"Closing the Pharisee Training School" by John Murchison
John Murchison has been the Director of Children’s Ministry at The Austin Stone for 8 years. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two daughters. You can follow him on Twitter here.
I was about three years into my career in children’s ministry when I realized something was fundamentally wrong. We said all the right things—that we wanted to be a Christ-centered and gospel-preaching children’s ministry—but what we taught each week didn’t match that vision.
Our teaching most Sundays could be boiled down to a list of do’s and don’ts. We told children to “be nice,” “forgive others,” “try your best,” and “be generous,” and we used Bible stories and characters to back these statements up. As we taught these moralistic lessons, I noticed two distinct types of responses in our kids:
Moralistic Teaching Response 1: Pharisees-in-Training
Some of our kids responded by believing that they actually could live up to the standards we were setting. These kids really did try to be perfect by doing everything we asked them to do. For the most part, they succeeded, at least on the outside. They felt no need for the gospel to change their hearts because they thought they were doing a pretty good job of it themselves. Our ministry was creating excellent little Pharisees who were earning their righteousness one week at a time.
Moralistic Teaching Response 2: Pharisee School Dropouts
The rest of the children had the opposite response. Maybe they tried to “be good” for a period of time, but they quickly realized that they couldn’t be perfectly good all the time. These kids knew they would never be perfect on their own. But since we didn’t regularly teach them about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection on their behalf and how to repent and trust Him, they simply “dropped out” of our Pharisee Training School. They stopped trying to follow Jesus because it seemed hopeless to do so.
Teaching the Commandments in Context
I’m not suggesting that we completely abandon teaching kids that we should do some things and shouldn’t do others. The Bible is full of commandments for God’s people, given to us for God’s glory and our good. The problem wasn’t that we were teaching our kids what moral behavior looked like; the problem was how we were teaching it.
The Bible isn’t simply a collection of stories and letters and histories. It’s a single story of God seeking and saving His people. It’s only in the context of this story that the commands of God become life-giving rather than burdensome. In order to accurately teach children the Bible, we must consistently be placing our lessons within the context of the greater story of Scripture. That’s why I often recommend The Gospel Project for Kids curriculum to churches that I come in contact with, because it focuses on teaching children the complete redemptive history.
Whether you use a curriculum that walks through redemptive history, such as TGP for Kids, or you use another curriculum that is more episodic, the important thing is to place the lesson in its rightful context. A good starting point is making it clear to children whether the story happened before or after the earthly life of Jesus.
The Old Testament—The Law as a Tutor to Lead Us to Christ
When we read the Old Testament, God shows us that there is no other solution for our sin problem than His Son, Jesus. None of the commandments or lessons from the Old Testament are given in the expectation that God’s people could obey them perfectly. If so, then Jesus would have never had to come and die! Rather, as Paul said in Galatians 3:24, the law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. Our inability to obey the law perfectly should drive us to cry out to be saved! When we teach the Old Testament to children, we should admit that none of us obeys God’s commandments perfectly or fully, and that’s why we need Jesus.
The New Testament—Moral Behavior as a Result of Belief
While the Old Testament’s teaching shows us our need for Christ, the New Testament’s teaching shows us what the life of a person who fully believes the gospel looks like. When we teach the New Testament, we must root our teaching in the gospel, for that’s the only way that we can hope to obey Scripture. We accept others because we were accepted. We sacrifice for others because Jesus sacrificed for us. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). Belief in the gospel leads to willing and joyful obedience.
The Centrality of the Gospel
Rather than making kids choose between enrolling in “Pharisee Training School” or giving up on their faith, we must teach children in the context of redemptive history. We must keep the gospel central to this story and central to each lesson we teach. May God empower our lessons, our volunteers, and our teaching to bring children to Himself and to have salvation spring up in the hallways and classrooms of our children’s ministries!