Teaching Children About Sin Versus Protecting Their Self Esteem

Thanks for joining us for another session of the Children’s Ministry Think Tank. The purpose of these posts is to address some of the sticky issues that come up in real world kids ministry. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment at the end of the post.

Question: Thinking about Sin and Self Esteem

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?

Response From Brenna Phillips

The Bible speaks clearly about obedience. We have a great responsibility to be obedient to God. We can learn from the kings who ruled Israel and Judah that there are consequences for having a lack of obedience. Some kings began their time of reign as good kings who followed God’s ways but somewhere along the way, they lost their focus and traveled down the wrong path leading them to destruction and often death.

How do we teach sin to children? We teach them that it is our responsibility to be obedient. We love God; therefore, we are obedient to follow His ways. When we lose that focus and are not obedient to God then there are consequences and punishments.

We are obedient to God by being obedient to our parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults. When we mess up and are disobedient, that is called sin. Sin separates us from God. Sin can be big, like stealing something that doesn’t belong to us or hurting someone else even as far as death. Sin can be something smaller, like saying unkind words to someone or treating others badly. God loves us but He hates sin. God wants us to follow His ways and obey His commandments and rules.

Think about a river. As the water flows in a river, it picks up dirty mud, trash, and pollutants along the riverbanks. This trash floats in the water making it very dirty. Sin is the trash in our lives that makes us dirty. The cross upon which Jesus died is our bridge across that “dirty river.” When we accept Jesus as our personal Savior, we are walking across that bridge to God where we are clean and free from sin again. It is our responsibility to be obedient to stay clean and follow God’s ways and commandments.

The parents of the children involved in the children’s ministry at my church have not had any responses to teaching about sin. They are appreciative that I teach their children on their levels of understanding.

Brenna Phillips is the Children’s-Family Minister at Mission Fellowship Church in Middletown, Delaware, and teaches 3-4 year old students at an early childhood learning center. www.brennaphillips.com

Response From Terry Delaney

I believe first and foremost we have made an idol of self-esteem. While we do not want to “beat” the children up with talk of sin, I think we need to start at a very early age explaining to the children what sin is. We are told to teach “these things” to our children in Deuteronomy 6. The “these things” being referred to is the book of Law and it is there where you find what sin is exactly as well as what obedience to God looks like. By not teaching our children early in life what sin is and what it is not, we create the exact opposite of what Paul wants us to be in Romans 12:3–that we not think as highly of ourselves as we ought.

Teaching them about their depravity (I would not use that word in talking with the kids) is actually quite simple. If you continue to show the kids what the Bible says about their disobedience, the Holy Spirit will begin to work in their hearts. We really do not need to do much other than hold them accountable to what Scripture says. We should always compare them to Jesus Christ as the ultimate role model rather than having them look to another child who is acting obedient. When compared to the standard of Christ, we all fall short of the glory of God.

Unfortunately, I have found that I need to teach the parents more about sin than the children. The kids know they are sinning, but they also know that mom and dad will let them get away with it. Parents have bought into a psychological understanding of rearing their children that does not corroborate what the Bible teaches–that we are all sinners from birth. The children usually understand more readily that they are sinning than the parents. For those parents who do begin to make that paradigm shift in their minds, I have noticed a major attitude change in the children. It is amazing what a biblical understanding of your child will do for your ability to discipline properly.

By teaching children early in life that their disobedience to mommy and daddy is actually a sin against God lays a wonderful, biblical foundation for the gospel later. I have seen this in my own son who just turned five years old. He told us the day before his 5th birthday that “Jesus cast Satan out of my heart.” He said he was tired of sinning and wanted Jesus to forgive him. While we are not ready to dunk him and declare him to be a Christian, we have noticed that the Spirit really convicts him of his wrong doings and that when we challenge him with the Bible he readily conforms to Scripture.

Terry Delaney is the Children’s Minister at Carlisle Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He writes at Christian Book Notes.

Response From Wayne Stocks

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?

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS:

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!

PARENTAL REACTION

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!

Read more from Wayne on his blog “Dad in the Middle

Response From Jeri Tanner

Great topic, and a truth that parents and other teachers should examine and wrestle with in Scripture if necessary, until it has been come to terms with. I’ve seen devastation in the lives of children and adults who haven’t grasped the implications of our depravity—our inability to please God apart from the work of Jesus Christ. We all need to comprehend more deeply our need for the Savior. And we need to understand why instructing our children in these truths, at the appropriate level for their age, can’t begin a moment too soon.

The doctrine of depravity, understood and taught correctly, will not damage a child’s self-esteem; in fact the opposite is true. This doctrine provides the only true hope for mankind, as it both explains what we see all around us and offers the solution for it. Apart from a firm grasp on the reason for our own sinful behavior and inclinations, we’ll turn to moralism and legalism as ways to transform behavior; ways that are surely doomed to fail! Helping our children to grasp the sweetness of the gospel of Christ in light of our stubborn opposition to God will cause us and them to know we are loved for eternity. That’s self-esteem worth having!

Of course, a two year old cannot grasp all this or its implications. But as children progress in maturity, the real dilemma of their souls can be understood more and more. As we share with them how we all were (and are) “in the same boat” with them, so to speak, children do not see their own badness in any untrue sense. Carefully and regularly teaching them the gospel, going back to the fall of our first parents in the Garden of Eden and God’s subsequent promise to send the one who would crush the serpent’s head and save us from our sins, should become the best news they have ever heard.

Parents in the church may not be familiar with these gospel truths themselves, and may be offended when we tell their children that apart from Christ there is no righteousness. I have sympathy for any distress brought about by it. Wisdom, patience, and humility are called for. The greatest ministry of the children’s department can be to parents, helping them grow in doctrine and godliness so that they can instruct their children in the things that lead to salvation.

Jeri is a wife, mom and member of Christ’s body in Trussville, AL. She is writes from Ministry-To-Children.com and serves the children in her local church.