The Importance of Biblical Literacy
There is no substitute for parents and church leaders presenting the clear, simple, powerful Word of God to the children in their midst. We need to be reading the Bible to the children in our families and church congregations. We need to be teaching the Bible to the children in our families and church congregations. The children in our midst must become acquainted and conversant with the Bible during their early years; we must ensure that, as much as it depends on us!
However, a focus on reading and teaching Scripture to children does not—and must not—mean that we fail to do our best to educate them theologically as well. And, yes, by theologically, I do mean through the use of the discipline of systematic theology—beginning in its simplest forms (historic catechisms and creeds) and growing more and more substantial and complex.
A focus on reading and teaching Scripture to children does not—and must not—mean that we fail to educate them theologically as well.
Kids in our churches, from the earliest of ages, need to begin thinking in theological categories about God, themselves, and the world around them. Here are a few reasons why:
1. The theological education of our children gives them mental “hangers” on which to organize the truths, teachings, and stories that they are learning from the Bible.
We all need help with mental organization as we learn; that’s one reason why it’s helpful for expository sermons to have separate “points,” even if those points aren’t specifically noted by the biblical author in the passage itself!
As a child learns even the first few stories of the Old Testament (the Fall, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel), it is extremely helpful to make use of a short catechism to teach them a simple definition for “sin”—a theological category that certainly shows up in each of those stories, albeit with different manifestations each time.
2. The theological education of our children begins to acquaint them with a particular theological tradition.
I pastor a PCA church, so for us, this means beginning to acquaint our children with the Westminster Confession of Faith and the broader Reformed tradition. I’ll be the first to admit that no denomination is perfect! But, there is a value in going deep in one particular theological tradition, and appreciating the historical development of theological thought throughout the ages.
From an early age, children can have an understanding of being linked to church history and the generations that have gone before—to those who have spoken the same words together about God, humanity, sin, redemption, heaven, and hell.
3. The theological education of our children is an intentional shaping of their thoughts about God, which will be unintentionally shaped otherwise.
What I mean by this is simply that the opposite of theological education for our children is not that they will become a-theological. We are all theologians! If we do not carefully guide our children’s theological reflections, their theological reflections will most certainly be guided and shaped by other forces—by television, the internet, their classmates, or even teachers and/or coaches who do not know the Lord. Theology (literally “talk about God”) inevitably happens; we must start it intentionally in the church.
4. The theological education of our children gives birth to their own joyful and unique articulations of personal faith.
Some might say that this point is counterintuitive. Would not, for example, the rote memorization and repetition of catechism questions by a child stifle his or her creative thought? After all, the child is merely rehearsing someone else’s articulation of truths about God, which have been systematized and pre-packaged for them.
I would argue precisely the opposite. Learning, memorizing, and, yes, repeating the formations of theology contained in the historic creeds and catechisms can open a child’s mind in new ways to the truths of God’s Word. Hearing how the church has, for centuries, articulated a certain truth about God, sin, or salvation can stimulate new thought—and creative articulations—that didn’t exist before.
Just as a well-crafted expository sermon can and should serve not as an end in itself, but as a stimulation toward further exploration of God’s Word, so a theological statement (a miniature “sermon,” if you will) can stimulate further thinking in that direction.
The New City Catechism Curriculum expands the questions and answers of The New City Catechism into fifty-two engaging and informative lessons, helping children ages 8–11 better understand the truth of God’s Word and how it connects to their lives.
5. The theological education of our children can bring focus, vision, and vibrancy to an entire church congregation.
Show me a church whose paid and lay leadership is joyful and deeply passionate about training the children of the church theologically, and I’ll show you a church that is most likely lively and thriving in other areas as well. In such a context, Sunday school teachers are inspired to go “deep” in their classrooms, as children are introduced to the meat of God’s Word and the richness of the gospel.
In our context, I’m deeply grateful that Pablo Herrera, who directs our 6th–12th grade ministry (“Voyagers”), mixes straightforward teaching of Scripture with theological engagement and training. This past Fall, our young people dug into the history, theology, and figures of the Protestant Reformation, all the while connecting that movement to both Scripture and the theological tenets we firmly hold in our church today. That kind of rigor and depth in the youth group challenges the rest of the church to “up” our game!
There is no substitute for the Word of God; let’s read, teach, and explain the Bible to the children of our churches with joy . . . and with no apologies! But, let’s also intentionally teach, train, and shape our children to think in theological categories along the way. It will be life-giving for them, and for us as well.
The New City Catechism Curriculum features 52 engaging lessons designed to help children ages 8–11 learn the core doctrines of the Christian faith.
Theology, taught well, must inevitably result in doxology—and we shouldn’t be satisfied with less just because we’re teaching children.
Historically, one of the failures of youth ministry is that kids have not been seen as potential contributors in the church, and that is a disservice to them and to the church as a whole.