Sharing the Bible with Children
How can we best share the stories of the Bible with a child? A Q&A with Tutor in Missiology Rev Dr Howard Worsley.
Q: Are there better or worse approaches to sharing Bible stories with children?
Sadly there seems to be a fair amount of bad approaches to sharing Bible stories with children, the worst of which is doing nothing. A lot of people think that their child will hear the Bible read in an engaging way at school or at church in the children’s church or Sunday school. Anecdotal research suggests that this is unlikely to lead to a significant encounter with the Bible. 1
The next worst thing is when parents rattle their way through a Bible story out of duty, without reflecting upon it with their child. I have often heard of parents who feel that they ought to familiarize their child with Scripture, but being unsure of their theology they teach all genres as simple fact, implicitly saying that the Bible must be taken at face value without critique. In this instance, the child is likely to come to the conclusion that the Bible is of high status to the adult but that it cannot be questioned, just accepted and believed. They might also note the tension in this encounter with Scripture and note that although their parent cannot question the text, maybe they can. Can donkeys really speak? (See Balaam’s ass.) How did Jesus walk on water? (See the gospel miracles.) Is it OK to throw over tables in church because you are cross with people? (See Jesus in the temple.)
If the child’s emergent critical thinking is not allowed to be articulated, it will go underground. Then they may well believe that their parent is not able to offer critical thinking to matters of faith and thereby begin to think that the only option is not to believe in God nor in the Bible’s value.
By contrast, the best way to read the Bible with children is to tell the story as a disciple who does not know everything. Parents and children are both on the same road. Neither is more in command of the scriptural hermeneutic. Both sit under the Word of God as they follow Jesus and both are there to reflect theologically. When parents use the telling of Bible stories as a moment of discussion, they invite their child to become a theologian. Why do you think the donkey saw the angel when Balaam didn’t? Why did Jesus walk on water? Why did Jesus overturn the moneychangers’ tables in the temple?
When this approach is taken, children are encouraged to reflect on the text as having a high status known as being ‘God’s Word’, and they are also invited to think of its meaning in terms of how they ought to respond to it. When this happens, parents gain the added benefit of learning from their child, of hearing their child’s insight, which is often an original fresh vision of reality.
I have spent a fair degree of time researching this phenomenon, when adults become ‘like little children’ and when ‘a little child shall lead’. I have written about this in the book A Child Sees God, which records conversations between parents and children after reading the Bible. In this book, I use seven basic genres of story and conclude with six key recommendations as to how to tell Bible stories in ways that are resourceful to parents and children:
Regularity: Storytelling doesn’t have to be nightly, but should at least be weekly.
Importance: Both the teller and listener should anticipate this event and come prepared.
Timing: It will be clear when the story will start and also how much time is available for storytelling.
Ambience: Any ritual can be enhanced with extra attention given to lighting, sound, smell, or heat, as well as the use of a particular room or chair.
Sacredness: Storytelling should not be interrupted by the telephone or another person.
Internal engagement: All families have their own rules about interruptions from children, but the general rule is that the story should be told with occasional interruption from the child, otherwise any complex issues of comprehension or discussion will be left until the end, and may be forgotten. Too much interruption could make it difficult to tell the story, however, so some balance is needed. 2
Q: What would you say to a parent feeling overwhelmed or unsure about how to approach reading the Bible with their child?
A: There is a plethora of children’s Bibles on the market, but the key is in the approach of the adult–to reflect on a biblical story with the child. Biblical stories are different from the vast array of adventure and fantasy stories available, and as such are not quite as accessible, but they come with a different value. They are stories for telling at the end of day before prayers. They are stories to be told over breakfast before school. They are stories to be told in the car on the way somewhere. And they are stories to unlock other stories. In what ways is Jesus similar to and different from a super hero? What do you think it was like when the Earth was formed? I wonder what heaven will be like? In the story of David and Goliath, I wonder what David felt like as he approached the giant? When Jesus was asleep in the boat in a storm, I wonder what the disciples were thinking?
Q: Are there ways in which the church can assist parents in this task?
A: The church can assist parents by developing a high view of children (easily endorsed within Scripture). This can be reflected in the care given to including children in worship events or in making provision for children when the service is not meeting their specific needs.
When children are consulted for their thoughts and questions about the Bible, a church can change in ways that lead to life. Children love helping adults to remember an earlier perspective, and if they are valued as theologians, they will not be slow to respond with insight.
Rev Dr Howard Worsley is tutor in missiology and vice principal at Trinity College. He and his wife Ruth have three sons.