages, not get stuck or overwhelmed with lengthy explanations.
- What is God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) like? Write down some simple attributes you are learning about the Trinity. Each text you are studying will exult God’s attributes and character directly, or indirectly. This simple question will train their little minds to learn to read the Bible with a God-centered frame of mind. The Bible is always first about God. Training them to see and discover His character, attributes, descriptions—will benefit them for the long run. Make a chart on the empty page beside the text with everything you are learning about God, Jesus, and/or the Holy Spirit.
- What is something you are learning about what people are like? The Bible is a book about God to people. People are the recipients of God’s written words. Show the children that God knows all people, in all the ways, at all times, in all the world. There will be times when the text focuses intently on the sins of some people, or on the courageous faithfulness of others. The Bible is a hands-on, raw and realistic display of human hearts and attitudes. Help them see this perhaps with more examples from your own family. Draw out for them the important truth out that the Bible is just as pertinent to our present time and region, as it is to the biblical time and culture you are studying!
- Write one lesson you learned about/for your own life. This step is very important even for little children. You have the blessed privilege to exemplify for them how to apply this last question. The Bible is personal, intimate, and speaks to every soul. Draw a simple, applicable truth in your life from the biblical text. Show them how to appropriate and apply God’s Word from your own testimony. Live it out for them. Their little minds need training in not only reading God’s Word, but also in learning to personally apply it in their own lives. Keep it simple and applicable, remembering that their answers will vary according to their age and maturity level.
- Show them how to do it. Our children will benefit greatly from seeing our pen and highlighter move across our own Bible. Modeling for them the study of God’s Word will help them best internalize and then externalize these tools on their own. While older children may have mastered this activity faster, the little ones may need your hand to guide them at first on how to follow through with each step. There may be times when you need to spell very simple words to more complex ones. Celebrate their moments of learning and growth. Ask an older sibling to spell out some words, anticipating the needs at hand.
- Lead the study. As their mother, I have private knowledge on each of my daughter’s reading and comprehension level. I am confident each one can take turns and read a portion of the Bible. I often stop and ask basic each one age-tailored-questions about the text: Who is this text talking about? What is happening in this sentence? Where is the story taking place? How is God responding to the events? Why is this happening? I also ask them to define certain words for me to probe how much they understand about the reading. Studying together means exactly that: studying. Getting deep into the text together. Digging inside for meaning and truths. Wrestling with the text with my girls. As I lead them in the study together, hopefully, they will understand that studying the Bible is work, but it is an eternally rewarding kind of work!
- Allow them to respond. They may know the answer right away, or they may try to come up with some sort of answer. I usually wait a little to see how they resource themselves to answer my questions. I also pay attention to the talking/silent mouths in the mix. I have daughters who want to answer all the questions and others who would rather pass. I call on specific daughters at random times. My purpose is not to embarrass them, but to help them verbalize what they are thinking and help them participate by asking questions, or asking for help. Keep their interest in the study. Celebrate the right answers, and gently correct the wrong ones. The point is that they are trying to interact with the text and learn their way inside it.
- Be excited. As a former professor, I know that often the leader’s enthusiasm sets the tone for the students’ excitement of learning. Be passionate about studying together! They will learn to love what you love, even if just for reciprocating your enthusiasm at first.
- Always bring it back to the Gospel. Ask, who in this text saying is out of order with what God says? In what ways am I prone to be out of order with what God says? What heroic person or a heroic action in the text points to Jesus? Explain none are just like Christ, the ultimate hero, so we need to trust Him.
- Be prayerful. As believing parents, our prayer is for our children to embrace Jesus as their Lord and Savior and to learn to study and love God’s Word. But I am aware that since my children are very young, that may take a while. My goal in studying the Bible with my daughters is to share with them the living gospel of Jesus and allow the Spirit to do the saving work in their hearts through the living and active words of God. Bringing them, as young as they are, to the best book on earth and in heaven is one of the deepest ways I can possibly think of loving them as their mother.
Teach your children the Bible with excitement and passion. Model the significance of your faith in their lives. Take the lead in their spiritual growth. While they are young, expose them to the reality, power, relevance, and absolute glory of a God who, in Christ, meets them anywhere and anytime in the Bible. May our children grow and mature into young adults who love to hear, read, study, and delight in the eternal Word of God!