A family member with young children recently shared that their children had asked why they, as a family, don’t read the Bible. A recent experience at a church summer camp seemed to spur the children’s question, and the adult family member wasn’t sure how to respond. The family actively attends a faith community, participating in a wide variety of church activities and weekly worship. Yet, the children perceived a gap between themselves and others and were curious about it.
One evening a few weeks later, the adults of the family were sitting in our living room and raised this question: How do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves?
After talking around this for a while, I turned the question back to the parent. I asked, “Why would you read the Bible?” — asked not in a rhetorical way, but with an intent to draw out a positive Bible-reading ethic, if they felt they could.
In the progressive-leaning faith communities I’ve been a part of, attitudes toward the Bible have been mixed. There’s a desire that our children are exposed to the Bible, but we don’t want to gloss over that scripture is complex. We’re not interested in passing on the old legalism we were raised with, but we also think there’s a fair amount of wisdom in Jesus’ teachings. We’ve lost our naïveté that God’s a big guy up in the sky, but we’re captivated by a sense that there’s Something More.
And each time we do crack the book to begin reading, we come with an awareness that these texts weren’t written for us 21st-century readers. The Bible was written in many times and places, by many people shaped by their particular cultures. It spans multiple genres, is written in multiple languages (not English!), and includes no extended information on the authors or their motivations.
It’s a lot to hold.
Teaching the Bible from a place of uncertainty is really hard, especially when we’re trying to teach it to children. So, what is our responsibility, as adults in a faith tradition that values voluntary membership? (Here “adults” includes both a child’s parents and other adults in the faith community.)
I offer three main suggestions:
First, let children direct you. Follow what they’re interested in learning about. Equip them to ask questions and create a safe environment for them to ask. Ask other adults to help. Help other adults when they ask. Exploring the Bible can be playful, imaginative, and mysterious.
And second, following the wisdom of Celtic Christianity, allow the natural world — the “big book of scripture” — to shape your understanding of the Divine, of justice, of compassion. An awareness of the natural world is vital to understanding the written word of scripture, regardless of one’s age.
Meanwhile, within the Anabaptist tradition, rigid indoctrination of the young actually violates our core value of being a believers’ church.* That’s not to say that we should shield our faith from the next generations; rather, it is an invitation to live with integrity. Children (and youth especially) can sense when we find something is important, often through the way our words and actions align.
So, how do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves? We can allow—or even encourage—our children to explore sacred texts they’re interested in and to provide the tools they need to do so. We can notice and point out the ways that our everyday lives are deeply spiritual, as even some of our most mundane decisions are informed by faith, ethics, and/or our understanding of the Divine. And we can foster a sense of wonder about the good news we encounter in the very world around us.
All of this is centered in trust. Our relationship with a sacred text, like any relationship, is marked by seasons of distance and intimacy, of discernment and questioning…and we trust that the text can handle this. We also find trust in the Anabaptist practice of reading and interpreting the Bible in community, in which there is safety, accountability, and support. And perhaps it’s an opportunity to trust that our children will discover and discern on their own why they might (or might not) want to read the Bible.
*This is why I’m generally wary of things like Sunday School, especially for children.