Steeped in God’s Word: Engaging children in the study of Scripture
At a Bible conference in Wales, I invited a group of believers to see me make a cup of tea. I held up a glass mug of hot water and dangled a tea bag in the water for a second or two, then removed it, declaring, “That was easy—we now have tea!” The gathered tea-making specialists chuckled but patiently suggested, “You have to leave it in the water longer.”
I placed the tea bag back in the water and let it remain for a few more seconds, then moved to lift the bag out of the water again, but the protest erupted more intensely, “You have to leave the bag in the water to steep!”
“Steep?” I asked feigning innocence.
A woman kindly suggested, “Yes, it has to steep. You must let the water get into the bag so that what is in the bag can flavor the water.”
Steep instead of a quick dip. Bible study is the same: get into the Word in such a way that the Word gets into you!
Asaph would agree:
O my people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
what we have heard and known,
what our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done (Ps. 78:1–4).*
As a pastor and parent, I share Asaph’s earnest hope to see children connect intimately in a relationship with God, their Creator and Savior. Notice how he longs to engage the next generation to know God: listen, utter, hear, tell.
In Asaph’s day, “The Word” or “Scripture” was not a leather-covered book with gold-leaf edges but statements and stories told to listeners from memory. Over the seasons, the printed Word replaced the spoken Word and now, in a similar way, digital media challenges the need for books. Even though times change, the Bible still stands as the primary resource to inform and compel humanity to come to the Son of God for life (John 5:39; 20:30, 31).
Today, many are comfortable communicating with sound bites and cryptic text messages that simply sprinkle information about with very little interaction. This current format tends to minimize not only the way we communicate, but also what we choose to talk about. Today, we need a seismic shift from a “quick dip” of our children in the Scriptures (indirect and superficial knowledge) to steeping them in the Word of God (deep and purposeful).
Getting young people into God’s Word involves three enduring principles: (1) an environmental challenge, (2) an experiential task, and (3) a forum for expression.
Cultivate an environment of conversation with God’s Word
The environmental challenge means creating a proactive attitude and atmosphere about the Word of God. Consider the advice given by Moses to the Israelites on the brink of entering the Promised Land: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deut. 6:5–9).
“The words” were to be upon their hearts (steeped)—not just once a week or occasionally, if time permitted, but always. After urging parents and leaders to immerse children continually in the ways of God, the day would come when such an approach would no longer suffice. Moses forecasted the inevitable day when children would move from concrete faith experience to abstract questions that emerge as they mature into adolescence. What then?
Moses answers, “In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?’ tell him, ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand’ ” (vv. 6:20, 21).
Tell the story about how slaves became free. We can memorize the list of commands and raise our hands in agreement to a set of beliefs, but eventually “what is true” needs to become “true for me.”
Some might say, “Yes, easier said than done! Those people saw the plagues fall and the Red Sea part. How do I create that kind of atmosphere today when our environment differs so much from those on the way to Canaan?” We must understand the importance of remembering that the book of Deuteronomy was not given primarily to those who had experienced the deliverance from Egypt but to those who were born in the desert. They had never known Egypt. Even though they were second-generation believers, the children of Israel were commanded to tell the story as though they experienced it firsthand. For that we need storytellers.
In addition to building the right atmosphere, there is the work of getting them to learn to do what Scripture says.
Foster an experiential expectation with God’s Word
The experiential task of Scripture involves engaging young people in a conversation with God by “hearing and doing.” As we teach children, we need to do so expecting to put the Word of God into practice.
Paul noted that when people expect “the word of God” to actually be from God, they tend to be more attentive to the message. Notice the experiential language the apostle uses: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13).
The believers Paul refers to expected the message to be “from God” and “at work” in them. Clearly, the Word of God was alive in them. Learning must include action, otherwise it is not only incomplete, it is not really learning (James 1:22; Matt. 7:24–26; Ps. 119:9). Furthermore, having an expectation about the way we learn assumes that the action has been repeated in such a way that it becomes “normal.” Parents, teachers, and leaders must begin to model an action-oriented response to Scripture as a way of life. When a parent forgives an enemy or leader and expresses compassion to broken people, as a matter of practice and pattern, children can count on God speaking to us as though it were a real, interactive conversation. For children to expect this level of interaction with God’s Word in our lives, it must begin with one action at a time, over time.
Occasionally, I simply prayed to God loudly in front of my son about the little things that happened during the day. Sometimes after lunch I would say, “What a wonderful meal, Father! Thank You so much!”
Another time our family was traveling, and we handed a meal and some money to someone who held a cardboard sign that read, “My family and I have not eaten.” As we left, my wife said out loud, “Jesus, please be close to that family.” So, I was not surprised when my son Morgan and I were raking leaves in the yard, and he raised his eyes heavenward and shouted, “See God, I’m doing a really good job!” Earlier we had read, “Whatever we do, do to the glory of God.” On another occasion, my wife informed me that when I would come home from work I brought into the house a stressful urgency to “get things done” that adversely affected the family. I thought of just trying to be more loving, but just thinking about it was not enough. I walked to the hardware store and purchased a doormat for the front porch that read, “Bless This Home.” This was not a prayer to God as much as a reminder for me to go beyond just hearing a message from God, but doing it.
Create opportunities to express God’s Word to others
Thirdly, young people need to express what they experience in God’s Word. When children share what they learn, it has a way of cementing the truths they study. When Jesus healed the demoniac, He urged the young man clinging to Him in the boat, “ ‘Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you’ ” (Mark 5:19). He did. Not only did the Word of God spread throughout the region, it also spread throughout every fiber of the one who was healed.
Earlier I mentioned Asaph’s passion to pass on the story, but a few psalms earlier he becomes disillusioned to the point of despair, making statements like, “my feet had almost slipped” (Ps. 73:2) or “surely in vain have I kept my heart pure” (v. 13). Nevertheless, Asaph catches himself before he allows his cynicism to overrun his heart. Asaph confessed, “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed your children” (v. 15). When we “speak it,” our learning is deeper than if we just think it.
Consider how verbalizing our thoughts impacts our memories. Reading aloud enhances comprehension. People who try to remember someone else’s name might say it often in a conversation, sometimes awkwardly, but the more often they say it, the deeper the name sticks in their memories. Memorizing lines for a play out loud is far more effective than simply reading the lines quietly to yourself. Some who pray out loud to God, testify of a deeper experience than praying silently. Addicts are often taught to resist temptation by saying it out loud, “No. I will not.” Many times, the result is a great resolve. Teachers frequently say that the most effective way to learn something includes having to teach it to others. We need to encourage our kids to speak, share, declare, confess, profess, instruct, and testify.
Somehow, the expressing of what you discover in Scripture embeds itself in you more fully.
Here are some activities that have proven to be effective in my ministry. Hopefully, these suggestions will encourage more creativity and experimentation among leaders to develop their own methods. Most of all, remember, methods and resources are not the teaching tools—people are. Prayerful. Thoughtful. Flexible. Humble. Such people are the instruments of God, who must model these principles and practice them in order for our children to embrace them. With that said, consider a few activities that have worked well with young people.
Paraphrase. Invite young people to paraphrase scripture. The challenge is to get children to read a verse or section of the Bible and put it into their own words. All too often they simply reorder the same words.
So, I assign a simple rule: “Rewrite this passage in your own words, without using any of the words in the Bible, except the essential connecting words, such as, is, to, and, the, and so on.”
This activity seems difficult even for adults, but it forces those who try it to think about the meaning of the words they read. Not only will children grow in their understanding of God’s Word, but they will also have written examples of their insight to reflect upon later. One of the best places to start is with the most popular verse in the Bible. Read here a sample paraphrase of John 3:16 from a 12-year-old: “The Creator of the Universe said, ‘These people are mine and I care about them so much that I can’t just let them die.’ So, the Creator became Jesus, the human, and decided to pay for our sin Himself, and if we think it is true and start to feel it is true, then we don’t have to die like sinners. We get to live with Him always!”
Over the course of a year, a family, class, or entire church family might choose to paraphrase one of the Gospels and end with a celebration of a public reading of their writings.
Chain reference (sequentialtactile–visual). Teach children to highlight and link the passages of Scripture together on any given topic. Start by choosing a question, topic, or person to start your search. Show them how to use a concordance and choose at least five verses to mark. At the front of their Bibles, they can write the topic and the first verse, for example, “Forgiveness—1 John 1:9.” Go to that verse and, after marking that passage, write the next verse in the margin or wherever there is room. Continue to link each verse together in this way to make a topical chain.
Not only have they done a Bible study, but now they have a well-thought out resource in their Bible. As children continue to study this way, the tangible reminders of pages marked will foster confidence about their study.
Memorialize. Strengthen memory by helping children create tangible symbols of God’s Word. Remember the story where “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the LORD helped us’ ” (1 Sam. 7:12). The rock reminded them of a story. Bible study includes using your creativity to connect everyday items to actual truths in God’s Word.
After reading that the Bible is compared to a “two-edged sword” in Hebrews 4:12, my family and I carved and sanded a sword from an old tree we had to cut down but left the stump sticking out of the evergreen bushes in our backyard. Some light candles to bring in the Sabbath or bake challah bread as a tradition. To link creative expressions that are physical to our beliefs fosters the idea that God’s Word continually and meaningfully shapes our daily lives.
Conversational journal. Reading Bible stories and writing letters to God in a journal creates a conversational way while they are learning. Again, these journals can be a way to show children, as they grow, that they are in fact on a journey with God. The conversational journals about the stories of Scripture can become markers in their walk with God.
Help young people respond by giving them journaling prompts, if they need direction, such as, “Dear God,” “I noticed in this story that . . . ” “I believe that You are trying to teach me . . . ” “I want to learn how to . . . ” “Thank You for giving me this message so I can . . . ”
Dramatize. The use of reader’s theater works well for getting children to read, memorize, and dramatically recite scripture publicly in worship. The idea is to recite scripture combined with anthems and interruptions of conversation that expand or explain the message. The ideal would be to get four or five children to memorize their parts and practice, which deepens the message in their own hearts as well as edifies the congregation.
Ask thought/heart questions. The four Gospels have more than 270 questions that Jesus asked. Good questions can stir the thoughts and direct young people to meaningful responses. Consider the tone and style of the following questions:
Why do you think John chose to tell this story?
When you read this story of Joseph, what portion do you think we should talk about? Or think about more? Why?
What story or person in the Bible does this verse about forgiveness remind you of? Why did you choose that story?
Of all the passages you read, which verse speaks to you the most today? Why?
Good questions encourage children to think and share as well as develop a confidence in their ability to interact with God’s Word.
Putting it all together
The encounter Jesus had with the expert of the law is a textbook demonstration of a few of these principles and practices. “On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’ ” (Luke 10:25, 26).
Not only did Jesus inquire about content (“What is written in the Law?”), but the Savior was keenly interested in the way he perceived its meaning. The student in this story chooses to answer the question by quoting the ancient summary of the law found in Deuteronomy 6:5 and connecting it with another phrase clipped from Leviticus 19:18, that adds a responsibility to “ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” Consider the response of Jesus: “ ‘You have answered correctly,’ ” Jesus replied. “ ‘Do this and you will live’ ” (Luke 10:28). The Lord follows the expert’s next question about who is my neighbor with a penetrating story—the parable of the good samaritan. At the end of the story Jesus asks, “ ‘Which of the three was a neighbor?’ ” (v. 36). The response indicates real, higher level learning: “ ‘The one who showed mercy.’ ” And finally, Jesus leaves no room for only a theoretical or cognitive understanding of mercy. He extends the lesson into real learning by urging the student to “ ‘go and do likewise.’ ”
Granted, the above example clearly occurs in the learning experience of an adult. However, the teaching methods Jesus used translate to all age levels. Ultimately, our desire is for children to not only know their Bibles, but know God personally. As parents and leaders, we would do well to model these practices and share them with our kids so that we will see a generation of young people steeped in God’s Word.
* All Bible references are quoted from the New International Version.
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