Make Learning Fun
Learning about church history can be exciting, uplifting, and often funny. But if taught badly, it can also be turgid, pedestrian, and dull. Those of us who teach children, whether as parents, pastors, or kids workers, have an interest in making it fun and creative, rather than dry and wordy. Here are five ways of doing so that, depending on the age of the child, might be worth considering.
This is where most of us start, and with good reason. None of our church historical heroes are perfect, but many of them have simply astonishing stories which will fire the imagination of virtually any child. Athanasius taking on the world over the eternity of Jesus, and getting deposed and reinstated and exiled and reinstated again. Hannah More teaching poor kids to read and opposing slavery. Polycarp being martyred in his eighties, and refusing to bow to Caesar. Hudson Taylor standing on Brighton beach and then resolving to preach the gospel in China. Hugh Latimer telling Nicholas Ridley to play the man as they both burn at the stake because they are lighting a fire in England that will never be put out. Harriet Tubman helping slaves escape with secret messages, coded songs, and underground railways. The story of church history is much more than a story of our heroes—and as we get older we will learn more about the complexities and contexts of our favorite characters—but it is certainly not less.
Children don’t just cheer at their heroes; they jeer at their villains. So there is an opportunity to learn, not just from the people who did things really well, but from the people who did things really badly (especially since some of our villains got their comeuppance in very satisfying ways). I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t love the story of Father Christmas slapping a heretic, even if it’s impossible to be certain that it happened as Saint Nicholas, of Santa Claus fame, striding across the floor of the Nicene Council and clocking Arius in the face for saying that Jesus was created. As a British person, it is fun (if a little galling) to explain that the first world-famous theologian from these islands was Pelagius, one of the most notorious heretics in history. Several of the popes make great villains, even for Catholics, especially those who were discovered to have had children, or sold offices, or inveigled their relatives into senior positions, or lured people to councils with a promise of safe passage and then killed them anyway. Teaching from bad examples as well as good ones is actually a biblical method, as you can see from letters like Hebrews and 2 Peter.
None of our church historical heroes are perfect, but many of them have simply astonishing stories that will fire the imagination of virtually any child.
I first learned to preach in a Kidz Klub. One thing we did every week was to illustrate our teaching content with three objects in succession, using physical things to embody the idea we were trying to communicate. Church history provides a wealth of wonderful examples, and they are often things you are likely to have in your house. If you have a pear, you can talk about Augustine and his world-changing description of his struggle with the temptation to steal pears, not because he even liked them that much but because they were there, and he knew they were off-limits. If you have a hiding place, you can talk about Corrie ten Boom hiding from the Nazis. Nails can be used to tell the story of how Martin Luther accidentally started the Reformation by nailing some statements to a church door, and ended up being hauled before the emperor and very nearly being shot on sight. An English Bible enables you to talk about John Wycliffe being burned after he had died, or William Tyndale, or Miles Coverdale, or any number of other people. If you find a worm in your garden, and your kids are not too squeamish, you can even talk about how John G. Paton was told by an older man that he would be eaten by cannibals if he went as a missionary to Vanuatu, and replied that the older man would be eaten by worms fairly soon, so it didn’t make much difference. Visual illustrations are always memorable if they’re good ones.
This one depends on where you live. There are probably fairly large spaces on earth with very little interesting local church history at all—although there are all kinds of things that children can learn from—the way a church is built, or a town was settled, or a state or nation was founded—that can illuminate the story of the church. But if you get out and about, and manage to visit a city with an interesting backstory, church history can spring into life. Just three weeks ago, I was on a tour in London, my home city, and couldn’t stop marveling at all the significant places I had walked past before and never noticed: the place John Wesley was converted, Elizabeth Fry’s local prison, the church in which John Newton preached for nearly thirty years, the statue remembering Lord Shaftesbury, John Wycliffe’s old church, the telephone that founded the Samaritans, and all kinds of other things. If you’re in Europe, North Africa, or West Asia, the chances are that you’ll be surrounded by interesting places in our family story, and you might not even know it.
One of the church’s most effective tools for teaching people the major truths of Christianity has been the question, or (more formally) the set of questions and answers that we sometimes call a catechism. The practice goes back to the Bible, but it was crucial in medieval times, and the Reformers used them all the time. Because they were written for largely illiterate people, they are often written in very simple language and with excellent clarity and imagery, which makes them very helpful for children, particularly those who are slightly older. Luther’s Small Catechism was probably the first document of its kind to be written by someone who had children himself, given that almost all church leaders in the western church were unmarried. My favorite is the Heidelberg Catechism, whose simple style and blunt answers are often used by parents trying to help their kids understand the gospel.
Andrew Wilson is the author of Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat illustrated by Helena Perez Garcia.
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