With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation just around the corner, Protestant churches (especially Lutheran ones) are celebrating Martin Luther with all bells and whistles clanging. For adults and confirmand this is an exciting and fascinating commemoration of church history. For younger students, games, crafts, and activities can make things fun. But the youngest of church-goers can certainly also benefit from actual information and learning about the Reformation. As Luther so often said in the catechism, “What does this mean?” Luther’s work was meant to help educate young children, and we don’t need to shy away from delving into deeper material with them, in kid-friendly ways. And why stop with the Augsberg Confession? There is plenty more to the story of church history and reformation, so why not explore a bit of later significant figures? Here are some potential ideas for exploring the life of Martin Luther and the Reformation, and trying to make them more accessible for youngsters:
Materials/Prep: long roll of paper, small treat (bag of crackers, goldfish, etc.), feathers, pencils, pictures of church leaders and symbols, glue sticks, Ziploc bags, yarn; beads; crayons and markers.
Open: Explain that we will be starting with a snack today. First, we need to say the blessing. Invite students to pray, but stop them immediately with “scolding” that they are not doing it correctly. After a few attempts, make them repeat your every move and word to pray (bonus points if this is in Latin!). Then tell them they may have their snack, but stop them again and say they are not opening/picking it up/swallowing correctly. Explain that you’re the boss and they have to follow what you say.
Does this seem a little strange? Discuss with children how it felt to be forced to pray and eat a certain way. Well, in a lot of historical times and places, this was how people tried to do things. Some adults would decide to be in charge and put others down with their decisions. Unfortunately, this also happened in church a lot. But the good news is that God led people to make changes. We are going to take a look at a few people who did that.
Lesson: roll out the long white paper, and (if not already prepared) write “Church History” and draw a long timeline across it. Also have several printed pictures of church leaders and symbols. Explain that as we briefly “walk through” history, kids will be able to glue pictures to the timeline and earn a few keepsakes for their bags. Hand each child a Ziploc bag. As you walk through each event, help children find the corresponding picture and glue it on the timeline. They will also add items to their bag to remember some of the events.
- Early church (apostles): Talk briefly about the church of Acts and how the followers of Jesus spread the news about Him to other areas. Paul was very influential at this time, visiting many churches to share what was happening. (Picture: apostles; take-away: Egyptian themed sticker. Okay, so they aren’t quite in Egypt…it’s almost Biblical!)
- First church leaders (apologists): In the first years after Jesus ascended into Heaven, it was actually pretty dangerous to be a Christian. People sometimes even had to meet underground in tombs and graves just to keep from being discovered! Many people died for what they believed, and because they wouldn’t give up what they knew was true. At this time, some people got into arguments over certain things in the church or over what was true. Several leaders wrote important statements to explain their beliefs. (Picture: arguing apologists. Take-away: Ixoye style fish in foam/wood)
- St. Patrick: (about 420) Patrick came to ancient people called Druids, and helped spread the good news of Christianity to the people of Ireland. A special Celtic Christianity developed. This included a great deal of celebration over elements of nature, but also honored the Trinity and spirituality. (Picture: Celtic cross; shamrock; take-away shamrock)
- John Wycliffe: (about 1380) Wycliffe worked to translate the Bible into English and spread the gospel. He wrote and said a lot against the church injustices (which Luther would do as well). (Picture: Wycliffe; take away: feather for feather pen which might have been used)
- Martin Luther: (1517) Luther noticed that a lot of unfair things had developed within the church, and he wanted to change that. He posted his 95 theses against injustices, and argued heavily with church leaders about what was right and wrong. Luther also worked to translate the Bible into German so that all could read it (rather than only priests). His work and actions sparked the Protestant Reformation that would split from the Catholic church and form an entire network of other churches. (Picture: Martin Luther. Take away: gummi worm…as in “diet of worms.” Okay, cliché now and then)
- William Tyndale (1525): Tyndale was passionate about translating the Bible into English, and worked in secret to publish and distribute his Bible translations. He was forced to hide in various areas, but was eventually betrayed and imprisoned. He was executed in 1536, strangled and burned in the town center. (Picture: Bible; take away: foam letter stickers)
- John Calvin (1540s): Calvin worked to lead part of the Reform movement in Europe (France, Switzerland). He is best known for preaching doctrines of Absolute sovereignty and predestination. (Picture: Calvin)
- John Knox (1550s-60s): Knox helped lead the Reformation efforts in Scotland, forming churches and heading groups for the people there. (Picture: plaid???)
- Baptists: (1609) The Baptist denomination started up, originating with English separatists who wanted to break away from the church, but did not agree with all elements of the Reformation. Part of the Baptist doctrine argued against Lutheran practices of infant baptism. (Picture: baptismal font/symbol. Take-away: blue jewel “water drop”)
- Wesleys (1730s): John and Charles Wesley started a movement in England that countered Calvinism by emphasizing more free will and choice, as well as perfectionism in actions. The brothers founded the Methodist church, from which Wesleyan traditions and practices would later start. (Picture: Methodist symbol)
- Revivalism (1900s): In the early 1900s, “camp meetings” and revivals were an important part of re-vamping interest in the church. In fact, throughout the 19th and 20th century, great “awakenings” inspired Christians to renew their faith and act accordingly. These movements also supported practices like abolitionism and temperance. (Picture: revival tent; take-away: eraser to “erase” the past).
- Dead Sea Scrolls: the 1947 discovery of ancient scripts upon which the Bible was written helped to ignite continued scholarly interest in archaeology and Christian history. This interest continues in spite of changes in technology and church practice. (Picture: desert; dead sea scrolls…take away: tiny rolled paper “scroll”)
Feel free to expand upon, research, explain, or omit any parts of this brief snapshot of church history. It is a lot to cover 2,000 years in a short Sunday school lesson. But exposing kids to a few of the highlights is valuable in understanding that Christianity is a tradition of many battles, arguments, and attitudinal changes over years. We as Christians look to God and know that ultimately He is the standard of trust, and the word of scripture is the main model of truth.
Pray to thank God for His word, His people, and His son Jesus. Ask for help in continuing the legacy of Christianity and enhancing our understanding of it as we love and serve Him and others.
Make sure students take home “goodie bags,” and post the timeline in a public spot. If time allows, children can add colored pictures of their own to the timeline.