Biblical Theology in Children’s Ministry
“If you like to talk to tomatoes, if a squash can make you smile…”. Instantly, these words transport me back to the “bestest” – seven-year-old me struggled with superlatives – days of Sunday School. These words marked the beginning of an episode of VeggieTales, in which Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber solved crises-upon-crises, with the help of incredibly catchy songs. I was enraptured. I can still recount Mr Lunt’s heart-warming romantic ballad, “His Cheeseburger”. It was a fun, silly and creative way of teaching children biblical truth, right?
Well, Phil Vishcer – VeggieTales’s chief creator – recently released a new show, “What’s In The Bible?”. And, he explained his motivation thusly:
“I…realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity…You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so…but that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality…our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good, so God will make all your dreams come true” (emphasis mine).
As soon as I read this, I began applying it to children’s ministries I’ve been involved in. Have I taught moralistic messages instead of Gospel truth? And if so, how do I redress this balance? I strongly believe that a sound grasp of Biblical theology is vital in preventing poor teaching.
First, let me explain what I mean by a “moralistic message”, then let’s look at what Biblical theology is and its vital role.
Moralism verses Goliath.
Little David swings his mighty sling, cracks Goliath on the head and emerges victorious. The interpretation we give to our children?
“Now boys and girls; you’re really young and pretty small, but God can use you to do amazing acts for Him”.
Or consider John’s account of the feeding of the five-thousand. A little boy – “just like you!” – gives Jesus his lunch, and Jesus miraculously uses it to have a massive picnic by the Sea of Galilee. Our application? “Just as the little boy shared his food, so we should share our things, and pray Jesus uses them”.
Again, it sounds good. But, rather ironically, it leaves children starved and wonder-less: can this be all the Bible is about?
Rooting this question in our minds, let’s consider how Biblical theology impacts our children’s ministry.
What is Biblical Theology?
Biblical theology considers a passage from its “historical standpoint, seeking to exhibit the organic growth or development of the truths of Special Revelation…from Eden to the close of Revelation” (Vos, vi ). Simply put, Biblical theology traces the storyline of the Bible. As such, Biblical theology seeks to point us, in every instance, towards Christ and the fullness of God’s Kingdom.
Many themes run throughout Scripture and help us to interpret the Bible in this way. One of the clearest is the Kingdom approach: “God’s Kingdom equals God’s people in God’s place under God’s blessing and rule” (Goldsworthy/Roberts). Scripture begins with the pattern of the Kingdom in Eden, and ends with the re-established perfected Kingdom in Revelation. Jesus began His public ministry proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). The Old Testament partially reveals God’s Kingdom to us, before it is perfectly revealed through Jesus. Therefore, we can see that the Bible is all about God’s “promise to restore His Kingdom, and the fulfilment of that promise through Christ” (Roberts, 23).
Why is it vital in children’s ministry?
This reminds us of a great truth. The Bible, primarily, is about God and His salvation through Christ.
It’s not about us!
Certainly, the Bible teaches us how to correctly respond, out of gratitude, to God’s grace. But, if we only ever teach our children to behave “Christianly”, and never truly show them Christ, then we’ve made a huge mistake.
Stick with me for a little longer, whilst I illustrate my point. David and Goliath; how do we point our children to Christ? We show them the Shepherd King, who faced a terrible, dangerous and violent enemy, and totally defeated him; crushing him forever. We are the Israelites: paralysed, helpless and enslaved to our enemy’s taunts. It is Christ, in picking up His Cross – not five stones – and wilfully submitting Himself to death, who conquers. Yes, God can use our boys and girls, and He may use them for great things, in our eyes. But, God uses us because Christ first achieved the greatest victory.
The Feeding of the Five-thousand? Look at the eye-witnesses to this miracle. They don’t say, “let’s all share our bread, because that little boy was lovely”. They say “this is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”. This story points us to Christ’s abundant provision for those He has brought into the Kingdom.
Every story we tell our boys and girls should increase their wonder for Christ. We should always show them Christ, first and foremost. When we pray, and when we grapple with the Bible’s narrative, we show our children the value we place on Scripture, and the value we place on Christ. And, as a children’s worker, I know how hard this is. I picked two easier examples: what about Elijah ascending to heaven in a whirlwind, or other more confusing stories? Well, we need to rely on our own strength at no point, and trust that the Holy Spirit will refine our thinking, and help us point to Christ in an exegetically sound way, which accords with the passage. And, if after prayer and study we still don’t get it, then simply remind our children of the incomprehensibility of God. After-all, “mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics” (Bavinck, Vol. II 29).
Perhaps this article has raised some questions in your mind! If you’re interested in Biblical theology, I’d recommend God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts or The Goldsworthy Trilogy. If you’re specifically interested in the relationship between children’s ministry and Biblical theology, I’d recommend The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones or The Gospel Story Bible by Marty Machowski.