7 Dec 2017

Before you teach kids the Bible, you need to know this

Written by Tim Beilharz

In my last two posts (here and here) I have tried to give due praise to the excellent aspects of Steve Adams’ book Children’s Ministry on Purpose, while also introducing some frustrations that I began to feel as I read it through.

I want to continue to hold praise and frustration in tension. At the risk of sounding disingenuous, let me reaffirm that there are many good qualities to this book, some of which I addressed in my first post.

Please keep those good qualities in mind. Because now we’re going to dig into one of my greatest frustrations with this book. Adams’ use of Scripture.

The quest for the perfect curriculum

One of my struggles early on in local church ministry was finding good quality curriculum for our Sunday morning Kids’ Church. I wanted something that:

  • Was biblically faithful
  • Was age-graded
  • Included clear, child-appropriate applications which flowed out of the text
  • Included a good variety of options for activities, craft, or songs.

I also wanted material that was scripted enough for my developing leaders, without being a straightjacket for those more experienced leaders who had the capacity to go beyond the published words.

Was that really too much to ask??

One curriculum I found and used for a while ticked many of these boxes. Except one. Application.

Quite often, the application given in the curriculum was kind of true and kind of helpful. The trouble was it had very little to do with the biblical text that we had just studied. Yes, it is good to remind children to be kind to their parents. But what that had to do with the Old Testament narrative or Jesus’ parable that was the subject of the lesson was often lost on me.

These curriculum writers, it would appear, fell into the pothole that Christian authors, preachers and Sunday School teachers need all be aware of; that is, using a Bible passage to support an unconnected application. It doesn’t necessarily mean the application is inherently wrong. Just that the verses cited bear no relation to the point the author or speaker is trying to make.

Unhelpful ways Adams uses the Bible

The word theologians use for how we read the Bible is ‘hermeneutics’. In my Sydney evangelical context, we are greatly blessed to have a strong heritage of Biblical Theology as our hermeneutic; basically, the Bible is one big story, all about Jesus.

Sadly, there is little evidence of a biblical theology in Children’s Ministry on Purpose. There is no larger biblical narrative that holds together Adams’ understanding of what the Bible is and how it is to be understood. Instead, biblical texts are commonly used as proof texts for his strategic framework.

One example is Adams use of Jesus’ ministry to underpin his section on strategic audience selection. Adams asserts that Jesus “targeted his audience to be effective, but not exclusive” (p.111) and that “Jesus was modelling how to strategically determine a target audience” (p.112).

Adams’ proof for this is Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10, “Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel.” Rather than understanding this command through a biblical theological lens, in which the Gospel is “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile”, Adams commandeers this passage in support for his 21st Century strategic methodology.

In this same section, Adams then cites Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 and Jesus’ refusal to help. For Adams, Jesus’ refusal to help is evidence that “Jesus was strategically determining his target audience”. Adams does not even acknowledge the end of the narrative where Jesus does, in fact, respond and heal the woman’s demon-possessed daughter.

This is Adams’ hermeneutic throughout the book. Jesus, Paul, Psalms, Proverbs and the Prophets are all co-opted to bolster support for whichever aspect of Adams’ strategic model is the focus of that chapter.

  • Isaiah promises godly peace “when we have a clear focus on our purpose” (p.80).
  • Psalms encourages us to develop the correct pathways and programs for our “discipleship strategy” (p.129).
  • Paul’s body analogy in Ephesians is evidence of “sustain[ed] health in your ministry [through] balance and intentionality” (p.49).
  • “Jesus used a developmental strategy (even if he didn’t use those words) by incrementally teaching and modelling in different stages according to the disciples’ needs and progress.” (p.61)

Why the frustration with Adams’ use of Scripture?

This use of the biblical text is frustrating for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it is simply the wrong understanding of the text. It is a wrong hermeneutic to assume that God’s ancient and inspired word exists to sustain our modern ministry models. As Old Testament scholar John Walton has said, “The Bible was written for us, but not to us.” To understand the right meaning of the text, we have to understand its original context. And the original context is not modern, Western, leadership strategies.

Secondly, using the Bible to support a modern ministry paradigm subtly suggests that this is THE correct ministry paradigm. If the Bible appears to support one particular strategy, then I’d best get on board. If I disagree with this strategic approach, then I am disagreeing with the inspired Word of God. I don’t believe that Adams would say this about the Purpose Driven Model. However, the way in which Scripture is used in support of the model would appear to imply this nevertheless.

Now remember, just because the Bible has been misappropriated to support one particular application—like being kind to your parents, or having a strategic purpose in children’s ministry—doesn’t mean that the application is inherently wrong. It simply means that the Bible verses you are using, don’t support the conclusion you have reached.

How do we make sense of Adams’ strategic purposes? Well, that’s a question for next time!


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