By Catherine Turnbull
Director of Christian Education
The biggest change we’ve made upstairs this fall is a shift away from a curriculum that offers children an interpretation of each week’s Bible story, to an open curriculum that encourages children to try interpreting the stories individually, just for themselves. Dispensing with interpretation is the most difficult discipline for us volunteer adults (and parents, too). While it’s one thing to learn to speak positively to a child, or to get used to kneeling or sitting so we’re at a child’s eye level–it’s another thing entirely to forego our natural inclination to give children information. As difficult as it is, however, it’s very important that we encourage our children to respond to scriptural stories on their own. Here’s why:
- Spiritual development is a spiral, rather than a staircase. We hear a Bible story many times in our faith journey—not just once—and its meaning isn’t a flat place we can stand on forever. Just as we adults hear the Lectionary differently as we age, children’s understanding must also change. If we tell them what the story “means” when they’re in first or second grade, we set that story (or biblical character) “in stone,” stunt the growth of their understanding, and rob them of self-discovery. We also rob the children of the delight (or perhaps frustration!) of these stories’ mysteries.
- Telling children what a story means is a manner of hurry. It’s a little like thinking we can put the story in their heads and then, by interpreting it for them, put a cork on top of the story to keep it from leaking out after they leave church. But the truth is, we can afford to be patient. We have faith that God is at work in our children through the stories we tell. There’s no need to hurry—God works in us our whole lives.
- The only honest question is one to which we don’t already have the answer. Every time we ask a child a question that feels like a fishing expedition (because they know we have a reply in our head we’re hoping they’ll “get,”) we invite children to disconnect. It’s boring, because we’re always just holding the fish behind our backs. These closed-ended questions teach children to go for the reward of the “right answer” instead of genuinely pondering what they think and believe. As Christian storytellers, we are bound to ask questions the way Jesus did. It’s not always easy, but we begin by focusing on questions that begin with the words, “I wonder…”
So in a few weeks, once we’ve gotten our new routine comfortably fleshed out, if you come to visit us upstairs, you’ll see a group of children from preschool to 4th grade wondering: Which part of the day’s story is the best part; which part is the most important; which part is about them; and is there any part of the story we could leave out and still have all the story we need?
Hey—maybe we could start a discussion group during coffee hour where we ask these same questions about the sermon!