It’s time to stop teaching kids to ‘apply’ the Bible

I began serving in my church’s children’s ministry when I was 16. I was a 2nd grade girls small group leader, as well as a Large Group teacher.  My first lesson I ever taught was about patience, and I ate an orange without peeling it as an example of how impatience can spoil something good.  I remember the orange.  What I don’t remember is what I said about God or the Bible that day.

And neither do any of the kids who were there.

What they remembered as they left was that being patient was good and being impatient was bad.  They remembered the ‘application’ of the lesson:  be patient.

Over the past couple decades in children’s ministry, and therefore in parent coaching, the value of being “application oriented” has been paramount.  For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, application oriented children’s curriculum aims to teach kids what is in the Bible and, specifically, how to apply it to their lives.  It teaches kids the truths or principles of Scripture and spells out how to live out the principles in the rest of the their week.

I have to acknowledge what is good within this framework:  

1. Application oriented acknowledges that kids are whole people who can make choices and follow God in their real, everyday lives.  It expects that kids can participate in their faith where ever they are.

2. Application oriented understands that although kids are capable of engaging with God and the Bible, because of their development, kids need some guidance and coaching about how that works.  For instance, younger kids think in the concrete; abstract thinking isn’t strong until adolescence.  Telling kids how they can apply the Bible is a way to help meet kids where they are at.

But these two values can be upheld in our families, children’s ministries and kids faith curricula without being connected to a single, uniform prescribed application.  And that is what we need– to honor the child’s agency & self-efficacy and to enter the world & developmental process of a child.  But the era of application oriented needs to end, and here’s why:

It is not fair to expect a kid to obey a God they do not know or trust.

Obedience is a response.  It flows from knowing, loving and trusting Christ.  And what we know of Christ is that his love is unconditional, his grace is powerful, his work is for good, for hope, for healing.

But often, our kids don’t really know that.

They know they should be honest, be kind, not cheat, not use bad words.  They know obedience-like behaviors.  But they wonder if God will love them less if they don’t do those things.  For as much as they know about God, they don’t really know God.

The accidental outcomes of this model have been moralism and fear.  Moralism, meaning:  God wants you to be good, lets look at people in the Bible to learn how to be good, and let’s tell you how to apply the Bible so you can be more good and less bad this week.  Fear, meaning:  If you fail at being more good and less bad, God will love you less, or worse, you aren’t “saved.”

Application Oriented kid’s resources teach kids that what is important is how they behave.  The story of Scripture is that what is important is putting your trust in a good God.

Before become a Curriculum Director at Willow (with control over what we taught), I worked for another church where I re-wrote a purchased curriculum from a publishing house.  Its model was to hold up one trait–honesty, kindness, perseverance, patience–and tell Bible stories about people who exemplified that trait.  

And I could have plugged in past presidents or fictitious fables and gotten the same outcome.

The point of the Bible is not to create good kids.  The point is to reveal who God is.  The point of parenting or children’s ministry is not to teach kids to apply the Bible.  It’s to introduce kids to God.

We are called to introduce kids to the God who made us good, who sought us out when things in the world were not good, who redeems what is not good in us, who loves us no more for being good and no less for being bad.  We are called, not to spell out a list of behaviors, but to point to a loving and good God who made us lovely and beloved.

6 thoughts on “It’s time to stop teaching kids to ‘apply’ the Bible”

  1. One of my projects at Westmont was to analyze how/if/when obedience/character traits were taught in Sunday schools by social class. Churches with poorer populations tend to emphasis character traits in their children’s ministries more than churches with affluent congregants.

  2. I just love you. Your writing makes me think. I really loved this, and I’m glad my kids are the benefactors of your hard, honest, and wise work.

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