There’s an important conversation taking place on the kidology.org message boards, regarding how we present the Bible to children. There’s been chronic tension between Christian educators over whether we should present the Bible chronologically or topically.
I think the answer is “both.” There’s a benefit to a topical approach to scripture. We are able to help children apply the truths of the Bible. Thom and Joani Schultz, at Group Publishing, have pointed to some irrefutable research that people tend to remember facts that are applicable to them. (You’ll have a better chance of remembering one phone number of a new friend than you will of recalling the phone numbers of ten strangers read from a phone book.)
There are dangers, though, of reorganizing scripture for purposes of teaching. We can destroy the plot. Best Selling author, Donald Miller, writes about attending a workshop on screen writing and the power and elements of story. Miller concluded by writing…
“It did not escape me, as I listenend to 36 hours of story deconstruction, how powerful story is. The overwhelming majority of the Bible, in fact, is story. We often think of the Bible as creeds and precepts, but it is anything but. Instead, the stories of the Bible work to create an internal map, a guide and compass, teaching us what is worth pursuing and what is worthless, what is meaningful and what is not. Right and wrong, then, are not often taught by lists (truth without meaningful context) but rather through the tools of story. The seminar made me wonder why religious institutions who aim to teach ancient texts don’t have story departments alongside their systematic pursuits. It seems that one might benefit from the other. If scripture, in fact, were an indication of priority, the systematic methodology might be relegated to a small room at the back of campus within which we might find a professor with a calculator and an overhead projector. And this makes me wonder if our focus on creedal reductions were not an attempt to validate ourselvs to the age of reason rather than an attempt to understand what God has spoken.”
-Donald Miller. www.donaldmillerwords.
So the “topical” nature that Miller is concerned with is systematic theology. There’s nothing wrong with teaching a child the doctrine of the Trinity, but not at the expense of the story, Miller would suggest.
I’m currently reading a French philosopher and theologian, Jacque Ellul, who speaks to a dangerous trend (when in excess) in modern preaching and children’s ministry– reorganizing the story for the sake of “moralism.” Back in 2001, I wrote an article “Free Your Mind” in Children’s Ministry Magazine that warned of the dangers of viewing Bible stories as fables waiting to be assigned morals. I thought I was being original at the time, but Jacques covered this ground back in 1948:
“One of the first series of conclusions will doubtless appear very abstract and difficult! It consists in the fact that the Christian cannot judge, or act, or live according to “principles”, but in the reality, lived here and now, of the eschaton— the very opposite of an ethic.
“We must be convinced that there are no such things as “Christian principles.” There is the person of Christ, who is the principle of everything. But if we wish to be faithful to him, we cannot dream of reducing Christianity to a certain number of principles (though this is often done), the consequences of which can be logically deduced. This tendency to transform the work of the living God into a philosophical system is the contant temptation of theologians….”
Jacques Ellul, The Prescence of the Kingdom. 2nd Edition. p. 40.
Simply put, our job isn’t to instill into children an impersonal moral code (And our job is definately not to call the code “Christianity.”) Our job is to introduce children to Jesus, who gladly takes on the responsibility of guiding a child through life.
Finally, and I know this post is getting too long, I highly recommend N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian. I recently read this thin book and was reminded of the over-arching story and plot of scriptures. It’s worth the read.