Peter Enns on Teaching Kids the Gospel

As Sarah & I have been wrestling with the best approach to take to teach our kids about the Bible (see my post: On Teaching My Kids About Genesis), I thought I would ask my friend (and former professor) Peter Enns if he had any advice that I could post on here as an interview. Pete (Ph.D. Harvard) wrote some homeschool curriculum this year called Telling God’s Story (that Sarah & I have read and love) so we thought he might have some helpful thoughts. But before I post the interview, since Pete’s my friend, I have to plug his newest book that comes out Jan 1 on Adam called The Evolution of Adam. Without further ado:

JB: Your home school curriculum starts when children are of school age. What approach to teaching the Bible and God to preschoolers would you recommend? And are there any resources you would recommend to this end?

PE: I don’t want to give the impression that I am an authority on homeschooling materials in general, so I can’t recommend any resources for preschoolers. But, based on the approaches out there for the older children, it is highly unlikely a preschool curriculum would be of a different kind.

My sense as a father is that preschool is a time to make the faith of the parents a normal part of daily life—not a special Sunday thing, or even a “prayer before meals or bedtime” thing alone, but something that comes out of who you are as parents. Of course, that is a subtle and challenging way of life—not the stuff of a curriculum.

At the end of the day, this is not technical or hard to comprehend—but it is hard to live like Jesus in front of your children.

JB: You have a pretty nuanced view of what is in the Bible and what the Bible is exactly, a view that children are not likely to fully understand. How do you translate this view to children in a way where it won’t be disconcerting when they are older and able to understand more?

PE: Yes, how can a child learn early on to have a more nuanced view of the Bible so that when they get old they will be prepared for a more adult appreciation of the Bible.

This is a pressing issue, I think. A failure to give children a more nuanced view of the Bible can lead to crises of faith in middle-school, high school, and college, when they are confronted with information that is easily accessible on the Internet or discussed in classrooms (like the ancient parallels to the flood story or the different theological perspective in the Gospels).

I don’t think a child can handle a lot of nuance and subtlety. Kids are concrete. But, parents can model for them a questioning attitude toward the Bible. It is so refreshing when parents do not fear the thought of not knowing something.

“Hey mom, why is Jesus so mad at that fig tree?”
“Wow. I’m not sure. I’ve never thought about that before.”

Or, “It really surprises me that the Israelites kill so many people.”

Creating an atmosphere where honest engagement of the text, in an age appropriate way, is of great value for parent and children alike. The pressure if off for parents to be the “answer man/woman” for everything, and children learn that God can handle their questions—and that some things are just plain old hard to answer.

JB: What are the basic assumptions (either about methodology or content) that go into your home school curriculum and how are they different from other approaches?

PE: The Bible is a difficult book to understand once you start looking at the details. It is fundamentally a book written for adults, not children. What often happens is, in trying to bring the Bible down to a child’s level, one has to water down or even distort the content of parts of the Bible. A classic example is the flood story. For children, we reduce it to a story of animals taking a boat ride where the moral of the story is “God is faithful.” In truth, the flood story is very unsettling even to adults—an angry God wipes out all life because people are sinful. A child may ask, “But I’m sinful, too. Will God be out to get me?”

I also want children to begin to see as early as possible that Jesus is the center and focus of their faith. We tend to replace Jesus with a lot of other things: our theologies, our denominations, moral behavior, etc. But knowing Jesus is the goal—and that is where I start in my curriculum, by introducing children to Jesus the way Jesus introduced himself to his audience: through stories, miracles, teachings, and other things.

At the end of the day, we are not called to have faith in anything else other than Jesus.

JB: How did you grow up learning about the Bible and how did this foundation shape how you think about your faith today?

PE: My parents both had faith, but I didn’t grow up learning about the Bible. I only really began going to church in 6th grade—a Lutheran church (my parents were German immigrants)—so I could be confirmed, but it didn’t mean much to me.

I had a conversion experience in high school (Nazarenes), but by that time I was not really influenced by my parent’s faith. I went to a Christian college where I was much more interested in playing baseball than exploring my faith.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I began to realize I shallow my faith was—both spiritually and intellectually—and I began to read anything I cold get my hands on.

As short as this is, I hope it is as helpful to you as it was to me. And if you have any other questions, leave a comment, and I’m sure I can get him to answer them.

9 responses to “Peter Enns on Teaching Kids the Gospel

  1. Pingback: Peter Enns on Teaching Kids the Gospel | Jared Byas | Bible Study Lessons Aggregator

  2. Pete great insights. Another great book I would recommend is:
    Spiritual Parenting ~ an awakening for today’s families by Michelle Anthony.

  3. Thanks for this – I appreciated the biographical info, I didn’t know much about Pete’s backstory. Looks like maybe he escaped childhood with less baggage than some of us – under-exposure to the Bible can be a blessing… I had a feeling the “just live it” approach to teaching toddlers the gospel would be the answer. How disappointing – I wanted a quick and easy book. But don’t we all.

    • I know what you mean. I told Sarah last night: “I knew he was going to say ‘just live the gospel’. But that’s not how we do it in America. I want you to tell me what to say to my kids, not how to structure my life. That’s why I bought his curriculum in the first place – for all the answers.”

      I was kidding of course. Maybe.

  4. Pete and Jared ~

    Thanks for this! How helpful! I just had to teach the flood at a Christian school and it was quite disconcerting to me to teach it to six year olds. I look forward to using your materials Dr. Enns — both as a parent and an educator!

  5. Pingback: Teaching Kids the Gospel | Peter Enns

  6. Pingback: Teaching the Bible in a Post-Literal World « Disoriented. Reoriented.

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