Jesus in junior Sabbath School: What would He do?

How we may enhance our contact with children in Sabbath School.

Kathy Beagles, M.A., is editor and curriculum specialist for the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.
Jackie Bishop is director of children's ministries in the Rocky Mountain Conference, Denver, Colorado.

Imagine Jesus as one of your church members. Picture Him volunteering for ministry to the children. After all, we are comfortable, aren't we, with the image of Jesus with a child on His knee, or bending over a small boy's lunch? But have you ever thought of Him teaching the Sabbath School lesson to a group of junior kids?

As for me, I cannot picture the children lined up in straight, glassy-eyed rows as Jesus lectures. I don't see Him frowning when small bodies squirm or young lips whisper in boredom. Yet haven't we all seen (or even experienced) that very situation in more than one junior room?

I can't imagine Jesus as a mere knowledge dispenser. He would not be content with teaching if no one was learning. He would understand, as modern educators are beginning to, that learning is facilitated by modeling, mentoring, and organizing experiences that help young students grow. Jesus' teaching would focus on facilitating learning.

In terms of actual detail, we really don't know much about how Jesus would teach a Sabbath School class or run a Vacation Bible School. But as we look at the New Testament, several principles underlie the general way in which Jesus taught.

Start with the learner's context

Jesus started from the learner's context. He used objects and story subjects that were familiar to His hearers: boats, fish, sheep, water, wine, bread, fig trees, seeds. He started where they were. He knew that effective teaching builds on what the learner already knows.

So, if Jesus were a Sabbath School teacher or Pathfinder leader today, He would get to know His learners. He would take time to connect. The learning would be tied to the objects and activities that the children face daily. The emphasis would be on the learner, not the teacher.

Emphasize discovery

Jesus allowed His learners to discover truth. For example, there was the time Jesus called for Peter to walk on water so he could learn about faith. Peter discovered truth through his own experience. Jesus could have simply lectured Peter about faith, but He wanted Peter to discover. After Jesus pulled Peter from the water, He asked him, "Why did you doubt?" He could have told Peter all about the nature of doubt and about his doubts particularly, but instead He asked Peter about his doubt so that Peter could think it through and discover the answers for himself.

The children in our churches can discover and learn truth for themselves in the same way. For this to happen, however, they must be involved, and not just sitting silently while they are taught. When we allow children to discover truth, we are focusing on learning rather than on teaching.

Use "teachable moments"

Jesus took advantage of the "teachable moments" that came along. These are brief, unplanned intervals when learners are ripe for learning. A teachable moment in Jesus' ministry happened, for example, when the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) was brought to Him. Jesus taught the lesson of spiritual pride to her accusers and of forgiveness to the woman. Then there was the storm on the lake (Luke 8:22-25), which Jesus used to teach trust, or the encounter with the man with the withered hand in the synagogue (Matt. 12:9-13), which Jesus used to teach the true meaning of Sabbath keeping. Jesus knew when His learners were ripe for learning. He didn't hesitate to capitalize on something that happened as He was teaching. When He observed people engaged in captivating activity, He knew they were ready to learn.

We will find teachable moments all around us where we can draw our students' attention to an important truth. A teacher who focuses on what students are learning, rather than on what he or she has planned to teach, is open to such moments. However, it takes a strong connection with the Holy Spirit to recognize and use these moments for good.

Encourage practice as part of learning

Jesus had a way of providing His "students" with opportunities to practice what He was teaching them. After His discussion with the rich, young ruler, Jesus challenged him to sell all his possessions (Mark 10:17- 21) and put into practice the essence of the commandments this man was asking about. After teaching His disciples about their human capability for betrayal, He gave Peter, Judas, and the others time to practice their loyalty (Matt. 26:31-49). Their failures during 'practice seared the lesson into their memories. Few lessons stick without being actively put to the test or simply being acted upon.

We can hear a lecture on bicycle riding, but if we don't get on a bike and actually practice, we'll never learn to ride. We can expound on the word servant or service in our classes, but if we don't practice serving, we'll never become authentic disciples of Jesus.

When we don't give our children tangible opportunities to practice sharing and serving and loving, we can't expect them to learn how to be active disciples. Teaching our children Christianity in church is not supposed to be like teaching them history in school. Teaching Christianity has to be more like teaching hiking or swimming. It has to focus on the learner's ability to do, not just to know.

Make learning an adventure

Jesus turned learning into an adventure. A teacher who doesn't focus primarily on teaching, but on learning, is ready to deal with the unpredicted. Passive learning is usual ly predictable. Active learning is an adventure because the teacher trusts the students to help create the learning experience; often the teacher learns as much as the students.

The goal is not simply to use teaching methods that are entertaining, as opposed to boring. The entertaining aspect is simply the means of achieving the learning goal. If the teacher's goal is to help people know God, they'll be open to methods that achieve that goal, including ones that work because they're entertaining.

As an example of this, one junior described an indelible memory: "The lesson," he said, "was that Jesus is the Light. So we went into a dark room and shut off the lights. We had a candle and lighted it, and we learned that Jesus is the Light and the dark ness can't shut off the light."

A seven-year-old, playing one of the disciples hiding in the upper room, was caught up in the spirit of the lesson. Instead of running to hide with the rest of the students when a big, adult "Roman soldier" entered the room to threaten the "disciples," she boldly faced him, told him how bad he was, and that Jesus was her best Friend and would always protect her. That's active learning. That's learning at a deeper level than a lecture or worksheet can provide.

Involve everyone

Jesus' teaching method involved everyone. There were few passive spectators. If Jesus taught Sabbath School, it would not be like a football game with a few playing the game while the rest sat watching from the sidelines. Focusing on learning takes the spotlight off the teacher, or the outgoing student, and places it where everyone can be in the light, or at least has a turn in the light.

If Jesus taught the class, the activities and experiences would be focused by the teacher through careful questioning. There is no need for teachers to fear activity, fun, participation, and even teachable moments when they are prepared to gather the students and help them reflect on, interpret, and apply the truths learned from their experiences. This kind of teaching is not limited to the cognitive. It digs into feelings, responses, emotions. It takes truth from the head to the heart. It affects the learners where they live. It helps them make meaning out of their experiences, and learn to apply it back into their everyday lives.

What the students learn is not always what the teacher had planned to teach. That may seem risky to some teachers. But it opens the door for the Holy Spirit to guide in the curriculum. Haven't we known preachers to say that God impressed them to preach on something different from what they had planned, something the audience needed to hear? The same goes for teachers. The Holy Spirit is just as ready to guide the learning as He is the listening.

During a foot-washing experience with teenagers, failure loomed when one belligerent boy, Jimmy, refused to remove his shoes! At that point, the teacher quietly wished he had merely given a talk on servanthood instead of risking failure with an active experience. Fortunately, the teacher sensed a teachable moment and asked the group, "How do you feel about what is happening in our class right now?"

After a brief silence, one student' asked Jimmy why he wouldn't remove his shoes. The boy replied that his feet were ugly and he didn't want anyone to see them. What followed allowed Jimmy to experience God's unconditional love. Up until then Jimmy had felt like a misfit in the group. Now one by one the students expressed their acceptance and love for Jimmy. After that "failed" lesson, Jimmy was never the same. Instead of being on the fringe, he got involved. Today Jimmy is a minister.

We can't, of course, really have Jesus take over the children's ministry in our church. What then can we do? Rather than just returning to use the same way we have always taught the children, we can, in fact, follow His example of focusing on others by set ting aside our lesson plans and getting to know our children. We can make sure the learning experiences we facil itate meet them where they are and take them experientially to the Master, who sets them on His knee, blesses their lunches, and asks those who are standing there, "What have you done for the least of these?"


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Kathy Beagles, M.A., is editor and curriculum specialist for the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.
Jackie Bishop is director of children's ministries in the Rocky Mountain Conference, Denver, Colorado.

November 2002

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