Theology for Children

Simonetta Carr
Tuesday, May 1st 2012
May/Jun 2012

When Rev. Sutjipto Subeno, senior pastor of the
Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia (GRII) in Surabaya, invited me to visit him for two weeks, I thought he was just being polite’but I realized he was serious when he sent me a detailed plan for my stay. In addition to book presentations in Christian schools, he scheduled me to speak at two seminars and some parent-teacher meetings on the importance of teaching theology to children.

I first contacted Rev. Subeno about three years ago to let him know about my biography of John Calvin for children when I discovered that his denomination in Indonesia was holding a conference on him. Being supervisor of both a publishing house (Momentum Christian Literature) and a Christian school (Logos School), he has since been publishing all my children's books in Indonesian.

When I asked him why he invited me to speak when he could have called someone else much more qualified, he answered, "I wanted you to come as a mother. If I tell parents to teach theology to their children, they are going to say, 'Yes, you can do it; you are a pastor.' It will mean much more if it comes from you." This explanation was liberating. At every event, I introduced myself as a mother and spoke as a mother faced with the overwhelming task of parenting in the face of the reality of both my own and my children's sin.

Theology for Tots

Promoting the idea of teaching theology to young children has a strange ring in this day and age. It may seem pretentious, like one of many educational programs promising to raise true geniuses from an early age. We often forget that theology simply means "study of God" and that it's his Word that exhorts us to grow (and help our children grow) in the knowledge of God and Christ (Col. 1:10, 2 Pet. 3:18). This is really the greatest motivation, pulling us through when our perplexities or our laziness kicks in. Knowing that God requires it of us silences all our arguments.

We should also consider the alternative. If we don't teach our children to know God as he has revealed himself in his Word, the result will be conformity to other sets of "theologies." As my pastor often says, if we don't catechize our children, the world will. Their beliefs about God and life will be shaped by at least some of the many influences around them.

In Indonesia, they asked, "How can parents teach doctrine to their children if they themselves are not keeping it?" I directed them to the historical Reformed catechisms as tools for teaching theology to children. In this case, the Heidelberg Catechism’with its division into guilt, grace, and gratitude’provided the answer. The doctrine we need to teach our children includes all three categories: law, gospel, and our response to the gospel (see HC Q5, 12’15, 115, etc.). Some asked how early a child can understand doctrine. Again, I referred them to the catechisms. For example, the Catechism for Young Children (an introduction to the Shorter Catechism) is simple enough for a child who has just learned to talk. "Who made you? What else did God make?" Children are curious by nature, and many of them have similar questions, expressed or unexpressed.

Besides being pedagogical in nature, the question-and-answer format in the catechisms of the Reformation also makes doctrine very practical, since it normally starts with daily concerns and continues in a logical progression. The questions "Who made you?" and "What else did God make?" open up a world of discovery and generate discussions that can continue throughout the day, naturally leading to the next questions, "Why did God make you and all things?" and "How can you glorify God?"

We should not discredit the value of rote memorization. It's true that the goal of education is to help a student understand what he learns, but initially there has to be an input of facts that can be processed at a later time. I teach Italian, and I know this is true with languages. It's best to first memorize a few sentences and use them, and then process the grammar later.

Contrary to common opinion, young children love to memorize. The first few years are an ideal time to teach them the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, some Scriptures, and a few catechism questions. Some parents, prompted by popular concerns, fear that their education will be dogmatic, but rote memorization is only dogmatic if it aims at teaching a system of belief without pointing to the underlying factual reality, or if it does so without welcoming critical thinking. Christian doctrine is based on historical facts and has particularly grown in understanding and clarity when challenged. In our children's education, dogmatism is avoided by moving from the parroting stage of mimicking information by rote (to follow Dorothy Sayers' definitions) to the pert stage (i.e., the logic-chopping and sometimes sassy stage evidenced by such questions as, "But why?"), and finally the poet stage, where a mature youth knows what he believes, why he believes it, and is able to communicate as much to others.

The Catechism's Relevance

I told my Indonesian audience how I shared some of their perplexities when I moved from a generically evangelical church to a Reformed one. I wasn't sure how my children would react. I was afraid they would be bored during the sermon, or they would end up parroting a catechism without understanding its meaning.

Over the years, I have seen how powerful these perplexities can be for parents. On occasion, I have seen families leave a Reformed church because of their children's protests. God has been very good to me in this as in many other ways. It was my son Jonathan, at the time five, who told me he liked the new church better. When I asked him why, he said that in the other church they were just teaching him the same stories over and over, but here he was actually learning something.

Children can easily understand the redemption story, which is anything but abstract. Equally concrete is the concept of sin. The forceful pull sin has on our wills is evident to a child, especially after he is disciplined a few times for the same offense. Children might spend a few years in denial (a Sunday school class of three- and four-year-old children once reacted with absolute shock to the teacher's announcement that she sins all the time); but by the time they are five or six the ugly news has sunk in, and they are ready to embrace the catechism's answer, "I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor." Anyone saying that theology is too abstract and impractical for children has never seen a child's frustration over his or her constant wrongdoings.

One of my children was always a great visual illustration of the power of sin in our lives. He seemed to be hopelessly drawn to anything that was forbidden, sometimes literally crawling toward his desired object. Needless to say, he had to be disciplined more often than the others. I captured my Indonesian audience's attention by telling a few stories from his early years, especially as they were eager to know how I reacted. Of course, my son was punished, but I was surprised to notice the reaction his repeated failures were causing in my heart. I am not sure how I would have reacted earlier, but being in a Reformed church I was now fully aware of my sinful condition. Instead of rage or despair, I felt compassion. I talked to my son often, about his sin and mine. We read Romans 7 together. I told him how he was struggling with disobedience and how I, at that moment, was dealing with sinful anger. Things didn't get better overnight, but my attitude had definitely changed. Besides fostering compassion, a healthy view of sin also prevents some of the typical anxieties that afflict many parents. When I didn't have a Reformed theology, much of my parenting focus was on appearances, and the frequent disappointments my children dished out caused me much stress and discouragement.

Admitting our sins to our children was a new concept for some of my Indonesian listeners’something I was later told is rare for Asian parents. They are supposed to provide a perfect example and to expect perfect obedience. In further talks, I made it clear that I also expect respect from my children and that the parent/child distinction is very clear in our home. At the same time, in God's eyes we are equally sinners and fellow pilgrims in this valley of tears.

Theology for Mothers

I know how difficult it is for mothers to find time to read and study when the children are small. I remember the days when reading a few Bible verses was a great accomplishment, but there was always little time to meditate on what I had read and to memorize. As the children grew, there were more chances to read, together and alone. Often I became so excited with my studies that I shared them with the children, regardless of their age.

Whether we stay at home or work outside, our influence as mothers is incomparable. It's important that we grow in our understanding of doctrine so we can continue to lead our children on the correct path (borrowing from Michael Horton) from drama to doctrine to doxology to discipleship. Skipping doctrine, which is the correct understanding of the biblical drama with its redemptive emphasis on the gospel of Christ, is an easy path but one that inevitably leads to moralism (if not outright unorthodoxy). Children need to have the gospel repeated to them on a daily basis, because it's unnatural to human minds.

It is God Who Builds his Church

I feel that my contribution to the seminars was comparably small since I only shared my experience as a mother and encouraged parents to use the catechisms; I am convinced that this trip was for my benefit more than anyone else's. Seeing how God moves his global church to seek to know him and to lead their children in that knowledge has been a realization that brings encouragement when spiritual battles rage. It's truly God who builds his church and keeps his everlasting covenant with us and with our children.

Photo of Simonetta Carr
Simonetta Carr
Simonetta Carr is the author of numerous books, including Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia through a Mother’s Eyes, and the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books).
Tuesday, May 1st 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology