The Bible Uncensored: How to Teach Kids by Lauren Hunter for Children’s Ministry Magazine
Should the Bible be censored for kids? Find out what experts say.
From the account of Cain murdering Abel, to David committing adultery with Bathsheba, to the woman at the well’s five husbands, to the beheading of John the Baptist, the Bible is fraught with some gruesome and disturbing accounts that expose humankind’s sinful nature. Whether it’s dodging narratives of brutal murder, rape, and incest or navigating Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross, children’s ministers face a unique challenge when it comes to knowing how to teach kids the tougher parts of the Bible.
How do we prayerfully cover all Bible stories for all ages? It’s no simple task-nor one to be taken lightly. For some, the idea of quietly censoring the Bible has its appeal. And it’s true: To a degree, simply leaving out the tough stories of the Bible would be easier.
But–and this is a big “but”–children’s ministers and experts all agree that omitting certain accounts of the Bible is a flawed approach that can result in children developing a flawed faith. So what’s the best approach to handling the racier events of the Bible? Read on to find out.
Unpack the Reality of Sin
Experts agree that we must figure out how to present all of the Bible-even the really uncomfortable parts-to kids so they learn from it. While the parts full of humanity’s sin can feel treacherous with children, shielding them from these parts may in fact shield them from the awareness of our sinful nature and our need for a Savior.
“Most of the ‘uncomfortable or censored’ content is a direct result of sin,” says Bill Emeott, lead childhood ministry specialist at LifeWay Christian Resources, “and kids need to understand what sin is and its consequences.”
We can’t teach the foundations of Christianity to children without teaching the concept of sin. Presenting the right teachings at the right time in a child’s life can provide the building blocks necessary to establish initial understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to him through Jesus. Starting with the third story in the Bible, kids need to know how Adam and Eve’s poor choice allowed sin to enter the world and separate humankind from God. It’s important to not protect kids from an early and basic understanding of sin and its gravity. This knowledge is crucial for kids to understand more about the Bible, themselves, and the world around them.
“At the same time,” Emeott notes, “it’s important to be sensitive to a child’s maturity and ability to understand the content. Whenever possible and appropriate, teaching the concepts and reality of these events is valuable-and foundational.”
Use Age-Appropriate Discretion
If you’ve ever set out to read the Bible from cover to cover, you know how overwhelming it can be to stomach all the violence. The Bible brings humans’ true sinful nature to the surface in a multitude of ways. Our challenge is to simplify-but not dumb-down-these lessons for children.
“For instance, the central story of our faith includes a guy being beaten, bloodied, and nailed to a cross,” says Mikal Keefer, senior writer for Lifetree Café (lifetreecafe.com) and a children’s ministry volunteer for more than 30 years. “Yet we find a way to share that story with everyone from young children to adults; it’s not the story-it’s the detail and method by which it’s shared.”
“I believe the entire Bible-every word-is important and good to study,” explains Jayne George, children’s ministry director for Valley Springs Presbyterian Church in Roseville, California. George has taught children and authored curriculum for more than 30 years.
“The real question is: What’s an age-appropriate way?” One tactical example is in nearly every boy’s favorite Old Testament “bad guy” story: David and Goliath. It’s a safe assumption that in virtually no children’s Bible is there mention of the end of the struggle, where David, after mortally wounding Goliath with his slingshot and stone, runs to Goliath, pulls the giant’s sword, and makes the final kill by beheading him. The complete account may be okay for older preteens, but certainly not for preschoolers or early elementary kids.
“The Bible is by nature a violent book,” Keefer continues. “Pick any child’s Bible storybook and no matter how carefully the stories are told, there’s violence lurking just around the corner.”
Often simplifying certain aspects of a story and presenting them on the child’s level is the key to making the story understandable to children. Consider the story of Noah’s Ark. It’s a treasured scene that adorns nurseries in churches and homes. What we don’t see is that once the animals are aboard the ark, a devastating flood engulfs the rest of life. We leave out certain details for the little ones.
“It’s a good idea to focus on the parts of the story that make a powerful connection with kids,” says Jody Brolsma, senior editor for Group’s vacation Bible school programs (groupvbs.com). “For example, in our Egypt VBS, we wanted to talk about Joseph being in prison for something he didn’t do. We knew that kids understand what it’s like to get blamed for something they didn’t do or even to get punished unjustly. Well, Joseph was put in prison because Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, then claimed that he’d tried to rape her…Not exactly kid-friendly! So we had Joseph say, ‘Potiphar’s wife wanted me to be her boyfriend…and that’s not right!’ This was a simple, age-appropriate way to handle the topic, while not making it the focus of the story or an inappropriate distraction.”
Build a Simple Foundation
Consider what the key truth is that children of any age need to learn from any Bible story. Keefer asserts, “I wonder if a better question to ask-rather than ‘What stories are age-appropriate?’-might be ‘What truth does God want these children to discover from his Word?’ ”
For many, removing unnecessary and overly complicated details from stories is one tried-and-true way to get the story to the child’s level. Greg Baird is the founder of Kidmin360 (childrensministryleader.com), an organization that provides equipping and leadership development for children’s ministers. He says his trusted approach to tough biblical topics is to share the truth-without sharing all the facts.
“Keep to the truth and the essential message of the passage, but be careful not to raise disturbing and distracting elements of the story,” advises Baird. “For example, we can say that Rahab was a woman who didn’t obey God rather than that she was a prostitute. As kids get older, we share more details. In fact, later on those details sometimes lead to more relevant, life-impacting discussions.”
Children’s minister George adds that teaching young children is an organic process, meaning she inserts story details to kids’ learning as they’re appropriate to the kids’ age and development. “If I’m going to teach my child to swim, I’m not going to throw him into the deep end and hope he ‘gets it.’ I’m going to introduce him to water in an age-appropriate and organic manner. This way, children learn in non-threatening and easy ways. And that’s your goal for teaching children the Bible. By the time they get to the more difficult details and stories, there’s not trauma.”
Don’t Turn Truth Into a Fairy Tale
While simplifying biblical accounts to make them appropriate and palatable to children is beneficial, experts agree that there’s a risk of over-sanitizing the stories: The stories risk being stripped of their inherent meaning and value.
“Children’s ministers need to be willing to push the envelope a little,” says Brolsma. “Many times it feels like we’ve watered down these stories so they’re the equivalent of fairy tales in an effort to not frighten or offend. No wonder so many young adults who grew up in the church don’t believe the Bible is true. We need to be willing to help children experience God’s Word, to let the emotion and power of God’s Word take root in a child’s heart. That’s life-changing. Again, I’m not talking about showing The Passion of the Christ to a class of fourth graders, but it’s okay to talk about how painful it was for Jesus to die.”
Providing kids with just enough detail to identify and relate to the people or situations involved in the events is extremely valuable. Ask: What traits or themes do you want to teach? How do you want your children to relate their personal experience to God’s Word? And, advise our experts, don’t be lulled into sticking to the tried-and-true stories kids have heard hundreds of times.
“Why have we limited the awesomeness of God’s Word to a select number of ‘safe’ stories?” challenges Brolsma. “Recently we talked to VBS leaders about our upcoming Babylon VBS, which has the subtitle, ‘Daniel’s Courage in Captivity.’ I was astounded that a negative comment was, ‘How are you going to make the story of Daniel in the lion’s den last for five days of VBS?’ Daniel did so much more than face lions! If we could look at things through the filter of ‘what truth does God want these children to discover from his Word?’ I think we’d be shocked by the lesser-known Scriptures we could bring to life for kids.”
Build on Basics
The best course of action for children’s ministers is to start simply and build upon repeated concepts as children develop. Teaching fundamental concepts first and adding to these as maturity allows makes perfect sense.
“Children learn best when they’re allowed to build on knowledge they’ve already got,” says Emeott. “Children learn difficult concepts a little at a time and build on what they know. A first-grade teacher doesn’t start math lessons with algebra, but by the sixth grade, algebra is part of the expected teaching plan. Math starts with addition and subtraction and then kids build on those learned skills with multiplication and division. Eventually, the learner is ready for the more complicated math of algebra.”
The same theory applies with controversial concepts of the Bible. “As a child matures and grows, you can share more and more facts with deeper understanding of the events,” says Emeott. “God wants to speak anew every time you read his Word. So even in Bible stories we think we understand fully, God can reveal new and fresh truths.”
When we look at the amazing array of events in the Bible, it’s all too easy to lean toward censoring the ones that make us uncomfortable. Rather than censoring or omitting, change your frame of reference. Everything in the Bible is there for a reason; it’s up to us to seek out the ways to help kids find the meaning God has for them in his words. Rather than censor it, we can simplify concepts and de-select details so they don’t become a distraction to the understanding kids can get from the basic story. Learn to release and hold back just the right amount for the kids you minister to.
“Should we censor the Bible?” ponders Brolsma. “Of course not. But we should use wisdom as we teach God’s Word, gleaning applicable and meaningful truths from every portion of Scripture. It means we step out in faith, sharing God’s Word honestly and simply in ways that today’s kids can best understand.”