The King Jesus Gospel and Our Children

Here’s a letter:

Scot,
I grew up in a very soterian gospel culture and now work in children’s ministry. One of my roles is to help parents learn how to talk to their children about following Christ in a concrete (developmentally appropriate) way. I have about 30-45 minutes a few times a year to teach parents how to “lead their kids to Christ.” Since I am now wrestling with redefining the gospel, I feel a little stuck in guiding these parents. I understand the lifelong commitment of parents to disciple their kids. However, the pattern of “evangelism” at the church I’m in would be to present the basics via John 3:16 and to lead kids in a prayer to trust Christ. It’s easy to talk about how eternal life starts now so that it’s not just an “evacuation plan” gospel. However, I’m curious how you would offer a simple explanation to a child that includes the King Jesus gospel.

Response:

I often try to get folks to rethink this by asking this question first: How do you teach your children about Aslan? You read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to them as soon as they can comprehend that wonderful tale. You may also put up a picture of Aslan in their bedroom. And many of us also take our children to a theater or we purchase a DVD so they can watch it at home. And, perhaps most of it all, when our children ask questions about Aslan and Narnia, we answer their questions. We encourage their fascination, and we sometimes bring up Aslan ourselves to them.

That’s exactly how we teach them the King Jesus Gospel. We read to them the Gospel story about Jesus, we may put up a picture of them in their room, and we might have a cross in our home. If a movie comes out about Jesus, we watch it and talk about it. There’s more we can do about Jesus: We can take them to church, where in Sunday school classes they can learn about Jesus. We read books about Jesus, and we listen to their questions about Jesus, and we do our best to answer those questions. Maybe you’ve been to the Holy Land and have pictures of the Sea of Galilee … and all these bring Jesus up in the presence of our children.

Notice that I’ve not said a word about Christianity. Our role as parents is to be witnesses to Jesus (just as Jesus told his disciples in Acts 1:8). We are called to point people to Jesus.

But I can hear you saying this isn’t enough. The issue here is not that. The issue is that we want to be able to count heads, we want to be able to say, “She’s made a decision and she’s in, while he’s still out.” This is where the problem arises: we are so intent on being able to count some child’s head as “in” and no longer “out” that we manipulate situations, we manipulate our children with guilt, and we get youth leaders who will do the same, and we hope the pastor will do the same … all hoping that we can finally relax at night knowing our kids have made the right decision and are now saved and “in.”

I get that but it’s wrong-headed: we’ve got to stop this grind and begin re-learning that we are witnesses to Jesus. What we are looking for is not that our children have made a decision but that they are beginning to live “in Christ,” that they are beginning to follow Jesus, that they are beginning to take steps that make it clear they see Who he is, what he has done for us (lived, died, buried, raised, exalted; forgiven, justified, reconciled), and how we are to respond to him (turning from what we want to what God wants, trusting him, and being baptized into his life, death, burial and resurrected life).

We need not be in a hurry. Ignore the apocalyptists and take your time to let the fertile soil of your home be the ground on which gospel seeds can take root and grow.

Another issue here is that we have some reason come to the view that we can do this in a 3-5 minutes. I don’t believe there’s any warrant for thinking we have to reduce the gospel to a few points so we can say we’ve presented the gospel.

But I do think in one minute, in 5 minutes, in one hour, in one day, in one week, in one month, in one year we can witness to Jesus by reading the Bible, by telling stories about Jesus, and by telling people what has happened to us in encountering the grace of God in King Jesus, who is Lord of the Empire and the Savior of the Expanses.

Tell your children about Jesus, tell them about his whole life, and explain some Why? questions: that he entered into this world in order to redeem it, because we have done such a bad job at what God called us to do (be co-regents with God in this world); he entered into what we deserved — death — so that we can enjoy what He alone is and can give — life. That he died with us in solidarity as one of us; that he died instead of us (our sin, our death); and that he died for us (“for our sins”). And he, like Aslan, saw the day when the Stone Table cracked, he roamed the land again, and we too can live in light of the new creation resurrection life.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • ChrisB

    Scot, are you still a credobaptist? When, in the King Jesus Gospel approach, does one get baptized?

  • Scot McKnight

    ChrisB,

    The church is totally split on this one, of course. The NT is talking to those who haven’t been baptized as children, infant baptism took a long time to develop, so when I speak of baptism I’m speaking in NT terms about baptism upon profession/confession.

  • chad miller

    One of the Keys here is our view on Original Sin and if we beleive that all children are “in” until old enough to choose for themselves to follow or reject Jesus.

    It seems as though many popular childrens cirriculum ie. gospel light, or awana clubs push hard form young(4,5,6 yearolds) to say admit they are sinners, and pray a “salvation prayer”. Often those who create and put resources behind good cirriculum come from this perspective.

    As an Anabaptist/Mennonite Congregation this has caused significant issues for us.

  • Matthew H. Loverin

    We have used this book for a while with our kids and it is absolutely brilliant on the ‘story’ aspect of the Gospel.

    http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Storybook-Bible-Every-Whispers/dp/0310708257/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1319644011&sr=8-1

  • Nathan

    Scot-
    I was recently asked to resign from my church as a paid “children’s minister”, partly b/c of this issue. I ran head-on into those who were “so intent on being able to count some child’s head as “in” and no longer “out” … manipulating children with guilt, and asking me to do the same…”; however, I refused this path and tried to show a different one – equipping parents to story the gospel, live it out daily in front of their children, make disciples for the long-haul, etc. Sunday school teachers complained when I changed our curriculum from one that attempted to get children to “pray the prayer” each week, to one that taught the whole gospel over a period of a full year. Many complained when our children’s camp emphasis changed from a evangelistic/emotional manipulation decision-making one to one of disciple-making in the home. Also, I encouraged parents (fathers when possible) to baptize their own children. Lots of folks (other than the parents) didn’t like this. I could go on, but instead I will ask a question:
    What do you think about Kierkegaard’s idea that children would be better off not hearing the gospel until they were older (teenagers or adults)? He said, “It is immense stupidity to say that childhood itself is the time for really deciding to become a Christian. And insofar as this urge and inclination to push becoming a Christian back into childhood becomes common, this in itself is proof that the decisiveness of Christian faith is on its way to dying out.”

  • T

    Scot,

    Thanks for tackling this. I think your answer is spot on. Becoming someone’s disciple (shaping one’s whole life after another’s) isn’t a commitment that one generally makes after a 2-5 minute presentation, or, we would hope not. Rather than pushing kids to trust Jesus after this or that brief talk, we need to encourage them to consider what and whom they trust, why and with what results, and show them the Way, in word and deed.

  • Amos Paul

    I appreciate your thoughts here to the realm of Christian parenting–but I was sort of expecting a different response. Or at least, I’m personally more concerned about a different realm?

    What about the church? How do and what do we teach children there? I have thoughts, of course, but my church (and most I know) use so much pre-made material it hurts. And I’m not saying it hurts to buy good material… but there’s ever so little of it out there. I only coordinated in the children’s ministry for a year or so–but the materials I had to work with had to be adapted so much to not be completely overbearing and “soterian guilt trip”‘y.

  • Jed Walker

    Scot, have you seen The Jesus Storybook Bible? My 6 year old son and I have been through 5-6 times in its entirety and it has been incredibly helpful in framing his understanding of Scripture…and mine too to be honest.

    On more than one occasion, I’ve been so blown away by the way its communicated the Gospel as a singular story. Its absolutely beautifully executed. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

    http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Storybook-Bible-Every-Whispers/dp/0310708257/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319645750&sr=1-1

  • http://withthekids.wordpress.com/ AprilK

    We like the Jesus Storybook Bible, too!

    I just started doing the curriculum Peter Enns wrote for children called Telling God’s Story with the kids in my house church. It introduces children to Jesus via his parables at the outset of the curriculum rather than starting in Genesis like is commonly done. I think it’s wonderful and I love that approach! http://olivebranchbooks.net/tgs.html

  • T

    Lemmie second a recommendation for materials that Scot has mentioned before: the MissioLife stuff looks really great if one is looking for curriculum. I’ve only looked at their first module, for each of the 3 age groups they cover, but it looks really well done and aims to make disciples for the long haul.

  • E.G.

    “Jesus Storybook Bible”

    YES! It is excellent. I “third” that recommendation.

  • http://www.pinehillschurch.com Nirup Alphonse

    Scott,
    What is the role of the OT LAW in relation to modern day evangelism? Take men such as Ray Comfort’s approach of using the LAW when street corner evangelizing?

  • Randy

    My biggest problem with children’s ministry (speaking as a former children’s pastor) is the lack of gospelling at all in favor of the thin soup of moralism. Teaching sharing or self-esteem where there should be taught grace and forgiveness.

  • rjs

    Nathan,

    Most of the things you mention here seem good to me except baptism by the fathers. I don’t think baptism of a wife by husband is generally appropriate either.

    Here the issue is the fundamental importance of the community of the church. The fundamental Christian unit is not the nuclear family, it is the church.

  • Nathan

    rjs-
    I understand what you are saying about the importance of the church as our new family in Christ, and I agree that it takes priority over the biological family (not to the exclusion of it, though). But, who is supposed to baptize? Shouldn’t it be the teacher/mentor who has the responsibility to baptize his/her student/mentoree…is this not the same responsibility that parents have in discipling their children?
    I am also curious to hear your thoughts regarding the idea (from kierkegaard) that it would be better for a child who is raised by Christian parents to not hear the gospel until they are old enought to make a “grown-up” decision to follow Christ.

  • ChrisB

    Scot, you neatly avoided answering my question.

  • Chris Theule-VanDam

    This conversation reminds me of Horace Bushnell who wrote in, Christian Nurture, (over 100 years ago)that it is possible for someone to never know that he is not a follower of Jesus Christ. This is true for me, and I wonder if we might need to bring Bushnell’s ideas back.

  • DRL

    Scot,

    So then in recovering the gospel (and thus re-defining as to its original meaning) it seems we are still left with soteriological questions–even more so, as the original gospel always forced its hearers to a crisis of decision (Barth). “What then shall we do to be saved?” was the anticipated cry, consistently in Acts. And while the answer was not “raise your hand” or “come down the aisle for prayer with our counselors,” it WAS “believe, repent, and be baptized.”

    Will your next book be on recovering a biblical soteriology? Because now that we have clarified what the message is that brings salvation, we now need a theology of salvation that we can teach. Or is soteriology unaffected apart from being distinquished from the gospel?

  • David

    I have to chime in here, as a recovering children’s minister, parent of 4, and enthusiastic supporter of Scot’s reading of gospel.

    As a CM, I was exasperated by virtually every curriculum’s soterian bent and push for making a decision by very young children with a very minimalistic presentation of a half-gospel.

    That said…we regularly take opportunities to talk about “the story” at our house. And one of the things we did recently was to read “The Story of God, The Story of Us” by Sean Gladding (mentioned in KJG) aloud together as a family. My kids from 9 to 15 participated. It took us months to complete, but opened all kinds of opportunities for conversation. By the time it was over, my 11 year old told us he wanted to follow Jesus, starting with baptism (ChrisB #1)

  • T

    Nathan,

    In response to your Keirkegaard question: My first question would be what we mean by “gospel.” If we take Scot’s definition as the arrival and story of the Messiah-king and his kingdom, I don’t know how we could keep children from hearing this if they are raised by believers. The classic child’s question of “why?” will push us to Christ very quickly in a variety of contexts. Further, if the parents ground their own behavior and decisions in this story/gospel of Christ, and teach their children the same behavior and basis for that behavior, the children will be disciples of Jesus early on by default, which is what I think Paul was getting at in I Cor. 7.

    Further still, how do we square this suggestion of kierkegaard’s with Jesus correction to the disciples to let the children come to him? Or with Jesus’ statement that to enter the kingdom, we must become like a little child? Frankly, we evangelicals, with our bad-news-first-gospel keep trying to turn this on its head. But if the core of the gospel is a news about a Person, a king: Jesus (not just his sacrifice), and if the proper invitation is to trust HIM (the whole man, with all he said, did and keeps doing) enough to follow and obey him, then children can get this, and often better and more willingly and completely than adults, which squares with Jesus’ own comments on the subject.

    In a nutshell, if our “gospel” can’t be given to and received by children, that should tell us something about our gospel, namely that we’ve got it wrong. I go back to Scot’s post on evangelism and the KJG: tell them about Jesus. Invite them to trust and follow. Enter his kingdom.

  • Kate

    I was raised in the faith by an Anglican church. Baptised as an infant, I don’t think my parents owned a bible but my godparents gave me bible story books which that I loved and persuaded my parents to read to me. I soaked in the scriptural liturgy week after week, learned bible stories in Sunday school and loved the rhythms of the church year.

    There was an evening fellowship that met in my neighbours’ house, so I was able to attend despite my parents’ lack of interest, and we kids sat on the floor while the adults discussed their faith and what God was doing in their lives, or taught us a new song someone had written.

    No one ever tried to “convert” me or get me to “say a prayer” but I was well taught, and when at 12 I decided I wanted be confirmed the vicar took me through a series of classes including advice on prayer and bible reading. I was allowed to grow up naturally within a faith community and learned to know and love Jesus through immersion in a very well-rounded gospel lived out all around me.

  • T

    Let me give another angle: when we take the approach that the core of the gospel is double imputation or justification by faith (not works) or the like, we necessarily raise the bar for what a person must be able to “understand” to respond in faith at all. We think about the very young, or the mentally disabled, and we wonder what they can really comprehend about this or that “essential” doctrine, rather than who they can understand well enough to trust and obey. This the core of my own (not necessarily Scot’s) concern with framings of the gospel that are more about soteriological mechanisms more than a Person. Children may not be able to understand the DoG or the Law-Gospel or faith-works doctrines. But I think they know as well or better than adults how to trust another person, particularly a stronger, caring one. I know there is no way to present the Person without some doctrine/teaching about him. But our contradiction with Jesus’ own teachings about children reveal, IMO, that we have de-personalized the doctrines to some meaningful degree; meaningfully enough to think that children can’t really come to Christ, can’t enter the kingdom as well as we adults can, no matter what Christ said.

  • http://www.chuckroberts.blogspot.com/ Chuck Roberts

    Scot, I really appreciate this question and your response. I have been well-schooled in the soterian gospel, so much so, that, although what you say resonates with me, I still find myself to often in a soterian fog.

    The problem with the approach lined out in the question is that it doesn’t produce disciples. I watch as good friends of ours struggle with one of their daughters. They’re part of a deeply soterian congregation. They’ve all made “decisions” so they’re “safe,” yet the gospel has no bearing for everyday life. It’s the confusion that says, “I guess we get saved and after that, out of gratitude, we do the very best we can to be really good.” But if someone in the family is struggling there’s no sense of “I wonder what God is doing in my own heart or in my family as we struggle along with our teenage daughter.”

    By the way, we too, love The Jesus Storybook Bible. I think it does an excellent job of drawing kids into the story in a way they understand Jesus is the point. Interesting to note that the author notes that she’s been heavily influenced by Tim Keller, who is excellent, but probably thoroughly in the soterian camp.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    Great post and important discussion. I totally relate to the concerns raised by the ministers/pastors, as I had those same issues myself. I did a lot of curriculum writing myself … and in the end the old-school leaders outsted many of the pastors — including me. Our senior pastor left the next year … clearly the people were not ready, although we did some good soil preparation, as it were.

    It is not so much that we should not expost our children to the gospel as it is that we should not force or scareor guild them into saying a prayer or making a decision when they a too young to really understand.

    I agree that the one who disciples should do the baptising — as long as it is due to real Discipleship and doesn’t have any power or domination issues ( rjs, your comment about husbands baptizing wives inspired that thought).

  • simon

    Before I became a parent I used to think about this a lot. Parenthood came with such a blur of tiredness and busyness that our approach probably owed more to making it up as you go along than any really thought out framwork. So what do our 5 year old and two 3 year olds know about Jesus. Well they understand that he’s a person that we can’t see, but is with us all the time. You can talk to him and sometimes you get a sense of what he thinks about what you’re saying. At mealtimes and bedtime especially we talk to him, mostly to thank him for the good things in life, and when we drive past something tragic or hear about someoen who is ill we tell him about it so he can help. We know he is caring and interested and he wants us to learn and grow. We also like to sing happy songs that we know he likes. We are also becoming aware that when we hurt each other that’s not what Jesus likes. We know he was killed by soldiers and that the cross is “his symbol” we also know that unlike Grandpa, death was not the end for Jesus, because he loved people so much he wanted to be with them more. We also know that Christmas is his Birthday and Easter is when the soldiers killed him and when he “came back alive”. We probably know a little bit more about Luke Skywalker than we do about Jesus, but we also know a few key differences – mostly relating to light-sabers.

    All this is very different from my own experience as an atheist adult coming to a dramatic experience of conversion, and I used to wonder if I was “short-changing” them the joy of that moment of chain-loosening liberty, but now that they are here and enjoying their primitive relationship with him I am very happy with where they are. I think the implicit reflection and consideration in a life shaped (however poorly in our case) by prayer has made them more kind and caring young people – not that that is the instrumental goal of discipleship, and sometimes they talk about Jesus to their freinds or teacher, such as when explaining a drawing. We have sometimes talked about Jesus as a sort of King, but mainly when talking about other stories of Kings, Queens and Rulers who lead in a way unlike Jesus.

    I’ve no idea where we are getting it right or wrong, and I was grateful for some of the comments and suggestions above. For my part “Stories Jesus Told” by Butterworth and Inkpen is a favourite.

    My hope for them is that they will want to continue to be learner followers of King Jesus, but I am conscious of the inherent manipulation in them wanting to do what pleases me, or at least let me think that’s what they’re doing.

    My own copy of KJG arrived y/day so I’m only 90 pages in – already thinking who else to buy one for…

    Thanks Scot.

  • JohnnyM

    Preparing for Baptism: Becoming a Part of the Story of the People of God by Allan J. McNicol is written on a fourth grade level. It contains six chapters that can be covered in a 13-week quarter. The chapter titles are: Becoming Part of the Story, God Calls a Special People, Jesus and the Impact of His Mission, Entrance Into the People of God, Maintained in Holiness, and The Story Until This Day. More information at here: http://www.austingrad.edu/pub_pfb.html.

  • Mick Porter

    Nathan, I was involved in a form of soterian culture and I knew people who toyed with the idea of not telling their kids the “gospel” until they were older. Idea being to wait until they could really understand their own sinfulness, especially relating to sexuality – then the news of Jesus’death for them and call to repent could be fresh and surprising. I say this is totally bogus in light of the true gospel!

  • Jerry Sather

    In my 20+ years of pastoral ministry I’ve noticed tremendous parental concern for whether or not their child had received Jesus. Some expressed relief when their child “prayed the prayer” and “invited Jesus into their life” but then were confused when as teens they departed from that path. If we make receiving Jesus about some sort of “transaction” it is bound to fail. Instead children and adults need to come to know Jesus as their Lord, Savior, Teacher and Friend.

  • Nathan

    Thanks T and Mick and everyone for some good insight. I am with you 100%. Kierkegaard’s statements were reactions to the “childish orthodoxy” of his day, which are very similar to our own time/place. We have replaced Jesus’ very grown-up demands (cross-bearing, disciple-making, etc.) for a childlike faith with a childish faith (raise your hand, walk to the front, pray a prayer) with hardly any demands at all. With our Happy Meal gospel we have effectively permitted the little ones to come to Jesus, but have prevented them from growing up in Christ.

  • Chris

    I was “born again” back in 1976, the year of the evangelical and pres. Jimmy Carter. I asked my 78 year old if she had been born again and she said she had always known God since she was a little girl. Immediately the decisionism culture I got saved in was beginning to look suspect. Could I question her relationship to God if she didn’t have a “born-again” experience? She was old-school Lutheran. The key to children and the kingdom is to introduce them to Jesus–He saves, we witness.

  • Chris

    My 78 year old great aunt Evelyn.

  • Gabriel Hauber

    So simple and makes so much sense… I wonder why we make things like this so difficult for ourselves? My wife and I have done our best to get the whole Bible story into our kids right from the beginning, utilising various kids Bibles and reading through them over and over again at bed time. We’ve used several kids bibles over the years, and I think it’s good to use different ones because they all tell the story differently and emphasise different things. Some are better than others, of course, and some I’ve seen on the shelf of the book stores I wouldn’t read to my kids in a million years they are that bad.

    Now, my two older kids (13 and 11 years old) are doing almost daily reading on their own (Chronological bibles are great for this with their inbuilt reading plan!), and I’ve moved to reading them much more “mature” books about the faith (currently reading Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God”.

    I’ve repeatedly read through the Jesus Story Book Bible as well, and love it on a number of levels. However, I also personally find it rather Soterian in its approach and I feel it misses out some pretty important concepts in relation to the King Jesus theme (its focus is very much on Jesus as Saviour).

    “The Everyday Bible” (also seems to be called “The One Year Children’s Bible” in some markets) by Rhona Davies is also an excellent resource, covering a wide swathe of the Old and New Testaments, broken up into 365 small chunks perfect for reading to kids at bed time. I think they are a little short, so I usually read two stories at a time to my younger kids (7 and 5 yo) at bed time.

    Of course, reading isn’t the only thing – trying to work in gospel thinking in answering the kids’ questions, living out the faith as parents who are under the rule of King Jesus, finding ways for them to participate in our house-church meetings (we don’t run a separate program for the kids), etc.

  • Fish

    Once my daughter, who was maybe 13 at the time, was asked by one of her friends if she was “saved.” My daughter replied “I was saved 2000 years ago.” Proud father here.

  • http://www.kidtrek-sundayplus.org Wanda

    Have enjoyed reading through the thread.

    I am presently writing a Children’s Ministry curriculum, Sunday Plus, that engages the whole church in the discipleship of the children.

    One of my pet peeves has been the way the Gospel is presented to children. We all too often think we are the Holy Spirit and try to do His job of convicting. In our curriculum we talk often about being a member of God’s family – we tell the kids to speak to their Discipler later (after the Gathering) if they want to know how to become a member of God’s family.

    My years of working with children has taught me that if it is the Holy Spirit who is drawing the child the child will come to the adult later and ask questions.

    We spiritually still-birth way too many children with our pushiness. Then we hear them as adults say, “I tried Christianity and it didn’t work for me.” It is because as a child they said a Harry Potter type of rhyme and thought that would “magically” change them. The problem was they had no understanding what they had said and the Holy Spirit had no part in it.

    For those of you looking for curriculum of substance check out Sunday Plus – I warn you, it is not for a church looking for something that is easy and simple. We are attempting to give the kids the picture of God’s plan for mankind that began in Genesis. At the same time having adults who walk with the kids through life modeling what it means to walk with God in a whole-istic way. http://www.kidtrek-sundayplus.org


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