Awhile back I was at the mall food court after church, and one of my four year old teachers came running up to me saying he needed to talk. He had taught that morning and honestly I was little worried what might have come up in his class. Then, I saw the smile on his face. He said, ‘you won’t believe it, all of the kids in my class understand the word repentance.’ He was excited that the kids in his class were getting a grasp on the foundational truths of the gospel.
The sad truth is that in recent years we’ve watered down the gospel, especially when it comes to children’s ministry. We’ve fed children cleaned up stories of people from the Bible and focussed on the wrong details. We’ve focussed on the people instead of God. We’ve spoon fed kids a sanitized version of the truth instead of giving them the gospel facts. We’ve told ourselves that kids are too young to understand or that they’re not ready to learn or that we don’t want to scare them. And, instead of giving them life giving truth it’s as it we’re dangling a carrot in front of them but never allowing them to taste and see the good news of Jesus. Unfortunately, in many cases this has led to children growing up hearing about Jesus, but never really getting to the heart of the gospel, never really understanding their need for salvation and the work that Jesus did on the cross in their place.
Thinking back to that day in the foodcourt, I’m thankful that my church doesn’t take the easy way out. As I was writing the lesson for that week, I believe it was the story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19, it would have been easy for me to think, they’re 4, they can’t understand a change of heart resulting in outward behavioral changes… so let’s focus on the tree and the short man and talk about not being mean to people. That would have been an easy lesson to write. But instead of taking that route, I did the hard work of figuring out how to explain repentance to 4 year olds…and to 7 year olds…and to 11 year olds. My goal in curriculum development is that at any age children understand the basic tenants of the gospel and see over and over again their need for Jesus.
So, how do you teach repentance (or any big word for that matter) to 4 year olds?
- You focus on how the word is used (even if the word itself isn’t there) in Scripture. In the case of Zacchaeus’ repentance, you focus on the change in behavior that you see in him in the story. You look at what his life was like before meeting Jesus and what it was like after meeting Jesus. You look at how his focus changed. You talk about how Jesus brought about that change, not something that Zacchaeus did.
- You use the word. Kids of all ages love learning new words and adding them to their ever growing vocabulary. You say the word and have kids repeat after you. You write the word for them to see it. You read verses that use the word.
- You define the word simply without loosing the meaning. For repentance, the definition we use with kids is “repentance is when someone turns away from sin and turns to Jesus.”
- You illustrate the word with a game or an activity. When teaching on repentance I like to write ‘Jesus’ on one piece of paper and ‘sin or world’ on a 2nd piece of paper and tape the papers on opposite walls in the room. I have all of the kids stand facing one of the words and ask if they can see the other word. I ask if they can look at both words at the same time. I ask if they can walk toward both words at the same time. I remind them that the word repent means to turn around. I have them walk toward the word sin and then say ‘repent’ and have them walk toward the word Jesus. We talk about how when we’re walking toward sin we’re also walking away from Jesus and when we’re walking toward Jesus, we’ve turned our back on sin and are walking away from it. We talk about how repentance is a complete life change.
- You apply the word to their lives. You use age appropriate examples to help explain the truth. With repentance, you remind children that the Bible says we are all sinners. You ask them what they are thinking about when they sin (maybe when they sneak an extra cookie after mom said no). You talk about how sin keeps us focussed on ourselves and how we can’t worship God or focus on Him when we’re sinning.
- You pray for understanding. The most important thing to remember when faithfully proclaiming the Gospel, is that in the end it’s God who does the work. He is the One who will open kid’s ears to hear the truth. He is the One who will change hearts. He is the One who will give children the faith to believe. Our job is to be faithful to the Word. Pray that God would give them ears to hear and hearts to understand. Pray that God would take your efforts at proclaiming truth and use it for His glory. Pray that He would change hearts.
One thing that I never want to be accused of in children’s ministry is backing away from the clear proclamation of the gospel. I never want to be afraid to use the big words. This past year, in our curriculum for ages 4+, we’ve tackled sin, repentance, faith, regeneration, conversion, election, adoption, justification, sanctification, glorification and more. It hasn’t always been easy, but my hope is that by hearing these words, and hearing them used and defined and explained, at age 4 and age 7 and age 11, that we’re building a gospel foundation in the lives of the kids in our church and that one day God will open their eyes to see the truth and give them faith to believe and they’ll have a foundation ready to be built upon.
As a reminder of the importance of teaching the gospel even to the youngest amongst us, let me share one of my favorite quotes from Spurgeon…. “Christ crucified is not a riddle for sages, but a plain truth for plain people; true, it is meat for men, but it is also milk for babes.”