Tips for Avoiding Teaching Moralism to Kids
If you are using The Gospel Project for Kid’s suggested use dates, this week’s session is David Was Anointed and Fought Goliath. Whenever gospel-centered teaching is contrasted with moralistic teaching, one will almost always use the story of David and Goliath as an example. Here’s a video of Matt Chandler doing just that.
Moralism characterized most of my early Christian life. I lived a number of years with a constant sense of guilt that I did not measure up. I praise God for the people He brought into my life to show me that no, I do not measure up, but Jesus does. God sent Jesus to live the life I couldn’t live, take the punishment I deserved, and give me a righteousness I did not earn. God accepts me because of Jesus, not my own moral record (or lack thereof).
Now, you may think that I look back on my upbringing with scorn, but I do not. I think back to all the amazing Sunday School teachers I had through the years. I know that they loved Jesus, and I know that they loved me. No one intentionally set out to teach me morals instead of pointing me to the gospel, but that is what happened.
Years ago, I heard Dr. Russell Moore speak on a panel regarding teaching children and youth the gospel story. He talked about how in trying to make the gospel more palatable for children, teachers can easily default to turning a Bible story into a lesson on moral principles. Unintentionally, kids end up recognizing the cross is important, but only because it gets you to the moral lesson. I’m sure that is what happened in my Sunday School classrooms growing up and tens of thousands of others around the world.
I know you, kids ministry teacher. I know you love the kids you teach. I know you love Jesus. I know you want to give your kids the gospel and not a moralistic lesson. Allow me to offer some tips that have helped me in my teaching.
- God is the central figure of every story. When I work on a session, I ask myself over and over again, “What does God do in this story?” This question keeps me oriented on the main point of the story. If I make David the main figure of the David and Goliath story, David’s “bravery” naturally becomes the point. When I remember that God is the central figure, I show kids that God used a young man who seemed insignificant even to his own family to defeat His people’s enemies.
- Draw attention to what we learn of God’s character and ways in each story. Children are forming their understanding of who God is. In every story, we get to show them the greatness of God. In the David and Goliath story, we see that God is strongest of all. God uses people whom other people do not think are important in His great plan. God keeps His promises. God cares for His people and protects them. God always wins. God humbles the proud. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
- Point to Jesus. I know I am a little biased, but what I think sets The Gospel Project apart from other curricula is the way we make it easy to show kids Jesus in every story through our Christ Connections. Overlooking Jesus in a Bible story can be easy to do, particularly in the Old Testament, but the Christ Connection lays it out for you. In writing the preschool materials, I try to weave the Christ Connection through the “say” portion of each activity to make it easy for leaders to show their kids Jesus even during activity time.
Here’s the preschool Christ Connection for this week:
David did not look like someone who could beat a giant. But David trusted God, and God gave David power. Jesus did not look like someone who could save people either. But when Jesus died and came back to life, He showed His power to rescue people from sin.
Here’s the Kids Christ Connection for this week:
David was not a big or strong warrior, but he trusted God. God gave David power. When God sent His Son to earth, Jesus did not look like a strong warrior either. But by dying on the cross and coming back to life, Jesus showed His power to save sinners.
- Teach morals by rooting them in the gospel. When you hear me deride moralistic teaching, please do not hear me dismiss morals altogether. Quite frankly, the Bible is full or moral principles. A lesson becomes moralistic, though, when we don’t root the teaching of morals in the gospel. The concept of the indicative and the imperative has been paramount to me in learning how to do that. This concept probably deserves its own blog post, but in short, indicatives tell me what Jesus has done for me. Imperatives tells me what I am to do in light of what Jesus has done. The order is critical. When we put the imperative before the indicative, we get moralism. When we put the indicative after the imperative where it belongs, we get joyful obedience to God’s commands.
- Weave the gospel throughout your teaching. Because “gospel-centered” is such a buzz word, people will stick a gospel presentation at the end of a teaching session and call it gospel-centered. A friend of mine calls this the “gospel sticker.” You can put a gospel sticker on a moralistic lesson, but it is still moralistic. Kids will leave burdened rather than more in love with Jesus. A gospel-centered session is one that is centered on the gospel. That means that the truths of the gospel are weaved throughout the session. It isn’t just a part of the session. It is the session. There is no formula to learn this. Time and personal exposure to gospel-centered teaching is the only way to learn this. As you see Jesus more beautiful, it will naturally translate into how you teach kids.
What tips do you have for keeping a session from defaulting to moralism? Share in the comments.
Karen Jones is the preschool content editor for The Gospel Project for Kids. Karen came to LifeWay in 2014 with over 15 years experience in preschool and children’s ministry. Karen earned an M.A. in Christian Education from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Karen loves living minutes from downtown Nashville and teaching preschoolers at Immanuel Church.