As any parent knows, every child is different. Not only do children learn in different ways, but their learning doesn’t always take place in the ways we would expect. When a young mind understands the Gospel for the very first time, sometimes the heart and mouth take time to follow. Therefore discipleship can look different for different kids. One size does not fit all.
However, there are some things that remain constant when teaching kids the Gospel. These things don’t change. And one basic, universal truth when teaching kids the most important message in the world is that they understand that message. Before kids can believe in the Gospel, they have to comprehend the good news. The Apostle Paul says that for sinners to be saved, they must come to a “knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4) In his letter to the Colossians, he desires that they become a people always “increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Col. 1:10) In Christianity, knowledge is important.
The challenge in almost every church today is to avoid the problem of mindless obedience. This arises when parents and pastors begin presenting the Gospel to kids as if it’s a game of memory. Far too many children in the American church grow up with the ability to regurgitate short, simple answers about the Bible without being trained to think meaningfully and even critically about the deep things of God revealed to us in Scripture. The church is full of disciples, not parrots. And a relationship with Jesus is about much more than memorization. The kind of biblical knowledge that Paul savors isn’t the kind that puffs up. (1 Cor. 8:1) Instead, his goal was to “know him and the power of his resurrection.” (Phil. 3:10) In order to make sure our children know that power, and to shake them loose from the bonds of apathetic religion, the church must stop anesthetizing children with Christianity that can be learned from flash cards. We have to start asking them questions about the faith they claim to hold. Real, piercing questions. The kind they’ll have to answer one day from people who aren’t their parents. They must be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Pet. 3:15) That defense begins in the home.
This is more than simply the Socratic method for Christians. Modern discipleship in the 21st century must ensure that our children’s biblical vocabulary has theological substance underneath it and that their words have meaning behind them. As disciples, their faith must have more than ready-made answers. Christian kids cannot be allowed to speak Christian-ese without understanding the eternal truths contained in the Gospel itself. We must challenge our children to know the “why” behind their faith:
Parent: How did God save us?
Child: He sent His only Son to die.
Parent: Why did Jesus die on the cross?
Child: To save us from our sins.
Parent: Why does He have to save us from our sins?
Child: Because sin is bad.
Parent: Why is sin bad?
Child: Because it is disobedience against God.
Parent: Why must God be obeyed?
Child: Because He’s God.
Inevitably, in the biblical training and discipleship of children, kids will eventually run into loops or dead ends. Sometimes they also bring everyone to very simple, yet profound, truths. These are instances when children can no longer explain the reasons for the things they believe. These are also opportunities to teach children to go deeper and further in God’s Word. For instance…
Parent: (After reading Isaiah 6 about holiness and sin) Why do we need God to save us from our sins?
Child: Because we’re not holy.
Parent: Why are we not holy?
Child: Because we’ve sinned against God.
Parent: Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God have simply forgiven us?
Child: Because He had to die in our place.
Parent: Why did He have to die in our place?
Child: Because He had to take our punishment.
Through a series of questions and a process of something called “catechesis,” the parent and child have now arrived at the concept of penal substitutionary atonement, the foundation of the Gospel itself. Not only is this an opportunity to review passages of Scripture on the atonement; it’s also a process whereby the child learns to think critically about concepts like sin, holiness, justice, and ultimately about grace. If this sounds like a long process, it is. It’s called discipleship. And the souls of our children are at stake. Jesus shed His blood to save such precious souls.