At Sojourn, we believe that children, just like adults, need Jesus’ saving love (Romans 3:23; 6:23). They need the truth of God’s gospel applied to their hearts. In this post, I overview two simple ways of thinking about the gospel and provide a few practical child evangelism tips for parents and teachers.
The first way to think about the gospel is to see it as God's power for salvation. When thinking about it in this way, we can remember it using four phrases: God, Humanity, Jesus, By Faith Not Works.
1. God is our holy and good Creator, and he demands that we be faithful in our relationship with him. This means knowing him, obeying him, and loving him (Deuteronomy 6:4-7).
Human beings are created to be dazzled. We are all worshipers at heart. Our desire as Christians is to raise a generation of children that are dazzled by God. We tell the next generation about God’s great rescue plan for humanity because His greatness cannot be measured, and he is the only true source of salvation and joy (Psalm 145:3-7).
2. Humanity is in rebellion against God.
We have chosen to be dazzled by our own greed and self-interest rather than be dazzled by God. Children, just like adults, are sinful and in need of a Savior. This is one purpose of the Bible’s teaching. As it shows us the holiness and goodness of God, it also shows us our rebellion and our sin (Galatians 3:10; Romans 3:20, 23). When we teach children about God’s plan to save humanity, it is necessary to teach them their personal need for the Savior. We do not flatter or deceive children by teaching them that their nature is good. Rather, we tenderly teach a child about his or her own failures—pointing out the specific sins to which children are prone (greed, pride in performance, lying, disobedience to parents, etc.). Our goal is to be tender but true. We pray that the Holy Spirit will use the truth to bring conviction to the child’s heart and conscience, and ultimately to give the gift of faith.
3. Jesus took the punishment for our sin by bearing the punishment we deserve to the cross (Galatians 3:13). He makes us right with God because he lives to speak to the Father on our behalf (Romans 4:25; 1 John 2:1)
Jesus says, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (Matthew 19:14 NLT). Jesus’ words encourage us to simply and clearly teach about his person and work. It is wrong for adults to think that the Gospel message is for them alone and not for children. Jesus in Matthew 11:28 invites all those who are heavy laden to come to Him for rest. Children need such rest, too. Also, in Matthew 18:1-5, Jesus made us to understand that children are included in the plan of salvation. Adults need to learn from them what it means to be in a a humble position. The above passages indicate that Jesus wants kids to come to know him. We must therefore reach children with the gospel message.
4. Christians respond to God By Faith and Not By Works (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Children, just like adult sinners, are easily deceived and manipulated (Ephesians 4:14). Just like adults, they may be tempted to find assurance in their own good works or religious practices rather than in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. We must speak freely and often to kids about the need to repent from sin and to trust in Christ. We must teach children to confess their sins and ask for mercy, but we must not offer false assurances. We must not assure a child that a prayer for mercy (a “sinner’s prayer”) guarantees their eternal destiny. It does not. Human hearts long to find assurance in things that we can manipulate – our own knowledge, emotional experiences, prayers, or our works. We must discourage children from seeking assurance in such things. True assurance comes from trusting Christ alone!
3 Practical Encouragements
Before exploring the second simple way of thinking about the gospel, I want to think through some practical child evangelism tips for parents and teachers:
1. We must show Jesus to children in simple language. It is necessary to avoid complicated theological jargon and simply teach the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Martin Luther has said:
When I preach I don’t look to the doctors and [government officials] of whom there are about forty in this church. I have an eye to the many young people, children and servants of whom there are more than two thousand. I preach to these, addressing myself to their needs. If other people don’t want to listen to this approach then they can always walk out! An upright, godly and true preacher should direct his preaching to the poor, simple sort of people.
When teaching children, you should avoid using church clichés and technical terminology (election, justification, sanctification, etc.) unless the terms are carefully defined. Use a catechism as a way to define terms simply.
2. We must teach children about Jesus—not merely give them moral lessons. Many children’s ministry curricula use Bible stories (David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, etc.) to teach moral lessons such as “Be courageous!” These materials may accurately summarize the facts of a Bible story, but they draw a lesson from the story that the biblical author did not intend. The tendency is to draw moral lessons (”do this” or “don’t do that”) rather than seeing God’s actions in history to save humanity:
It is possible to miss the main point or purpose of a particular Scripture [passage] because there are so many details given. The details are important because they support the main point… However, we can become lost in the details in such a way that we do not focus on the chief purpose of the passage.
The story about John the Baptist is a good example. God’s purpose in sending John is very clear—he was to prepare the way for Jesus and get the people ready for Jesus. But for some people, the details are all they really know or remember, such as John’s camel hair clothes, the leather belt around his waist, his food of locusts and wild honey, his preaching in the desert, and his addressing those who came as ‘You [bunch of snakes]!’ All of these are important details in the Scripture passage, but the main point here or in telling any bible story is the ‘show them Jesus.’ That’s what John did; that is our calling as well. John the Baptist never lost his focus. He kept making the point over and over again: ‘This is he who was spoken [about] through the prophet Isaiah;’ Prepare the way for the Lord…;’ ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’
Don’t overlook or forget the details—just keep them in proper perspective. Reflect on the marvelous way God worked out all the details of accomplishing redemption for his people through his Son (Show Me Jesus! Toddler, Winter lesson 7).
At Sojourn, we believe that the stories of the Bible are not moralistic fables about the adventures of certain individuals who lived long ago. The Bible reveals God’s plan to save the universe and humanity from sin through Jesus’ death and resurrection. When teaching any Bible story, remember that God is the main character. Even though we may remember Bible heroes, the story is ultimately about what God has done through his Son.
3. We must give priority to the work of Jesus’ death and resurrection as facts of history. When speaking about the gospel to children, our temptation is to focus on the child’s inner condition—their personal struggles with sin and obedience. Even the language we use can tempt children to see the gospel more as what God is doing in me now, rather than what God did for me then. As a SojournKids teacher or servant, you must put your emphasis on the gospel as an historical fact. Phrases such as “Would you like to ask Jesus into your heart?” should always be avoided. While it is a Biblical truth that Christ is present with the Christian by his Spirit (Colossians 1:27; Ephesians 3:17), the work in our hearts is secondary. If we teach children only about the personal change that God does in hearts then we may inadvertently confuse or discourage them. When these children become aware of their sins, they may become introspective and worry, “How can Jesus live in my heart when I still get so angry?” Children must be taught to look outside of themselves to the love and forgiveness that comes because of Christ’s death and resurrection in history (Galatians 2:20). “One simple believing [look at] Christ will produce more light and peace and joy than a lifetime of looking within ourselves for evidences and signs of grace.”
With these pointers in mind, let's return to the second simple way to think about the gospel. The first way was a thematic understanding. When the Bible is read chronologically from Genesis to Revelation, we see that God’s plan has also been revealed to us progressively as a grand story. We can also remember this with four words: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. When we read the Scriptures as a story, we come to know the reason for salvation–the gospel’s purpose:
Creation: Our God is the Creator of all life! He made us good. He made us in his image so that we can bring glory to Him through our lives (Genesis 1-2). God has given parents instructions to teach our children about the Lord, pray for them, discipline them, and demonstrate God’s grace to them (Deuteronomy 6). This is the natural order of things.
Fall: The bad news is that family dysfunction has entered into our world because of sin. We are all sinful—adults and children alike—and we are all need God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). The gospel tells us that we are worse than we ever imagined…
Redemption: But the gospel also tells us that we are more loved than we could ever dream (Galatians 2:20). The gospel promises us forgiveness from sin and new life in Jesus Christ. The good news is that God sent his Son to redeem the world and create a new humanity.
Restoration: Jesus makes all things new. Eventually the whole world will be renewed. Death, decay, injustice, and suffering will all be removed (Ephesians 2:10, 14-22; 2 Corinthians 5:15-21; Revelation 21). The gospel is not about my individual happiness or God’s plan for my life. It is about God’s plan for the world. We pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” One day all dysfunction will be wiped and away and the eternal family will be restored.
Thinking about the gospel as a story helps to unite us to this grand family history.
A Brief Word About Teaching Chronology in the Classroom: In our SojournKids toddler, preschool, and younger elementary Bible classes, chronology is periodically ignored. Children at this age cannot handle it developmentally. Perhaps they may memorize a time line, but it is often more helpful to emphasize themes such as worship, grace, missions, trusting God, or being servants of God. However, as children progress through the elementary years, they are able to gain a growing sense of Bible history and chronology–a foundation built upon the familiar stories they learn when they are younger. Our goal is for our older elementary (preteen) kids to develop an understandng of how God has revealed himself in his Word by studying God’s grand story through a survey of all the books of the Bible. Our emphasis is that Jesus Christ is central in all of God’s grand story. The curriculum we have chosen follows Dorothy Sayers’ suggestion that during the elementary years, “we should become acquainted with the story of God and Man in outline–the Old and New Testaments presented as parts of a single [story] of Creation, Rebellion, and Redemption–and also with [basic doctrine], the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments” (from The Lost Tools of Learning).
Resources: "Gospel Power" outline adapted from Jeff Vanderstelt and Soma Communities in Tacoma, WA; Tedd Tripp, "Session 14: Helping kids see God's glory," in Case for Kids DVD (Shepherd Press, CCEF, 2006); Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children; Manual for Training Children's Workers (Nigerian Baptist Convention, 2007); Martin Luther, Table Talk (H.G. Bohn, 1857), 427, quoted in Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community, (RE:Lit/Crossway, 2008), 185; Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, (IVP, 2006), 176-77; Octavius Winslow, Soul-Depths and Soul-Heights, (Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 4;Cheryl Lowe, “History is not Chronological,” The Classical Teacher (Summer 2008), 18-19; Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning;” Jeff Vanderstelt, “Gospel Message” from Soma Communities in Tacoma, WA.