How to Talk to Children About God (Heaven, Hell, Jesus, Salvation, and How it All Works)

About a year ago I got an email from a parent telling me that her daughter was asking questions about God, heaven, hell, salvation and how it all works. I’m a big fan of answering questions with stories, answering questions with more questions. But there are some situations where kids don’t want the run-around. They want you to tell them what kind of story they are living in right now. So I sat down and fired back this response that I hope will frame the conversation w/out taking away the mystery and wonder of it all. Here’s my response:

It’s important to remember these questions are developmental as much as spiritual. I don’t know if you buy into Piaget’s stages, but in the movement toward the concrete operational stage, kids start to want to nail down this stuff. They need a category in which to file this stuff. Much of what she’s looking for is the answer to “who am I?”

First, do not start by telling your kid they are a sinner bound for hell. That will forever distort the story of God for them. They’ll learn all about sin later (through their own life). Right now we talk about God’s love. God has made everything with an intended purpose. Our job is to live toward that purpose; to live at peace with God, ourselves, each other, and the world.

Tell them who they are: She is part of the people of God. She doesn’t belong to a club called Christianity that she can voluntarily leave. Her base identity before she is a girl, your daughter, a sister, white, American, etc, is that she belongs to Jesus. Nothing can stop this from being true. This is incredibly grounding for a child. You almost border on telling them, “You have no choice – you belong to Jesus. He bought you.” You get to tell her she will live her life this way, and that when she dies one day, she will still be safe in the arms of Jesus forever.

What she has a choice about, is living into that story, or running away from that story. To live into that story will bring life and even more life. To run away from that story will rob life and destroy life. This is her constant challenge as she lives her life. (Running from that story is something you will address constantly as you are parenting/guiding your kid, but not in this conversation – not in the conversation about her salvation. In this conversation, we only tell the good news). Jesus is Lord of all, Jesus bought us with his blood, and we have always belonged to Him, and we always will! We are his & he will take us everywhere we need to go if we follow him.

Public profession: The most concrete expression of this identity in this life is her involvement with the people of God. So I would teach her that every single time she comes to church she is making a public profession of faith. She identifies with Jesus when she identifies with the body of Christ. We come to church not to learn how to be a better person, or to learn more about Jesus – although those both happen. We come to church to express the reality that we are a part of the body of Christ. Later on in moral development stages – adolescence – you begin to teach more about how every moral choice is a public profession of faith & how some moral choices can destroy us. But I think that’s to confusing early on. It builds too much guilt & ends up making kids experience anxiety about whether or not they are really “saved.” She needs to know she was saved the moment Jesus came out of that tomb. All of life is allowing her salvation to be expressed through the way that she lives her life.

Communion and baptism: These are also about our public profession of faith. As you eat the body of Jesus, you become the body of Jesus. We are what we eat. We feast on Jesus & become his hands and feet. Then we take Jesus everywhere we go. In baptism, as you go under the water all other allegiances die… they don’t come back up – only your identification with Jesus and the people of God. When we receive communion and baptism, created things – bread, wine, water – become infused with the Spirit of God and something holy happens. That’s why we do those things. They don’t save us, but there are expressions of God’s salvation.

A few particulars: I think we can say that salvation is a one time deal – but it happened in the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not a one time deal, like “I accepted Jesus” so I’m in. (Or conversely, “You haven’t said the sinner’s prayer, received the Holy Spirit & the gift of tongues, been baptized by the Roman Catholic Church, or whatever line people draw and ask people to step across so you are out!”).

Accepting Jesus is a constant thing – so you are right on in telling her that it’s a day to day choice. What is a minute to minute deal is the way we are living into Jesus’s salvation, or in light of Jesus’s salvation. This can be a little confusing to kids who need concrete stuff to hang their hat on. So I would pick some phrases that you and your husband say exactly alike and then use with them as a matter of routine. This forms a liturgy for the kids they can begin to know and parrot back to you. These phrases will serve as important categories to build on. They are so important because as they grow older, you need to be able to fill them with ever greater content. Q & A w/kids often goes like this:

Am I “saved” or “am I a Christian?” “You were saved the moment Jesus came out of that tomb! That’s when your salvation happened. That’s when all salvation happened. Now you are beginning to consciously live into that story. This means you are a Christian, you are a part of the people of God, the body of Christ.”

How did it work? “Jesus took all of the pain, death, sin, brokenness (whatever you want to use to describe that – evil, bad stuff), and he sort of swallowed it. Even though it ended up killing him, he was raised from the dead. Now, if we live IN JESUS, we don’t have to live in pain, death, sin, brokenness, etc. We don’t fear those things because they are not powerful enough to steal us out of God hands. Even if we die they can’t steal us out of God’s hands.”

“Is everybody saved?” “Jesus died and rose again to save every single person who ever lived. But some people get really lost. Some don’t know that they are saved through Jesus, that’s why we tell people about him. Some other people know he died for them, but they don’t want him to save them. That’s why we pray for them. Some people are so hungry, so hurt, so poor, or so sick that they can’t even be bothered to think about these questions. That’s why we serve them. Who Jesus saves is not our problem – that’s God’s deal.”

If I do things wrong, will I stop being saved? “The Spirit of God is alive in your heart – with you every moment of every day. There’s nothing you can ever do to make him go away.” (There’s much more to say about this later on – but for now we stop there).

Do I have to pray to accept Jesus? “The Christian constantly prays to accept Jesus. We pray all the time and ask Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. You can do this as much as you want. God never stops loving to hear this from us. “I love you God. I give myself to you,” is the best thing we can ever say to God and God loves it.”

What will happen when I die? “You will always be with Jesus. You will live again. You will feast and party and sing and play and rest and you will always be with the Lord. You will find family and love and good work to do with your hands. You will live at peace with all things and life will be joyful and full. Don’t worry about it.”

Sometimes I’m afraid about this stuff. “It’s okay to feel afraid. The best thing to do if you are ever afraid is to recite this Psalm over and over: “When I am afraid, I will trust in the Lord.” Say it and remember that Jesus is with you.” And, you need to tell someone else.” I will often say it this way: “When you have worries or troubles, you bring them to the body of Christ – that means you tell someone like mommy, or daddy, or your brother, or small group at church.”

 

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • http://aarontiffany.wordpress.com AaronT

    Good words. I especially like the paragraph on Public Profession. In my context of youth ministry many kids show up because there’s nothing else to do in a small town, or because there is food, or a friend asked them to come. But every week he/she comes to youth group, they are publicly professing identity in the body of Christ. Reminds me that part of our own liturgy should involve saying these identifying words together which informs or reminds our young people that they are a part of the body of Christ and how they live each day and choices they make will either confirm this identity or “destroy” this identity.

  • reverend robbie

    At what age might you make the statement, “I could be wrong”?

  • rumitoid

    How are we to be judged? By what we do for the least of these. No mention of good works?

    If you believe it should be concrete, why present the child with abstract beliefs? Take them to visit the sick, elderly, and needy. The Way of Jesus is a spirit of action, not a system of belief. It is of the heart far, far more than it is of the head. The truth of Jesus is love, and this is by demonstration from the parents both with their children and in all their affairs. The life of Jesus is trust, placing all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength in God’s hand while in fellowship with our brothers and sisters tending to the Lost and needy. Gratitude is the place to start and connect with children to gain an idea of God’s grace.

  • Donalbain

    “Her base identity before she is a girl, your daughter, a sister, white, American, etc, is that she belongs to Jesus”

    And then, if she decides that you are wrong? What happens then? You have told her that her identity, the identity that you love, no longer exists. Great idea!

  • Tony

    What about leaving kids to make up their own minds and not pumping their heads full of indoctrination when they’re impressionable ? Is that not an option?

  • Pingback: How to Talk to Children About God – Part II


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