The Bible is an incredibly complicated text. Most adults don’t even know where to begin, or get frustrated and confused when tackling difficult topics of the day. No wonder so many people “cherry pick” particular verses that appeal to them! And it’s no surprise that most children’s Sunday School curricula is heavy on Jonah and the Whale, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, and other high-interest superhero stories from the Bible.
Unless your child participates in a church program with a very carefully thought out scope and sequence, it’s hard to even know where to begin. Hopefully my ideas below will help get you started.
How can we teach the Bible so that it doesn’t seem like a mish-mash of disjointed stories? This approach works okay until kids become teenagers and start developing their own questions and doubts.
Need a fresh way to make reading the Bible fun? Check out this list of 40 fun and surprising Bible facts for kids.
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How to Explain the Bible to a Child or Teenager
I’ve got 7 tips for adults who want to do a better job of explaining the Bible to a child or teenagers.
One thing that’s tricky about teaching other people’s children is that kids come in with such a wide range of Bible knowledge. Still, these concepts are so important that you’ll want to weave them into every single lesson.
These aren’t things that you’ll teach just once. Any school teacher knows that you have say something about 100x more often than you’d think before it begins to stick for the majority of the class. Teach and reteach until your group of kids (or the ones at home) begin showing mastery.
1. Explain the structure of the Bible in kid-friendly terms.
Kids are used to reading books with a beginning, middle, and end. Alternatively, they read nonfiction in school with lots of text and graphic features, bright colors, and more. The Bible is nothing like any other text they read.
Some kids also don’t understand that the Bible is made up of 66 books all bound together like a collection. Even if a child has read a collection of books, they’re almost always written by the same author.
Confusing matters even further is the concept of a “story Bible.” Little kids need story Bibles so they can access the Bible at their own developmental stage, but story Bibles are set up completely different than the grown up Bible they’ll need to get through life as an adult.
The best bet is to bring a bunch of different kinds of books from the library, and talk about the features of each one. Then, pull out a Bible and discuss all the ways the Bible is different.
2. Start and end with Jesus.
We want our children to become more like Jesus. He is our model for walking out our faith. That’s why so many of us used to wear those fun WWJD bracelets back in the day.
Your discussions of the Bible should center around Jesus, even when you’re in the Old Testament and Jesus isn’t directly mentioned. What ties the whole Bible together and keeps it from being just a collection of confusion is that EVERY book points back to Jesus in some way.
For example, have you ever thought about how Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days, just as Jesus was in the tomb? If you put on your literary analysis hat, this looks a lot like foreshadowing.
For help tying all your Bible stories back to Jesus, check out my favorite children’s Bible, The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name.
3. Encourage questions free of judgment.
The best way to encourage kids to ask questions is by acting delighted anytime they ask one. When you don’t know an answer, you can always say, “Let’s Google it together,” or “I’ll ask the pastor what he thinks.”
Keep a straight face if a kid asks a question that makes you uncomfortable. Acting offended is a quick way to get an honest kid to shut down, and it could have a major negative affect on their faith journey. They’re usually not trying to trip you up with hard questions, they just want answers. And even if they are trying to stump you, there’s nothing wrong with just admitting you don’t know but you’re going to find out.
Here are 24 Bible verses about love for kids.
4. Be honest about doubts or confusion.
The only way to encourage kids to freely talk about their doubts is to share some of your own. At the same time, talk about what God has shown you, or how you’re working on moving past those doubts. We don’t want to stay stuck or model confusion, but we also don’t want to shame kids for questioning.
After all, without doubt, there wouldn’t be any faith at all. Faith isn’t being naive; it’s acknowledging your doubts, digging deep, and pushing through them to continue loving God and living out His calling in your life.
5. Genre, authorship, and audience matters.
Disclaimer: I’m a lifelong Methodist. You may not agree with every theological concept presented below, but I think my overall point about paying attention to genre, authorship, and audience is relevant regardless.
You can’t just remove scripture from its original context, and consider that good Bible teaching. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a great way to do serious damage and create even more doubts in the future. Young children may follow along willingly because we generally teach children fun Bible stories, but you’ll lose them as teenagers if you expect them to not ask smart questions.
If you tell a teenager that being a homosexual is wrong specifically because Leviticus 18:22 says so, you better be prepared to answer the question about why we don’t require all menstruating women to offer up two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the priest on the 8th day of her cycle (also found in Leviticus). Most Americans also enjoy bacon, which was forbidden in Leviticus as well.
In other words, it’s relevant that all 613 laws written in Leviticus were written by Moses for the Jewish priests of the day, and to remove the intended audience from the Bible lesson is a recipe for further confusion and is poor scholarship.
Similarly, Paul’s letters were written to the congregations he was leading from a distance. Each of these early churches had their own unique challenges that Paul was addressing in his letters (to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to his close mentee, Timothy).
For example, many Christian churches won’t ordain women as pastors or priests, and will cite 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as their reason for doing so. Here, Paul instructs Timothy not to allow women in leadership positions in his church. But to blindly follow Paul’s instruction and apply it to modern women overlooks the fact that it’s inconsistent with what Jesus himself taught. For more on this argument, see here. Are we Christ followers or Paul followers?
Some of you may be wondering why even read the Bible, if audience is so important and we aren’t the original audience. Does this water down the Bible to such a point that it’s no longer relevant? Absolutely not.
The answer is that we are Christ followers. The Bible is like our family scrapbook, but Jesus gives us a pathway to walk toward holiness and unity with God and each other. Remember how I said that everything should point back to Christ? That’s what makes us Christians.
Next, most kids have no idea that the Bible has over 40 different authors, because Sunday School teachers and well-meaning parents put so much emphasis on the Bible being “the Word of God.” That makes it seem like one author, which is confusing to kids.
When you talk about who authored a particular Bible passage, you can discuss how God “speaks through” all kinds of different people, including the authors of the Bible. God used fishermen, a doctor, royalty, and a tax collector to tell His story, plus many more.
These are the inspired words of God, and we are to use the Holy Spirit as our guide while we read them. It doesn’t require us to check our curiosity and questioning at the door to do that. God gave us brains; we should use them as we dig deeper into His truths.
The genre of the book you’re reading matters a great deal. What are we supposed to learn from reading the poetry and music found in Psalms or Song of Solomon? How do we apply the Bible to our lives differently when we’re reading a narrative from Genesis or Luke? When kids read a letter from Paul, they need to understand that they’re getting one side of a conversation.
Scholars don’t all agree on exactly how to sort out which genre each book falls into, but I think the most practical is as follows: narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, gospels, epistles, and apocalypse. For more information about the Bible genres, see here.
If you’re not convinced that Bible genres need to be taught to kids and teens, check out this response.
Here is my review of the best children’s books by age.
6. Share your testimony.
Whether you’re a Sunday School teacher, parent, grandparent, or youth group volunteer, there’s nothing more important than sharing your testimony.
People are intimidated by the idea of a testimony, because they usually imagine some fascinating saga of despair and triumph that takes place over a period of years.
That’s hogwash, in my opinion. When I share my testimony with my own children, it’s always in fits and spurts. An anecdote here, a little story there. It’s perfectly okay if your testimony begins with “I always grew up in church and I loved it there. I’m not entirely sure when my faith became my own.” Not everyone has a tv-worthy testimony, but if it’s real to you, it’s worth sharing with kids.
Find opportunities to talk about your relationship with God and the moments in your life where you’re trying to follow Jesus. It’s more important than almost any other aspect of raising Christian kids.
7. Model how you apply the Bible to your own life.
Kids need to know that the lessons and the Truth found in the Bible makes a difference in how you live your life today. Too many Christians focus on being saved for the purpose of getting into Heaven, but that’s not how the average person lives their life. Instead of focusing so much on salvation being the reason we read the Bible, teach kids how to use the Bible to help them live a full and peaceful life here on Earth.
When you talk with your kids, be open about how you use the Bible in your decision-making. If you’re a person of faith, you use concepts you learned in the Bible to help you get through your daily life – not just the big moments.