One of the first things that children learn about the Bible is that Jesus loves them, as they sing the beloved song, “Jesus loves me.” And they learn that it’s in the Bible where they first meet Jesus, this One who loves them so much. In this musical affirmation of faith, children take a first step in naming God’s presence in their life, something we hope that will grow with them throughout their life. But if we want this growth to continue, it is imperative that a child’s engagement with the Bible be more than a Sabbath experience.
I grew up with four experiences that were formative for my Christian formation. I had a Bible storybook that I read at night. It didn’t have many pictures but the stories became vivid in my memory. No picture of Hannah’s prayer to God or God’s calling Samuel in the night could be as vivid as the picture in my mind. Second, my parents took me to church school and embedded me in a loving faith community. They also provided me with experiences of caring for and being loved by those who were different than me, people with disabilities. And finally I grew up in a house where the Bible was often on the kitchen table, along with stacks of commentaries as my mother prepared to lead Bible study with her women’s group. The Bible was visible, active, and present in my life and surely it marked me forever for a life of faith.
Parents make a mistake when they leave the spiritual formation of their child with the church and take no personal responsibility for it themselves. By doing this, they miss the opportunity to grow in their own faith as they read Bible stories with their child, and help them make connections between stories and actions in the world. Perhaps they do this because of their own negative experiences with the Bible, or lack of any knowledge, or struggles with what they believe themselves. Thinking that the Bible is best taught by “experts” they abandon this important role. Whatever the reason, it’s time to support parents in reclaiming their important role as faith educators with their children.
Consider these suggestions, ways to enable parents to claim their active role in helping a child grow in their faith.
- On the Sunday when you give Bibles to children, invite parents to come to church school for class together on “Finding your way in the Bible.”
- Offer workshops or a class for parents on topics like: How to choose a Bible storybook; How to read the Bible with your child; Dinner table conversations – how to connect the Bible with living life in response to God’s love.
- If there are mid-week choir options for children, offer a conversation for parents about the Bible stories children are engaging on Sunday morning.
Distance education is a term that graduate schools have used to describe an aspect of their curriculum. Maybe it’s also a way to describe Christian education programs for children. A child’s ability to grow in faith also needs to be close. Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, a beloved author of many books for children has written,
“We need to give our children stories that they can grow with. The first expression of religion is experience. We are people of faith because we had a religious experience. The closest we can get to that experience is story. Then the story is transformed into ritual and liturgy. Then comes reflection on the ritual – theology. Theology is the furthest from the experience. The closest we can get is story. We want our children to get close.”
(“Tell Me a Story:Narrative and the Religious Imagination of Children” in Faith Forward: Re-Imagining Children’s and Youth Ministry, CopperHouse, 2015)
When we read the Bible with a child, inviting their questions, encouraging their wonder and imagination, we get close to the stories, understanding them in the context in which they were written and beginning the important work of interpreting their meaning for living faithfully as God’s people today. Getting close to the Bible is a wonderful life-long opportunity. What a gift it is to share that with a child.
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Caldwell lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she teaches as Adjunct Faculty at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is the author of I Wonder, Engaging a Child’s Curiosity about the Bible, Abingdon Press, 2016.