As a Christian educator for more than 20 years, I have had multiple people ask me how to help children develop their own faith. This story might give you ideas on how to pass faith to the next generation and develop faith in your congregation as well.
Nothing was clicking
Fairly new to the role of Christian educator, I had been praying fervently for a new and better way to reach the young people in my church. It seemed as if nothing was clicking. During my study time, I came to my favorite historical book, Joshua.
In its third and fourth chapters, I read that God miraculously stopped the flow of the flooded Jordan River so that the nation of Israel could cross into the Promised Land. Once all had reached the other shore, God commanded Joshua to have the leader of each of the twelve tribes return to the dry riverbed and get a large stone. They were then to form a pillar in that place that would become their own. Immediately afterward, the river began to flow once again. The children of Israel ended their journey to their own land in much the same way as they started it: crossing a seemingly impassable body of water with the aid of the Almighty God.
But why build a pillar? The story really caught my attention. God had asked them to build other items during the decades of wandering, but those other things were portable and had to do with worship. Unable to get it out of my mind, I kept thinking about the incident. Building a pillar on the desolate land by the Jordan River seemed to me to be as pointless as digging a hole just to fill it back in again.
As I read again why God wanted them to erect a pillar, the reasoning was suddenly so simple and profound that I couldn’t believe I had missed it before. Of course! Build a pillar out of stones that could only have come from the very middle of the turbulent Jordan. It was the perfect thing to do.
A pillar in the middle of the barren landscape would have elicited questions for decades from children who had not witnessed God’s miraculous hand on the day the people crossed the Jordan. “What are those stones doing there?” “Who built this?” “How did it get here?” Such were the questions that God knew children would ask in the years ahead. The pillar would be a focal point; a springboard for ongoing conversations. It would spark curiosity.
God our Creator knows full well that curiosity is the beginning of all learning. Every good teacher knows that the best lessons kindle curiosity in students. Good teachers do not just teach, they encourage questions and stimulate learning. That was what God was doing by having His chosen people build a pillar made of stones gathered from the middle of a river.
As a Christian educator, I realized that while up to that point I had been teaching, I had not been inciting curiosity. The children learned, but they were not hungry to learn. God wants all children to want to know Him, not just because a teacher taught a lesson. An effective teacher must invite questions; provide a point of interest; remind them of the great things God has done; and, above all, inspire them.
God knows the hearts of young people, that they will always ask questions. But the young are not the only curious beings—what about all of your congregation?
But how? These were twenty-first century children. How could I spark curiosity in kids who have access to almost limitless information via the internet? It seemed like a huge undertaking. Clearly, God was speaking to me about really engaging young people. As I prayed, God led me to the next step: Stop teaching and start building a pillar.
The “how to” moment
That first week the lesson was to be about noticing how God acts in our lives and what, as Christians, our response should be to Him. I wanted to make the lesson stick. What could I do to spark their interest, engage their minds, and involve their hearts? Somehow, I needed to give them a focal point. I thought about the pillar and the questions that God knew it would raise.
I remembered from the book of 1 Samuel that after a victory over the Philistines, Samuel created a stone monument, an “ebenezer,” which means “stone of help,” as a remembrance that God had been with them. Like following a path of breadcrumbs, I found the first step. Not only that, I had an entirely new interpretation of my role in the lives of the young people God put in my path.
My first “pillar” was a rock that I spray-painted gold and then wrote on in red nail polish the word “Ebenezer.” Before the students arrived, I set my “ebenezer” in the middle of a table. I didn’t mention it, but the students had plenty to say and ask about it. The unusual object began the conversation, and, as strange as it sounds, the students began to ask more questions and to share more freely. That first, small step actually worked. They were engaged. The key was to create interest and for them to ask questions, comment, share, and interact. I still have that rock. And when children come to visit me, it still serves as a pillar. Children still ask the questions, and we still have the conversations.
That first step led to many others. Often it was a small one. During Christmas, I took the Baby Jesus figure out of the nativity scene. Immediately the students noticed that there was something unusual, the Baby Jesus was missing. The resulting questions and conversations helped the students to consider a world without Jesus in their lives. The discussion was rich and meaningful.
I have also led them on scavenger hunts in the church and on its grounds in which the items they would find were relevant to the topic of the day or helped to understand the history of our congregation in its community. I brought tiny shells from a visit to the Sea of Galilee and borrowed other artifacts from the Holy Land to let them see and guess what they were. I had five stones gathered from the valley where David fought Goliath. Never will I forget the looks on the faces of the children as they passed those small stones around.
The pillars I built were seldom made of stones. For example, we made and ate homemade yeast bread and we hunted for treasure. Those pillars were to illustrate two of Jesus’ parables. The kids loved them, and the message stayed with them. I came to understand that the best lessons are those in which the teacher learns as much as the students. And that happened often.
Those were such happy years. Never again did I purchase curriculum or prepared worksheets. Every lesson, every activity, every topic included a pillar. I became a better teacher, a more eager learner, and had to work to stay ahead of my students. We were all excited to be together for those two hours a week.
What can you, as a pastor, do to build pillars in the church? God knows the hearts of young people, that they will always ask questions. But the young are not the only curious beings—what about all of your congregation? How are they taking the sermon points home with them?
Tell the amazing story. Repeat the miracles of Jesus. Ask interesting questions. Encourage them to share their thoughts with friends and family. Engage in conversation about things of the spirit. Build in each person a curiosity about the God who continues to bring us through the raging water and into the Promised Land. Build a pillar, then let them ask why.