Not long ago, a four-year-old at church asked a grown-up kind of question. He asked, “Was Jesus praying to himself when he prayed?”
Every adult working in the children’s classroom that morning turned to me as if to say, “That one’s yours.”
It was a great question. And, of course, the answer is no. God is three persons in one nature and the Son is a separate person from God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. But explaining that to a four-year-old? Pretty daunting.
The good news for any preschool teacher reading this and feeling a little nervous right now is that this bright child was quickly on to other things that demand a little boy’s attention. I didn’t have to field any follow-up questions.
Still, this shows something very important—children can understand far more than adults sometimes give them credit for. This is true in theology. It is true in apologetics.
Here are a couple of pointers to keep in mind when talking to children about the Christian faith.
Our four-year-old theologian had reasoned out the implications of a poorly communicated idea of the Trinity. It shows that children can understand the implication of ideas and we need to capitalize on this. Helping them think deeply about ideas is vital to helping them understand the richness of the Gospel.
Posing questions, as we do in apologetics, can lead to fruitful conversations. We can ask, for example, “Why does everyone think stealing is wrong?” Pointing out that people who don’t believe in God still feel compelled to follow some of God’s laws can be an interesting conversation. More importantly, it can lay the groundwork for understanding Moral Law and humankind as God’s creation.
Douglas Webster has noted what one student told him about the shallowness of a pop-evangelical, therapeutic moralism that a church can easily slide into. The student wrote: “My world was one where the Bible had no power … where preaching was like a giant pacifier … We were deprived of true sustenance.”
As parents and teachers, we can do better.
Every child understands basic truths about reality. They know the floor doesn’t bend when they fall, hot objects will burn, some foods taste better than others. They come to rely on their senses to tell them what is true about the world.
When we talk about the resurrection, we can connect the truths of the Gospel to a child’s world when we emphasize that Jesus’s friends ate with, talked to, walked with, and even touched Him.
There is rich evidence supporting belief in the Christian God and we need to explore it with children. We can start by using knowledge words such as “know, it is true, the evidence shows, and Bible scholars have discovered.” As we talk about the faith, we can point to the facts that back up our beliefs.
So, back to our inquisitive four-year-old. How can we explain doctrines that are difficult to understand?
Robert Bowman, apologist, author and father, said in a NOBTS podcast Answering God’s Call earlier this year that it is important to tell children that God is not like us, but that He is completely different from us. Bowman stressed that we should give the same explanation to children that we would to adults, but tell the children they will understand better as they grow older.
This is sound advice. Children do not understand quarks or atoms, but they understand that a house, for example, is built from smaller things. Children don’t understand meteorology or refraction of light, but they know a rainbow follows after rain.
When we speak of the Trinity, children need to know that God is one nature, three persons and that He is so marvelous that He is hard to describe.
And that makes sense to a child.
Marilyn Stewart is assistant director for news at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.