Malcolm Gladwell wrote this in his NYT best seller, Blink:
“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding.”
Gladwell didn’t write this statement for Bible scholars let alone church staff, Small Group Leaders, or parents. However, there is truth we can take to heart as we approach our expectations for teaching kids the Bible.
I touched on this idea in “Is Your Church Raising Mean Kids?”, revealing that the Church may be churning out biblically literate kids that are no different, and sometimes worse, than their non-churched peers.
I wonder if in our quest for Biblical knowledge, we’ve scarified Biblical understanding.
Because there’s a difference.
Growing up, I knew a lot about the Bible. In fact, when I was a kid I was chosen several years in a row to represent my school on the Bible quiz team. I could name the books of the Bible, the twelve tribes of Israel, I could even tell you what circumcision was by fourth grade. Yet at the end of the day, all of that Biblical knowledge wasn’t propelling me to have a deeper faith. I could be judgmental, arrogant, and prideful that I knew more about the Bible than my peers. I wasn’t being transformed by the Word (James 1:22-25); I was merely focused on regurgitating it to get jewels in my (AWANA) crown, a good grade, or as the case may be, a blue ribbon. And sure, at some level this worked as part of my spiritual upbringing. However, when I look back over my story, I don’t point to all this Biblical content I learned – I had forgotten a bunch of it by the time I got to seminary – but rather the relationships who showed me what it meant to have an everyday faith living out an understanding of the Story of Jesus.
In contrast, I look at my own kids. They get the facts mixed up sometimes. They don’t remember all the names of the books of the Bible in order or have no idea the difference between a Major or Minor Prophet or even that those two distinctions exist. (Though in their defense, as digital natives, they navigate a Bible App with ease.)
In spite of that, give or take an argument with a sibling, they’re good kids. Sure, like all of us they could use anger management from time to time and self-control is often tricky. But they are compassionate and loving. They care about others’ feelings. They pray when they are thankful or scared. Three out of four (God is still working on our youngest) have a personal relationship with Jesus that comes out in the way they live out the Fruit of the Spirit.
They may have a limited knowledge of Bible facts and figures, but they are starting to understand why what they know about the Bible and the Story of Jesus matters. They’re young and have a lot of life left to live, but I see the Story of Jesus shaping their lives in the way they see the world, their place in it, and how they live out the Great Commandment of loving God and others.
I don’t want to my kids to grow up knowing all sorts of facts about the Bible yet walk away when they realize the tension between real life and those Bible stories as they get older. Bible facts alone don’t sustain faith. Biblical understanding combined with and built upon authentic relationships with Jesus and others help sustain faith.
It’s easy to have kids memorize a bunch of facts about the Bible, regurgitate theological concepts, and list off names and places. The hard part is bringing leaders into their life that can help them process those stories and ideas and, through the Spirit, turn that knowledge into understanding that evidences itself as wisdom.
Biblical knowledge is important, Biblical understanding is life-changing.
Here are 5 thoughts about Biblical understanding for your children’s ministry environments.
- Application Matters. Kids can’t easily make connections like adults do. As we teach them the Bible, we need to call attention and help them understand that this ancient book matters to their 21st Century life. I have a mantra when it comes to teaching kids the Bible – “The Bible story isn’t over until the kids know what to do with it.” Knowing what to do with the story they’ve heard is where knowledge meets understanding and kids change. As we approach teaching kids the Bible, we should include the connections between the text, why the text mattered then, and why it still matters now. If we do this throughout their life, kids will come to the understanding that God’s word can change them from the inside out.
- We hide God’s word in our heart for an application: that I would not sin against God.
- We learn the Story of Jesus not for the sheer sake of knowing the Story of Jesus, but that Jesus’ story would connect with our story.
- We live it out to be a city on a hill in a dark world.
- Use translations they easily understand. Don’t make biblical understanding more difficult by teaching from a translation written at an adult reading level. While that exact word for word translation maybe great for you as an adult with some understanding of the Bible, those translations are just not as practical for kids. New International Readers Version, New Living Translation, and New Century Versions are decent starting points. If the kids are really young, don’t start them with an official translation. Consider a storybook Bible where kids can’t encounter the story of God on their level with images and interactive material to make it memorable for their developing brains. More about that idea here.
- Don’t squash their imagination. Imagination is what causes scientists and inventors to ask questions and discover truths about the universe. Sometimes it’s easy for us to blow off questions that seem unimportant or even a bit heretical. While these questions might make us wince, it’s important to remember that we do not think like children. We are adults with experiences that inform how we process information. They are kids who are hearing this content for the first or second time. Or even if they have heard it before, at each phase of life, they hear it with fresh ears steeped in their most recent experiences and brain development. Be thankful they have questions about faith. Questions mean they’re thinking about it and trust you enough to ask them in the first place. How you respond to these questions will influence whether or not they’ll keep asking questions and keep the conversation open with you.
- Focus on the right wins. When our kids memorize the books of the Bible or huge passages of Scripture, we want to celebrate that and praise them for their efforts. After all, that memorization took time and mental strength to accomplish. We need to remember that the sticker on the chart isn’t a proper indication of whether or not our kids are growing in their faith. The child who struggles with memorization might not have all the stickers and stars, but that child may have the strongest, most authentic relationship with Jesus. We should be celebrating that child and how well they are living out their faith. Memorization is great, but living out faith is more important. Vision cast a vibrant life of faith as the goal for the kids in your ministries.
- Chill out. I wondered whether or not I should even talk about this, but I figured why not. As a collective group of children’s pastors, we need to stop freaking out. Remember that faith is a journey with each one of us at a different stage of the trip. From my experience, God seems to let us in on what we need to know about Him and the Bible when we need to know it. If kids know how to navigate a textbook, they can navigate the Bible. Facts will get confused about history as much as they get confused about the Bible. Kids haven’t learned algebra yet because they’re not ready. They might not need to know the impact of the First Council of Nicea on Christological understanding in first century Christianity. Our end game should be to focus on Biblical understanding. Let’s help kids realize that this ancient book is as important today as ever. Everyone is winning when kids connect the dots that the living words in the pages (or on the screen) of God’s Word can change our eternal destiny through Jesus and transform the way we live TODAY as we seek to follow Him. Love God, Love People… the rest of it hangs on those greatest truths.