Teaching Big Ideas to Young Minds: How?

Last time, I discussed the reasons why we Christian parents, pastors, and teachers should make it a goal to teach young people the big ideas about God, his Word, themselves, and the world around them. 

But, here’s the thing…

That can be a daunting task, especially when the distracted kindergartner or the apathetic teenager is sitting there in front of you. So, how do we go about teaching big ideas to these young minds? 

I would suggest five Es: exemplify, educate, explain, escalate, and express.  

#1 – Exemplify

Paul directs the Corinthian Christians, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) The strength of this command lies in the fact that Paul was asking them to do something that he was doing himself. His spiritual children (1 Corinthians 4:14) could be sure that Paul was guiding them down a path he had traveled.  

We know the importance of being good examples for young people. A youth minister who wants a passionate youth group must be passionate.  A teacher who wants diligent students must be diligent. A parent who wants discipled children must be a disciple.

After studying religious families across four generations, sociologist Vern L. Bengtson unsurprisingly found that a key element in children continuing in the faith of their childhood is the visible authenticity of their parents’ religious participation. Bengtson states, “If the parents are not themselves involved in religious activities if their actions are not consistent with what they preach children are rarely motivated to follow their parents’ religious footsteps.”[1]Far be it from us to expect our children to be grounded deep in the big ideas of Christian theology if we are unwilling to go there ourselves.

If you want your young people to experience the depths of Christian faith, start with you. We can’t teach what we don’t know. We can’t preach what we don’t believe. We can’t expect what we don’t exhibit.  

#2 – Educate

Much of this process involves education. Of course, education is subject unto itself. So, without going into a fully articulated pedagogy, I would suggest that the education I am calling for here involves at least two steps.

Teach by Focusing

Studying theology, apologetics, or philosophy, can often feel like drinking from a fire hose. The subjects are so wide, and the ideas are so deep. If we are not careful, we will drown and take our young people with us. If we are not deliberate, we will lose our young people in a sea of information.

In our teaching, we focus our attention—and subsequently their attention—on a single subject, question, or book. There is no doubt that Sunday school, small groups, or Bible classes are a great venue for focused, in-depth teaching. Nevertheless, one-on-one instruction should not be ignored, especially by parents.

(If you are not sure where to start this focused teaching, I would recommend Christian apologist Jonathan Morrow’s blog as a good place to start. He has written several great books on this topic, and offers a resource guide of the “Top 10 BiblicalWorldview Resources for Teenagers.”)

Talk by Following

Once that directed instruction is in motion, teaching should turn into talking, and focusing should turn into following. I am amazed at how much I learn when opening the floor and let the young people that I teach do the talking. They ask their questions and express their doubts. They get to hear themselves state their ideas, which for them is often an enlightening experience in itself. It is crucial for me as a teacher to follow the conversation, learning where my students are, what they know, how they think.

When learning how to drive, at some point the student has to move from observation to demonstration, from the passenger’s seat to driver’s seat. In our teaching, we are in behind the wheel; in are talking, they are. And just like learning to drive, the more they are there, the more comfortable they are being there.

(If you are unsure of how to get this conversation started, or what topics to cover, I would recommend several books by author Natasha Crain  which focus on Talking with Your Kids about God.)

#3 – Explain

If our young people are to think deeply about God, his Word, and his world, then we must not be satisfied with simply educating them unbiblical ideas. We must explain how to study the Bible for themselves. The step up from casual Bible reading to intentional Bible study is a key advance for any Christian, but it is particularly so for Christian young people.

As a high school teacher, I spend a substantial portion of my class time each year, not simply teaching the subject, but teaching how to study the subject. This ranges from advice on notetaking skills, assigned reading, and study habits. The goal is to equip my students to learn beyond my classroom and outside of my subject.

We must do the same in teaching our young people the Bible. Early in their life, we feed our young people God’s Word as God’s Word commands. However, we should do more than teach them the content of the Bible; we should teach them how to study the content on their own. Regardless of our situation, whether as a parent, pastor, or teacher, we must teach them how to feed themselves.

There are many wonderful plans and systems of Bible study out there, but most of them largely hinge on what is known as the inductive method of Bible study. Give or take a few specifics, the method follows three steps: observation, interpretation, and application.

There are many wonderful plans and systems of Bible study out there, but most of them largely hinge on what is known as the inductive method of Bible study. Give or take a few specifics, the method follows three steps: observation, interpretation, and application.

(Christian author Shawna Duvall wrote an excellent blog post explaining how to teach even the youngest minds to study the Bible.)

#4 – Escalate

Forming good habits is one of the most crucial aspects of growing up. However, once Biblical thinking becomes habitual, we should urge our young people to reach higher, stretch farther, and dig deeper. As they grow, the intensity with which they think about the things of God should grow as well.

It has been amazing to watch my two children grasping the basic ideas of who God is and what he has done for us. My wife and I have worked to make Bible reading—devotions, as we call them—a normal thing in our home. We do not have a perfect record, but as author and speaker JenWilkin advises, we try to “be more concerned with the pattern of our homelife than the perfection of our home life.”

When our kids are young, frequency is high and intensity is low. It may be only a few verses or a couple of pages from a Bible storybook. It may be only a quick prayer of thanks for today and help for tomorrow. But, you will be surprised how quickly little ones embrace the pattern.

Of course, then they get older. Schedules get complicated, and nights get longer. However, even though frequency is lower, the intensity is high. Quantity exchanged for quality is rarely a bad thing.

It is my hope that as my kids get older, they will be able to spend an increasing portion of their time in God’s Word on their own. All the same, I look forward to the day that when we do study the Bible as a family, we can dig deep, talk extensively, and grow together.

#5 – Express

What good is deep thought if it does not lead to meaningful action?

As we teach our young people the deep things of God, we should demonstrate the impact Biblical truth has on our lives. Gazing at the glory of God should deepen our worship. Comprehending the essence of prayer ought to todeepen our prayer life. Understanding the love of God expressed in Jesus Christ must lead us to love our neighbor as he commanded.

In other words, teaching our young people to think deeply should go hand-in-hand with teaching them to live meaningfully. What we know about God should be expressed by how we live for God.

Paul said that he had “no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” (3 John 4)

I find the phrase “walk in truth” fascinating. For Christians, the truth is more than something we seek, though it is that. For us, itis more than something we know, though it is also that. Truth is something we walk in. Therefore, the deeper our grasp on truth is, the stronger our walk in truth will be.  

Biblical theology is not simply a set of ideas that our young people need to know. It is a reality they need to live.

[1] Vern L. Bengtson, Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down across Generations (Oxford Press), p. 72.

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