By / Apr 8

A year ago, as we headed into weeks and months of pandemic lockdown, children’s ministry leaders were in survival mode, scrambling for ideas on how to equip their teams to minister to children from a distance. As we saw the end of pandemic restrictions on the horizon, many lifted their gaze and began to explore reopening plans. Now those same ministry leaders are in the midst of implementing those plans, teaching volunteers new sanitizing protocols and welcoming families back into teaching environments with new social distancing requirements.

COVID-19 has changed a lot of things about children’s ministry, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that most children’s ministers spend more time each week thinking about getting ready for Sunday than they do thinking about the philosophy and methodology that has shaped the way they do ministry. Children’s ministers work in the ministry but on a week-to-week basis, most don’t give as much thought to what it would look like to work on the ministry

Children’s ministry as an academic discipline

That’s where a book like Bridging Theory and Practice in Children’s Spirituality: New Directions for Education, Ministry, and Discipleship (Zondervan, 2020) can be a big help. The book is edited by Mimi L. Larson, children’s ministry catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries in the Christian Reformed Church-North America, and Robert J. Keeley, professor of education at Calvin College. It grew out of presentations made at the 2018 Children’s Spirituality Summit, an ecumenical gathering of children’s ministry scholars and practitioners hosted by the Society for Children’s Spirituality at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.

The book includes chapters from a diverse range of thinkers and practitioners that includes Erik Carter, professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University, Kevin E. Lawson, professor of Educational Studies at Biola University, Adam Harwood, professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Karen F. Williams, a book publishing and education consultant based in Nashville, and Henry Zonio, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Kentucky, and others. These authors and more explore children’s ministry as an academic discipline. While the book is aimed at ministry practitioners, it invites them into deeper reflection on what might be described in an academic seminar as the issues and theory that shapes our practice of children’s discipleship.

Children’s Spirituality begins with foundational matters, exploring the philosophical emphases, theological assumptions, and cultural history that shape contemporary children’s ministry curriculum and programming (chapters 1–4). Next, the book explores the environments that shape a child’s faith—church culture and programming, the changing shape of today’s families, and the experience of trauma and grief (chapters 5–8). The book’s final sections explore various methods for children’s ministry. An emphasis is placed on telling Bible stories (chapters 9–11) but the book also addresses the shape of contemporary curriculum (chapters 12–13), spiritual direction with children (chapter 14), and the importance of play (chapter 15).

Among the book’s highlights were Lawson and Harwood’s chapter that outlined the similarities and differences in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist theologies of children (chapter 2); Karen Williams’s very practical chapter on cultivating children’s ministry environments that foster racial diversity (chapter 3); Erik Carter’s taxonomy of approaches that churches take to welcoming children with special needs (chapter 4); and Zonio’s sociological study of racial representation in the images and language used in published children’s ministry curriculum (chapter 13). If you are a family pastor or children’s minister, each of these chapters is worth your time and careful consideration.

Ministry to, for, and with children

The contributors to Children’s Spirituality represent a diversity of perspectives from a broad range of Christian traditions. As I read, my desire was to engage the book with openness and thoughtfulness about the assumptions I bring to children’s ministry as a committed Baptist.

The book’s first chapter, written by Scottie May, professor emerita of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College, helped me to put my theological and cultural assumptions into a historical perspective. May sees American children’s ministry as developing in three phases (24–35):

The conservative evangelical movement in America began with a theologically sound emphasis on the Bible as the authority for discipleship (2 Tim. 3:16–17). May points out that as a result of our confidence in the Bible, many evangelical churches from 1940–1965 gravitated toward content-focused discipleship strategies and viewed children as sponges or empty vessels into which the teacher—the authority in the classroom—was responsible to impart knowledge. She calls this ministry to children.

With the advent of children’s television and the widespread acceptance of developmental theory, children’s ministries from 1965–1990 become more student-centered. The attractional children’s ministry models of this era saw children as participants, explorers, or even consumers, and the teachers were given the role of engaging children in active learning. “Sometimes the learning was so active,” May lamented, “that the teacher would feel it was a three-ring circus” (27). She calls this ministry for children.

The newest models of children’s ministry—and the ones that are most prominently highlighted in Children’s Spirituality—are process-centered and emphasize spiritual formation as a journey (Gal. 4:19). The new models are rooted in the contemplative theological stream and highlight new findings in neurobiology that have challenged many people’s developmental assumptions about when learning begins (26). May calls this ministry with children.

Some benefits of a process-centered approach

May’s three-phase overview demonstrates how children’s ministry scholarship as a whole has swung from what I might describe as a Classical education model across the bow to something that looks more and more like a Montessori-style model of Christian education—one that emphasizes imagination and wonder, asking open-ended questions about Bible stories, allowing kids to discover their own readings or interpretations of the text, giving children more choices, and learning through play. 

We now know that learning happens before birth and that all children have a sense of awe from a very early age; they are aware of spiritual things. With this knowledge, many children’s ministry scholars (and a growing number of practitioners) have begun to view teachers as co-learners with children; they’re embracing a reciprocal learning relationship with children and even finding ways to empower children to lead. “This rather revolutionary thought recognizes that children can indeed teach adults something, including and perhaps especially spiritual insights, if the adults only have ears to hear and eyes to see” (27–28). 

The contributors to Children’s Spirituality have helped me to see at least three helpful correctives that a process-centered approach offers:

  1. A process-centered approach finds freedom to engage the Bible’s more difficult stories without having all the answers. Often evangelical children’s ministries have used Bible stories merely as a way to teach moral lessons to children. With this approach, Bible people are seen either as heroes or villains, and it’s no wonder that many stories (like the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 and 12) or details in stories (like Noah’s drunken nakedness after the flood) are left out of children’s ministry curriculum.

    Even with a more God- or gospel-centered approach that emphasizes God’s actions for his people in history, our desire to find one main teaching point can keep us from sitting in the mystery of why a story’s events unfolded as they did. Why did God choose a man like Samson as a judge (Judges 13–16) or give us that awful story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19–20)? In his chapter on sharing hard stories with children, Robert J. Keeley writes, “Much of the Bible is mysterious. . .  I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I have some guesses and some ideas about how to start thinking about these things, but I have no answers. It is good to let children know that. Mystery is an important part of our faith. A God we can fully grasp is a God who is too small” (172).
  2. A process-centered approach doesn’t merely tell children what to think; it cultivates their affections and higher-level thinking skills. At the beginning of her chapter, Mimi L. Larson wrote, “I believe the church desires children to learn and be spiritually formed as a result of instruction, but are we engaging in methods that will actually increase their learning in formation?” (187). Behind this question was a research project where Larson used Bloom’s taxonomy for evaluating educational learning objectives to study 39 randomly selected lessons in five popular, evangelical, mostly nondenominational children’s curricula.

    Larson came away from this study with a conviction that children’s ministry leaders, Sunday School teachers, and curriculum writers may be good at telling children what they should believe and how to apply God’s Word—teaching lessons with clear main points and incentivizing the memorization of Bible verses and doctrinal truths. But they are less skilled at cultivating a child’s affections or in training kids to think at a higher level—about how to analyze and study God’s Word for instance, or to think through ethical situations from a biblical frame, or to produce a creative and affective faith response.

    Larson calls for greater intentionality in both our curriculum development and in the way we cultivate reflective classroom environments: “By encouraging children to think and discover biblical understandings under the guidance of a skilled teacher and mature believer, the child is learning how to think biblically and not just specifically what to think” (197).
  3. A process-centered approach encourages active engagement with children while they play. Shirley K. Morgenthaler is distinguished professor of Curriculum, Language, and Literacy at Concordia University, Chicago. In her chapter on sacred play, she writes, “Within Christian education, we feel a tension to ground a child in the gospel, to explain and teach the foundations of faith from a young age. We also know that play impacts both the life of the mind and the life of the body . . . Can play also be a form of spiritual development?” (228).

    Morgenthaler encourages children’s ministers to create spaces where children can act out Bible stories and rhythms of worship—perhaps a little church with pews and a pulpit in the corner of a classroom, or a nativity scene with Bible costumes during Advent and Christmas. She sees these environments as centers for self-discovery but highlights the need for wise teachers to provide guidance.

    If play is a part of a child’s spiritual formation, it must be more than a time-filler or recreational activity. “This is not the time to be holding a cup of coffee and ‘watching the children,’” she writes (238). Rather the teacher must be fully engaged and discerning about when to allow kids the opportunity to exercise their creativity and when to step in and ask guiding questions.

Embracing a process without losing the gospel

If there’s a danger in a process-oriented approach, it’s that in focusing on the process, ministers might begin to deemphasize the importance of the gospel message. As Baptists, we might worry that when teachers pursue a role as co-learners with children, they may be attempted to also abandon their own authority as the teacher—or forsake the reality that the Christian faith has a defined content that must be passed along from generation to generation (Psa. 78:5–8; 2 Tim. 1:5; 2:2; Jude 1:3). 

Conservative evangelicals will want to emphasize that while it can be helpful for children to make their own choices and struggle to discover the meaning of Bible passages, kids are also both sinful and immature. One role of a Christian teacher is to bring correction when a child strays onto the wrong path—not only in behavior but also in thinking. We must be gentle with children but also unafraid to confront them with the reality of their brokenness. As Charles Spurgeon once warned: 

Do not flatter the child with delusive rubbish about his nature being good and needing to be developed. Tell him he must be born again. Don’t bolster him up with the fancy of his own innocence, but show him his sin. Mention the childish sins to which he is prone, and pray the Holy Spirit to work conviction in his heart and conscience.1Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), chapter 9, accessed online at https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/cyc09.php.

Spurgeon makes clear that an essential way of cultivating affection in children for the gospel is to show them their need for it. At times as I was reading, I wished that perspective was more front and center in Children’s Spirituality

But with our love of the truth, we also must demonstrate to the next generation that we have the heart to walk alongside them—and even learn from them—as they discover the beauty and goodness of the Bible’s message. To that end, I found this book to be a great help.

One prayer I have for the churches and leaders who are welcoming children again after COVID-19 is that they’ll take time in this season to slow down and think deeply about the theology and methodology that drives their ministry—that they won’t just work in but work on their children’s ministry. Maybe Children’s Spirituality will help you to that end. As with the children we’re leading, growth for us as ministers isn’t always cultivated in the activity but in the process of both doing the work and taking the time to reflect and wonder. 

Jared Kennedy and the team of leaders at Gospel-Centered Family offer both one-on-one and cohort coaching opportunities for children’s and family ministry leaders. Find out more at gospelcenteredfamily.com/coaching 

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    Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), chapter 9, accessed online at https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/cyc09.php.
By / Mar 18

“Kids are cute but they’re not really eco-friendly.” This is the title of a troubling 2017 article making the rounds, and making waves, on the internet. With an image of a smiling family of five pasted front-and-center, oddly enough, Caroline Mortimer spends the entirety of her allotted space comparing having children to other “carbon emitting activities” like eating meat, driving a car, and traveling by plane. The implication is that having many kids is irresponsible and harmful to the planet. 

Leaning on a study performed by Lund University in Sweden, Mortimer concludes that “having children is the most destructive thing a person can do to the environment.” As readers, we must not rush past this statement too quickly. While the article goes on to quote the referenced study, championing the good that would come if families have just “one fewer child,” Mortimer’s conclusion is more cut-and-dry––having children at all is destructive. As Christians, what are we to say to Mortimer’s grim assertion?

What God says about children

Mortimer presents a sort of utilitarian view of children—they are worthwhile only so long as their usefulness outweighs their supposed liability to the planet. In her view, and in the view of the study, because children produce something like “58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year,” they’re more damaging to the environment than eating meat or traveling. That being the case, their existence should be limited, says Mortimer. A child’s value is not inherent in this view, but contingent on how many brothers or sisters he or she has and their cumulative carbon output. 

Christians should know that the underlying assumption put forth by Mortimer and those who share her sentiment is both mistaken and unbiblical. A child’s value cannot be reduced to the sum total of his or her carbon footprint, but what the Author of life declares it to be. Rather than taking our cues from the assumptions of this study’s researchers and their utilitarian philosophy, we should listen to how God speaks to us in his Word. 

Here are three things God says in the Bible about children.

  1. Children are loved by God

“The most foundational thing in God is not some abstract quality, but the fact that he is Father,” says Michael Reeves in Delighting in the Trinity. He goes on to say, “He is Father. All the way down. Thus all that he does he does as Father. That is who he is. He creates as a Father and he rules as a Father.” Children are loved by God, first and foremost, because God is Father, and God is love.

Likewise, because we know that God the Father loves his Son, the second person of the Trinity, we can be certain that he loves our sons and daughters. He sent his beloved Son into the world, after all, because he “so loved it” (John 3:16). The Scriptures are replete with references and allusions and illustrations of parental love precisely because God is not just a loving Creator, but a loving parent, “A father to the fatherless” (Psa. 68:5).

  1. Children are a gift from God

In Psalm 127, Solomon’s song declares that “children are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (v. 3). Contrary to what is implied in the article referenced above, there is no hint here of children being a liability or encumbrance of any sort, but purely a gift from a kind and gracious God. 

Furthermore, we read God’s words to Adam and Eve in the earliest pages of Scripture, telling them to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” a directive that still stands. Even the phrase itself, “be fruitful,” suggests that the offspring produced through the union of man and woman is good and to be desired (like fruit), and a process by which the cultural mandate and, relatedly, the Great Commission go forward. 

We are not meant to value our children based on their utility but because they have been created by God and given as a gift. We are to take joy in receiving the gift (John 16:21) and glorify our Father in heaven.  

  1. Children are welcome in the kingdom of God

In a scene that must have confounded Jesus’ disciples, Jesus spoke to his followers, after they had barked at a group of children and those who accompanied them, saying, “Leave the children alone, and don’t try to keep them from coming to me, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14). And before leaving, the text says that Jesus “placed his hands on them.” Children are not just welcomed into the kingdom of God, they are welcomed with a hug.

But, of course, the text does not suggest that children are only welcome in God’s kingdom. Jesus states that the kingdom of God belongs to such persons, an idea that would have been unthinkable in the first century. Children, according to Jesus, are not expendable or disposable in God’s kingdom based on some carbon output equation, but are to be emulated within the kingdom. They have something to teach us. In fact, we won’t enter God’s kingdom unless we enter as little children ourselves (Matt. 18:3).

Turn and become like children

We live in an “enlightened” generation so confused as to suggest that being fruitful and multiplying is more harmful than it is blessed. But we are not called to weigh the pros and cons of a child’s carbon footprint before we consider the unchanging words of God. This sort of equational logic has no place in ascribing value to a child. 

In fact, the crux of Mortimer’s logic is entirely backward, according to Jesus. His counsel to us is not to turn children away so we can make adult decisions, from discipleship to family planning, but for adults to “turn and become like children” (Matt. 18:3), the very ones Mortimer is suggesting we disallow. Children are a gift and a blessing and a heritage, not a liability. And we have much to learn from them.

The devaluing of children is fundamentally at odds with the Christian worldview. From Jesus’ proclamation that children are welcome in the lap of God to the Apostle John’s statement that the Father calls his saints “children of God” (1 John 3:1), both physical children and spiritual children are precious and loved by the God. Rather than employing equations that suggest we sacrifice our prospective children for the sake of the planet, we should “be fruitful and multiply,” bearing children for the cause of joy, for the sake of the gospel, for the good of the nations, and, yes, for the sake of our planet. So may the children of the world abound and teach us what it means to be “great in the kingdom of heaven.”

By / Mar 10

Being sick can be scary, especially for children. Dr. Scott James has a passion for showing both kids and their parents that God is right there with them in their time of need, even in the middle of a pandemic. Scott is a pediatric physician. He serves as an elder at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, where he and his wife, Jaime, live with their four children. Scott wants to remind us that we can not only trust God to take care of us, but we also have the privilege of imitating him while caring for others.

Scott’s new book, God Cares for Me: Helping Children Trust God When They’re Sick, helps parents and caregivers talk with children about illness and how to keep themselves and others safe when sick. Scott was kind enough to answer some of our questions about how parents can talk with their children about sickness.

Q: We are a year into the COVID-19 pandemic here in the United States, but there are still so many unanswered questions. How old are your children, and what kind of conversations have you had at home with your kids as COVID started to spread?

We have four children, ranging from nine to almost sixteen years old. Depending on how you look at it, having an infectious diseases doctor as a dad during a global pandemic is either a fortunate or a very unfortunate thing. On the positive side, as the pandemic ramped up and then hung around, my kids always had someone they could come to with questions. 

They ask profoundly good questions, and we’ve had the opportunity to process things out loud all year long. We’ve talked about what makes this virus unique, how seriously ill it can make people, how it has disrupted so many people’s lives, what we can do to slow the spread and help people in need, and how sad it makes us that people want to fight about that.   

The downside of having an ID doctor as a dad during all this is that the nature of my work on the frontlines has put a certain amount of stress on our family. Because I am knowingly exposed to the virus every day, I’ve had to be very cautious about not spreading the infection to my family, our church, or our community. We’re not on lockdown or anything, but we make it a point to be consistently careful about how we go out and how we gather. 

In a year when many people have gone on with life as normal, my kids have missed out on a lot. That’s one reason I was interested in writing God Cares for Me—though thankfully we have remained well so far, I saw it as a good opportunity to talk further with my kids about how God is near, he loves to take care of us in difficult times. He gives us the privilege of helping him care for others in their time of need as well. 

Q: As parents, how do we talk about not only keeping our own bodies well, but making sure we keep others safe from getting sick too? 

Even as we’re helping our children trust in God’s care for us amid this pandemic, we also have the opportunity to help them see that God calls us to care for others, too. With an infectious disease circulating in our communities, one way to look out for the good of others is to help slow the spread of infection by consistently practicing interventions such as masking and social distancing. 

When doctors and public health experts recommend these practices as a way to protect other people, I think that following their guidance is a reasonable Christian response. It’s one way we can love others and seek the good of our communities (1 Corinthians 10:24). To be clear, it’s certainly not the only way to love others, and I believe Christians should refrain from codifying such practices as moral law, as if the Bible says, “Thou shalt mask up.” These behaviors are a way to love your neighbor—a very good and timely way, I would argue—but we shouldn’t act as if they are a foolproof litmus test of Christian love and faithfulness. 

Corollary to this, if our faith is motivating us to look for ways to love our neighbors and help others stay safe during this pandemic, we would do well to consider mental and spiritual well-being as well. Christian faith is marked by fellowship, hospitality, and deep community—we are not wired for social isolation or physical estrangement from the body of Christ, and there are profoundly negative effects to this season of separation. 

Even while we are trying to protect others by social distancing, we have the opportunity to help our children think about how to proactively and safely pursue the fellowship we so desperately need. We may need to get creative with the ways in which we gather, but we’re still called to live in community with one another.

Q: I’m sure you saw an even greater need to write God Cares for Me because of the pandemic, but the book isn’t just about COVID, is it? 

Certainly not! I think of this book as COVID-relevant but not COVID-specific. The broader theme of helping children walk through times of pain and suffering is central to my role as a pediatrician. It is something I often think through from a pastoral perspective as well. 

God Cares for Me follows a boy named Lucas through a sick day and a scary visit to the doctor’s office, but the bigger story is how God provides comfort and care all along the way. My prayer is that whatever illness a family might be facing, this book will be a reminder that God is a trustworthy refuge and fortress (Psalm 91:2). 

I hope this book will spark ongoing conversations within families. The back section, “Talking with Kids about Sickness,” gives parents a few suggestions on navigating those conversations. I encourage parents to approach these difficult topics in a way that acknowledges the hard reality of what it’s like having to deal with pain and suffering but consistently points to the comforting truth that God has not left us to manage on our own. God himself is with us every step of the way, and he also surrounds us with a community of people called the church—people who love us in Christ and are present to bear our burdens alongside us.

By / Jan 26

Through the years, my wife and I have used and enjoyed many Bible paraphrases with our young kids. We loved seeing our kids’ imaginations come alive as the authors of these children’s Bibles communicated the story and truths of Scripture in artful and skillful ways. As our children grew up, however, we became eager to help them read and learn from an actual English translation of the Bible rather than from paraphrases. While a good children’s Bible is wonderful, there is no substitute for the actual words of God.

Though there are passages of the Bible—even entire books—that are difficult for children to understand, there are many sections that a typical 8- to 12-year-old child can easily grasp. Indeed, it could be argued that there are texts that a child may have an easier time understanding than an adult, as Charles Spurgeon does: “The opinion that children cannot receive the whole truth of the gospel is a great mistake, for their childlikeness is a help rather than a hindrance; older people must become as little children before they can enter the kingdom.”1Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Come Ye Children: Practical Help Telling Children About Jesus (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2009) Due to their intrinsic childlike faith, children can often believe and internalize the simple and beautiful truths of Scripture faster and easier than adults can.

When my church wanted to develop a resource to help grade-school kids read the actual words of Scripture, we decided to use the same method we use to teach adults, contextualized for kids. This method, called the REAP method, walks through the inductive Bible study method in four steps: read, examine, apply, and pray.

READ: The goal of the first step, read, is to answer the question, “What does the Bible say?” This is the observation step of the inductive method. When guiding kids through this step, first read the passage together, and then ask them to retell the story or passage back to you in their own words. You could also act out the passage together, or ask simple comprehension questions. Ensure that the child understands what happened in the text before moving on to the next step.

Due to their intrinsic childlike faith, children can often believe and internalize the simple and beautiful truths of Scripture faster and easier than adults can.

EXAMINE: In the examine step, we answer the question, “What does it mean?” This moves beyond comprehension to interpretation. The key word to keep in mind here is “curiosity.” Ask a lot of questions of the text such as, “Why is it this word instead of another word?”, “What do you think God thinks about what happened?”, or, “Why did this character take that action?” The good news is that you can tap into a child’s natural curiosity during this section. You may even want to let them ask you questions in this step rather than the other way around.

APPLY: In the third step, apply, you will guide the child to think about what will be different about them as a result of their reading and understanding. Is there a specific action they want to do more of, or stop doing? Is there an attitude shift that would bring more honor and glory to God? Should time be set aside today to worship God for his goodness? While it is OK to be prescriptive in this step to children, try to hold back at first and see what they come up with. You may be surprised at what applications children glean from the text on their own.

PRAY: For the final step, pray, guide kids to answer the question, “How can I respond to what God has shown me today?” Remind kids that prayers don’t have to sound a certain way, or be a certain length. Help them simply think about what they’ve learned and say something back to God. At first, it may be helpful to prompt them with phrases like, “Dear God, thank You for teaching me . . .”, “Please help me to . . .”, or “I praise you because . . .” But over time kids will learn to pray without this additional help.

Of course, if the child has trusted in Christ and is a believer, this process will be greatly helped by the guidance of the Holy Spirit inside of them. He will help them as they read, examine, apply, and pray. However, even if the boy or girl is still on their journey to understanding and placing their faith in the gospel, this method is still beneficial! It teaches them the practice of reading and understanding the text of the Bible before attempting to apply it to themselves. And who knows? Perhaps even this exercise of REAPing together will be what God uses to bring your child to saving faith in him.

The major advantage of studying the Bible in this way with your kids is that it places God and his Word in the instructor seat rather than you. You, the parent or Sunday school teacher, are the guide and the helper, but the Bible is the one doing the teaching. Some of my favorite times in practicing this method with my kids have been when God has taught them something that I hadn’t yet seen, and I was able to learn and grow alongside them.

This new year, join with your kids in trying this new method of Scripture study together. I pray you will be blessed through this practice as my family and I have.

If you’re looking for more guidance on what passages of Scripture to read with kids or on how this method works, The Austin Stone has created a resource to help. Learn more about and purchase the Kids REAP Journal: Exploring the Bible & 7 Basic Truths Everyone Should Know at austinstone.org/resources.

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    Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Come Ye Children: Practical Help Telling Children About Jesus (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2009)
By / Jan 12

It was just after my kids’ school shut last March, as the pandemic spread and our government locked us down, that my 5- and 7-year-olds asked me what would happen next.

“I don’t know,” I told them.

I saw my daughter’s expression change as she came to terms with a new thought: Daddy doesn’t know. Always before, mommy and daddy had known. Suddenly, they didn’t. Neither did our pastor, our city mayor, or our national leaders.

Don’t underestimate the effect that 2020 had on young kids. Much has been written, discussed and preached about how the pandemic has affected adults. But, as we stand at the start of another year, which has already brought its own measure of uncertainty and unforeseen challenges, perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves: How do we teach our kids to trust God when the world flips, when uncertainty swoops in, when even the grown-ups who love them don’t know what to do?

1. Teach them this is normal

The truth is, this is a fallen world. I realized through 2020 that although my theology tells me that this is a broken world, my working assumption was more Western than it was biblical—that things will always get better despite the odd blip, that technology triumphs, and that life will turn out okay.

Throughout 2020 I wanted to tell my children what I wanted to tell myself: that life will soon be back to normal. But the truth is that this is normal. We live in a world under the curse. Life is often painful toil, and one day we will return to dust (Gen. 3:17–19). Read Revelation and, whatever your view of the millennium, you’re not going to emerge with a view of this earth as a rosy, comfortable place.

There is no point in pretending things are basically fine to our kids when they can see the truth of fallenness all around us, as well as within us. As Christians, we have the opportunity to give our kids a worldview that accords with their lived reality, rather than a sugary secular fairytale that collapses at their first contact with experience.

2. Teach them that humanity is finite

I wonder if the greatest danger for humanity in this season is not the pandemic but the vaccine. (To be very clear: I do not mean that the vaccine is a physical danger, but that our societies’ response to its existence may be a spiritual danger.) It will be interpreted as humanity’s great victory over death, as proof that modern science knows no challenge it cannot overcome. We will celebrate our own awesomeness, and we will forget the reason we needed a vaccine in the first place—that there is no vaccine against death.

What should breed humility in us is more likely to prompt hubris. At that point, our kids will need a robust understanding that “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone” (Psa. 103:15-16). We will need, gently but clearly, to remind our kids that this is a vaccine against COVID-19—and that we should be very thankful for it—but that it is not a vaccine against death itself; that it extends life but does not save life. We will need to explain to them (and to ourselves) that science can help us navigate a fallen world, but it cannot overcome it. The serpent-crusher did his work on a cross, not in a lab.

3. Teach them that God is unchanging and sovereign

As C.H. Spurgeon famously said, “The sovereignty of God is the pillow upon which the child of God rests his head at night, giving perfect peace.”

God is not surprised by the pandemic, and he is sovereign over how and when it ends. He is not surprised by the tensions gripping the culture of so many Western nations in one way or another, and he will work out his purposes in and through them. He does not change, and so the endpoint of history is certain.

I need to teach my kids this, and the truth is, I need to teach myself this. They will learn more from what they see in me than they will in what they hear from me. When I am tempted to fear, to be impatient, to despair, I must preach God’s immutability to my own heart first, and then to theirs. When Daddy doesn’t know, that’s okay, because our heavenly Father does.

4. Teach them that Christ has triumphed

The pandemic shocked us because it has upset our basic modernistic assumption that we can keep death at bay. Again, rather than running from the truth that death happens, we can run to the one who defeated death—and lead our children to him, too.

While the world tells children things will be okay, we don’t. But we can tell them that in Christ all is ultimately, and eternally, okay. The empty tomb is the rock-solid certainty that no tidal wave can sweep away. Christ is risen, just as he promised; and so every other one of his promises will come true, too. “Christ is risen” is the three-word answer to the uncertainties of this life. He has triumphed over death, and so our kids can look the fallenness of the world and the finitude of humanity in the face, and smile.

Fear not

So no, kids, daddy doesn’t know what will happen in 2021. 2020 has humbled him sufficiently to know that he doesn’t really know. Curveballs will come. Life may not get better. And that’s okay. This is an uncertain world, with a certain end. And for the Christian, the route may not be clear, but the destination is sure.

Since 2020, my kids have lost a fair amount. They’ve lost out on some of their education. They’ve lost the ability to play with friends in the park and welcome them into their home. They’ve lost out on seeing grandparents and cousins. They’ve lost the idea that their dad knows what’s going on.

Nevertheless, this season will be one more of gain than of loss if it helps them to see through the Western assumptions that their father has found so hard to shed; if it gives them the chance to climb Mount Zion, stand before an empty tomb, and know that there is a risen, reigning Savior who they can trust when they cannot trust anything else. If as parents all we do in 2021 is lead them to that place, that will have been a great year.

“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Rev. 1:17-18)

By / Dec 30

Right now, many parents are trying to manage life due to the coronavirus. For many young people, cold weather and shorter days can also bring about the winter blues. Sad feelings, lethargic moods, greater anxiety, or mild depression can accompany the winter season.

As parents, you might also be struggling with your own seasonal blues on top of navigating work while educating, organizing, and occupying your kids. You are likely all suffering from the challenges of this season. But do you find yourself trying to maintain order rather than foster relationship? Whether it’s life in quarantine or winter blues, the struggle tends to be similar: We are tempted to look for ways to survive more than looking for ways to engage our children and help them thrive. 

There are signs young people may be struggling from the winter blues, too. Here are a few: 

  • They appear sullen, lethargic, sleep more, and are less motivated than usual.
  • Their thoughts, attitudes, and self-expressions seem darker, perhaps pessimistic.
  • They share a sense of general sadness, depression, or anxiety without pointing to a cause. 

We can focus on the gray cloud (shorter daylight, more melancholy moments, kids stuck inside, etc.), or we can look for the silver lining (an opportunity to spend time together, draw out our kids’ feelings and struggles, and develop closer ties with them). It is essential that we, as adults, model healthy ways of managing seasonal distress and cabin fever for our kids. Young people need to know they can go through dark days, winter seasons, and sad moments with tangible comfort in the present and hope for what’s to come. 

Here are some principles for how we can foster resilient emotions and attitudes while drawing closer to our kids during the winter months. 

  1. They need God’s personal comfort and presence displayed before them. When a child or teen is feeling down, knowing someone is walking alongside them always makes it more bearable. A hug, pat on the shoulder, a warm smile or simple, “I care, and I am praying for you,” means so much. As an adult, demonstrate God’s very present help in time of trouble (Psa. 46:1).
  1. Commit to developing stronger, loving relationships with your kids. Building safe, godly connections is vital in helping them deal with the seasons of hardship in their lives. Being at home more together gives us an unexpected opportunity to do so. Decide that you will look for new ways to draw them out and engage them in meaningful conversations.
  1. Look for ways to not just draw out your kids but point them to the Lord. Deuteronomy 6 sets up this mentality for us. Good questions and conversations can reveal what our kids believe about life, themselves, and God. It provides insight to where they struggle with depression, disbelief, secret fears, insecurities, sinful tendencies, or sadness. Having meaningful conversations with them will foster a sense of feeling known and understood by you—and the Lord. Pray for ways to woo them to wanting to know Christ personally. Here are a few suggestions: 
  • Challenge yourself to ask thoughtful questions and help them articulate their feelings. Use apps, aides, and conversation starters that are readily available, and modify them as needed.
  • Find out what they are thinking about. Aim to know how they process what they think and feel and why. Then help bring truth, hope, and wisdom into the conversation.
  • Ask them what they think about God. Explore ways to help draw them to the Lord and his ways. We want to try to build bridges to personally connect them to a personal God.
  • Consider follow-up questions that keep your kids sharing.
  • Ask yourself what their answers reveal about their needs. There may be a need to get additional support: a youth pastor, mentor, or counselor. Be willing to ask for outside guidance and input. 
  • Look for ways to encourage them. Simple statements, kind words, and giving them hope and a bigger perspective is life-giving. 
  1. Be thoughtful and creative in the way you set up family time and routines in your home. Intentionally turn off electronics during certain time periods and offer something in its place. It is very tempting for young people to retreat into technology in ways that can contribute to their loneliness and isolation. Pursue time with your child, and get them out of their own world. Take a walk, make a coffee run, or play a game to pull them into an activity that reorients their focus.

Young people need to know they can go through dark days, winter seasons, and sad moments with tangible comfort in the present and hope for what’s to come.

Gather the family for an activity. Consider your kids’ ages, interests, and your family dynamics. What will engage them? If something you try is a flop, don’t let that discourage you. One day they reject your efforts, the next day they accept. Success comes by trial and error, so keep trying. Even if an idea doesn’t pan out, your attempt instills the value of personal connection with the whole family.

Remember, when trying to have deeper relationships with a young person, be okay with resistance. Not all kids (especially teens) will appreciate what you’re doing and may do their best to avoid entering in. Children may complain, tell you they don’t want to, give short or dismissive answers, and sit and refuse to engage, but they are still benefiting from seeing an adult who wants to be with them and “do life” with them. Though it appears to be fruitless, do not grow weary in the pursuit. Try using humor in response to resistance rather than frustration. Be positive and patient, even when they make it unpleasant. Even though it may seem like a failure in the short term, the goal is long-term bridge building.

It is unlikely our children will appreciate us disconnecting the Wi-Fi for their own good, but it will be worthwhile. Our hope is that they will see we care and want to support them. Push through any negative opposition you receive, and choose to believe your children are worth it. Do not lose sight that regardless of how your child or teen seems to respond to what you are doing, it is modeling persevering love to them. After all, isn’t this how Christ pursues us? When you do this, you become a conduit of God’s love, of hope past the momentary struggles or sadness, and light in a dark season. 

By / Dec 17

Parents and caregivers have the wonderful privilege to explain to their children that God made their bodies. Because private parts are private, there can be lots of questions, curiosity, or shame regarding them. For their protection, children need to know about private parts and understand that God made their body and made it special. 

The message children need to hear is: “God made all of you. Every part of your body is good, and some parts are private. He made the parts of your body that other people see every day, and he made your private parts. Every part is good because God made every part and called them all good.”

Heartbreaking sexual abuse facts 

Parents need and want help in protecting their child from sexual abuse, which is an important and prevalent issue. One in four women and one in six men have been or will be assaulted in their lifetime. Heartbreakingly, many of the victims of this epidemic are children: 15% of those assaulted are under age 12, and 29% are between ages 12 to 17. Girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault.

Most victims of child sexual assault know their attacker: 34.2% of assailants were family members, 58.7% were acquaintances, and only 7% of the perpetrators were strangers to the victim.1U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000 Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement (2000).

Although strangers are stereotyped as perpetrators of sexual assault, the evidence indicates that a high percentage of offenders are acquaintances of the victim.

Most child sexual abuse offenders describe themselves as religious, and studies suggest the most egregious offenders tend to be actively involved with their faith community.2Donna Eshuys & Stephen Smallbone, Religious Affiliations Among Adult Sexual Offenders, 18 SEX ABUSE 279 (2006); Philip Firestone, et al., Clerics Who Commit Sexual Offenses: Offender, Offense, and Victim Characteristics, 18 JOURNAL OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE 442 (2009).

Parents and caregivers need to be smarter and better prepared than those who would want to harm the child they love and want to protect. While actions by adults can be more effective than expecting children to protect themselves from sexual abuse, children still need accurate, age-appropriate information about child sexual abuse and confidence their parents and caregivers will support them.

Practical ways to educate your children 

Education is important in prevention against inappropriate sexual behavior or contact. By teaching children about their body and discussing appropriate and inappropriate touch, you are helping them understand their ability to say “No” to unwanted touch, which will help them if anyone ever tries to hurt or trick them.

Here are nine practical things parents and caregivers can do to protect their children from sexual abuse:

1. Explain to your child that God made their body. 

An explanation can look something like, “Every part of your body is good, and some parts of your body are private.”

2. Teach proper names of private body parts.

It might be uncomfortable at first, but use the proper names of body parts. Children need to know the proper names for their genitals. This knowledge gives children correct language for understanding their bodies, for asking questions that need to be asked, and for telling about any behavior that could lead to sexual abuse.

Clearly identify for your child which parts of their anatomy are private. Explain to your child that “some places on your body should never be touched by other people—except when you need help in the bathroom, or are getting dressed, or when you go to the doctor.” You can do this with young children during bath time or have your child dress in a bathing suit and show them that all areas covered by a bathing suit are “private.” The bathing suit analogy can be a bit misleading because it fails to mention that other parts of the body can be touched inappropriately (like mouth, legs, neck, arms), but it is a good start for little ones to understand the concept of private parts.

3. Invite your child’s communication. 

Let your child know they can tell you if anyone touches them in the private areas or in any way that makes them feel uncomfortable (even areas not covered by the bathing suit)—no matter who the person is, or what the person says to them. Assure your child they will not be in trouble if they tell you they’ve been touched inappropriately—rather, you will be proud of them for telling you and will help them through the situation.

4. Talk about touches. 

Be clear with adults and children about the difference between touch that is OK and touch that is inappropriate. To your child say something like: “Most of the time you like to be hugged, snuggled, tickled, and kissed, but sometimes you don’t, and that’s OK. Let me know if anyone—family member, friend, or anyone else—touches you or talks to you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Teach little ones how to say, “Stop,” “All done,” and, “No more.” You can reiterate this by stopping immediately when your child expresses that they are all done with the hugging or tickling. Your reaction is noteworthy for them as it demonstrates they have control over their bodies and desires.

If there are extended family members who may have a hard time understanding your family boundaries, you can explain that you are helping your children understand their ability to say no to unwanted touch, which will help them if anyone ever tries to hurt them. For example, if your child does not want to kiss Grandpa, let them give a high five or handshake instead.

5. Don’t ask your child to maintain your emotions. 

Without thinking, we sometimes ask a child something along the lines of, “I’m sad, can I have a hug?” While this may be innocent in intent, it sets the child up to feel responsible for your emotions and state of being: “Mom is sad . . . I need to cheer her up.” If someone wanted to abuse a child they might use similar language to have the child “help” them feel better, and the child might rationalize it as acceptable if this is something they do innocently with you.

6. Throw out the word “secret.” 

Explain the difference between a secret and a surprise. Surprises are joyful and generate excitement, because in just a little while something will be unveiled that will bring great delight. Secrets, in contrast, cause isolation and exclusion. When it becomes customary to keep secrets with just one individual, children are more susceptible to abuse. Perpetrators frequently ask their victims to keep things secret just between them.

7. Clarify rules for playing “doctor.” 

Playing doctor can turn body parts into a game. If children want to play doctor, you can redirect this game by suggesting using dolls and stuffed animals as patients instead of their own body. This way they can still use their doctor tools, but to fix and take care of their toys. It may take some time for them to make the shift, but just remind them gently that we don’t play games, like doctors, with our bodies. If you find your child exploring his or her own body with another child, calmly address the situation and set clear boundaries by saying, “It looks like you and your friend are comparing your bodies. Put on your clothes. And remember, even though it feels good to take our clothes off, we keep our clothes on when playing.”3Dialogue from Stop It Now! tip sheet: http://www.stopitnow.org/talking_to_kids

8. Identify whom to trust.

 Talk with your kids about whom you and they trust. Then give them permission to talk with these trustworthy adults whenever they feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused about someone’s behavior toward them.

9. Report suspected abuse immediately.

You’ve read these steps, now consider yourself an advocate against childhood sexual abuse. Report anything you know or suspect might be sexual abuse. If you don’t, it’s possible no one else will.

Educating your children and giving age-appropriate information about sexual abuse is an important way to help prevent abuse. These nine practical steps will help you to empower your children against sexual abuse and will give them confidence that they can come to you for help and you will support them.

  • 1
    U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000 Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement (2000).
  • 2
    Donna Eshuys & Stephen Smallbone, Religious Affiliations Among Adult Sexual Offenders, 18 SEX ABUSE 279 (2006); Philip Firestone, et al., Clerics Who Commit Sexual Offenses: Offender, Offense, and Victim Characteristics, 18 JOURNAL OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE 442 (2009).
  • 3
    Dialogue from Stop It Now! tip sheet: http://www.stopitnow.org/talking_to_kids
By / Dec 16

I will never forget having to explain the Sandy Hook shooting to my oldest son. I had stayed home from the office that day because I was sick. From the time I woke up that morning, I watched in horror and disbelief as the details of the tragedy unfolded on national news stations. My son could tell that something was wrong. So, instead of acting like the world that we live in was not a broken place, I tried to explain the tragedy and loss in a way that he could understand. It was not an easy conversation, but many times the most important conversations are not the easiest ones. 

Talking to children about difficult topics can be terrifying for parents, yet such conversations must take place. We cannot act like our world is not fallen and in need of redemption. There are evil people in the world that intend to do harm to others. If we are going to love our neighbors as ourselves (which must necessarily include the children that God has entrusted to us), then we must also warn them about evil in age-appropriate ways. 

A plan to talk about sexual abuse 

This is particularly true with the matter of sexual abuse. Talking about the topic of sexual abuse is complex because it affects various aspects of our humanity. For instance, while parents want to give their children a biblical vision of sexuality that affirms its goodness and design for the context of marriage, parents must also talk about sexuality in a way that acknowledges the disordered and wicked desires of some people who attempt to exploit it. In other words, because our world is broken, it is not enough to simply affirm what is good about God’s plan for sexuality without also acknowledging that some have taken God’s good gift and sought to use it in a sinful way that is contrary to his design.

There is a necessary balance to be struck when talking with children about things like sexuality and sexual abuse. Previous generations have often spoken of sexuality in ways that failed to rightly celebrate the goodness of God’s design, opting to speak mainly in terms of prohibitions and fear. The danger in our day is to focus so much on the celebration of the goodness of sexuality that we neglect to place it within the broader framework of a fallen world that is longing for redemption in Christ. Thus, we must speak to our children with a wisdom that strikes the balance between God’s design and humanity’s sinful attempts to exchange the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1). We must learn to speak in a way that says, “Yes,” to sex in the right context while also being able to say, “No,” where necessary.

When teaching children about their biology and sexuality, we must also admit and explain that not everyone in their life may agree with God’s design. Evil people, even people in their churches, their schools, and tragically, even their homes, may seek to violate and abuse their innocence. So, how can you help your children be prepared to live in a broken world where sexual abuse is a tragic reality? I would suggest following the H.E.L.P. plan (or something similar to it) to prepare them: 

  1. Have the hard conversation now rather than later.
  2. Equip them with specific, age-appropriate details regarding sexuality and sexual abuse.
  3. Listen to them and let them know that you will believe and support them.
  4. Pray that God would protect them every day.

Putting our plan into action

Here is how my wife and I have put this plan into use with our children:

A few years ago, my wife and I began a conversation with my oldest son about God’s good design for sexuality. The conversation did not end two years ago, though. It is an ongoing conversation. 

He knows that if he has questions about anything related to sex he can speak with us at any time. We made it clear from the beginning that there is no need to be ashamed about the conversation because sex is God’s idea. 

We told him to let us know if he hears or sees anything that he has questions about or feels uncomfortable with and assured him that he would never get in trouble for talking to us about this subject. Why? Because we want him to talk to us, not his peers or other adults. This is a conversation that God intended for parents to have with their children (Prov. 1:7-8). 

In fact, this is a conversation that my wife and I have been having in some form or another with all of our children from the time that they could bathe. In an age-appropriate manner, we explain to our children that certain parts of our bodies are not appropriate for others to see or touch. As the children get older, we go into greater depth. We don’t want our children to learn about anatomy from pop culture or pornography. We want to disciple them to know God as creator and designer of their bodies, for their good and his glory.

A conversation before camp 

So, as our oldest son prepared for church camp last summer, we sat him down to revisit the topic of sexuality, particularly as it related to sexual abuse. While it was uncomfortable, it was necessary. 

We explained to him that no one should be watching him in the restroom or the shower, regardless of what someone may tell him. We explained that it was never appropriate for an adult to touch him or insist on any type of affection from him (a hug, a kiss, sitting on a lap, etc.). We were specific, because we did not want to resort to vagueness in order to avoid the discomfort of the difficult subject. 

We established a code word or phrase that he could use when we talked on the phone that would alert us to a problem. If he used the word or phrase, then we would immediately pick him up. 

We told him that regardless of the threats that someone might use against him or his family, we would protect and believe him. We told him that while he should be respectful to adults, he did not have to comply with any request or demand that was outside the normal course of adult-child interaction.

Finally, to make sure that he understood, we talked through a few scenarios, asking him what he would do if he encountered them. Then, we prayed that God would protect him and the other children headed to camp. 

Was the conversation easy? Not at all. Was it necessary? Absolutely, because loving and caring for the vulnerable requires uncomfortable but frank conversations that prepare them and expose the wicked and unfruitful works of darkness (Eph. 5:11). 

Conversations are not the end-all-be-all measures to prevent the wickedness of sexual abuse. Evil people will continue to do evil things in this world until Christ returns to make everything sad become untrue. Until then, we weep over the brokenness and do our best to prepare and protect the vulnerable while being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

By / Dec 7

My favorite scene in the original Toy Story movie (1995) takes place at the Dinoco Station. Woody and Buzz fight, and their squabble sends them falling out of the minivan onto the concrete. The argument goes on for a moment when, suddenly, Woody stops. He looks up and watches in horror as Andy and his mom drive away. Woody chases after the car for a few steps. “Doesn’t he realize I’m not there?” he shouts, “I’m lost. Oh, I’m a lost toy!” In that moment, Woody experiences deep anguish, because he knows who he is. You see, the toys in the world of Disney and Pixar’s Toy Story movies want nothing more than to bring joy to their owners. They want to love and be loved by their kid.

Buzz Lightyear’s reaction fascinates me in this scene. He doesn’t understand the importance of catching up with Andy. He doesn’t understand the great tragedy of being lost. Buzz thinks he’s a real spaceman having an adventure on an uncharted planet; he doesn’t know he’s a toy. What Buzz can’t see is that he’s more lost than he knows.

We are just like the toys in those movies. The toys are lost without Andy, and we’re lost without God. God made us in his likeness, as his children—to love and be loved by him. God made people as his representatives. If we try to take account of our lives without considering the One for whom we were made or how he made us, we’re as lost as Buzz Lightyear.

So, how did God make us? It’s important to teach two foundational truths to our kids about how our gender relates to being made in God’s image: (1) God made two sexes, and (2) implicit in our creation as male and female sexually is the expression of our sex in two complementary genders.

First, God made two sexes—male and female. Right at the beginning, God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness . . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26–27). According to these verses, the biological difference between men and women—our biological sex—is a fundamental part of God’s design. Our sex is a part of who we are as well as a part of what it means to be made in God’s image.1See Patrick Schreiner, “Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology,” in Eikon: A Journal of Biblical Anthropology 2, no. 2 (Fall 2020): https://cbmw.org/2020/11/20/man-and-woman-toward-an-ontology/ and Nate Collins, All but Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 208.

The term biological sex refers to the difference between male and female that is inscribed on our bodies in at least four different ways—our genetic code (XX for females and XY for males),2I agree with Marty Machowski when he writes, “Just as the fundamental created elements of the earth are fixed, so is our biological sex. But the fall has also affected our chromosomes. Because of the fall, a very small percentage of people are born with genetic disorders [such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, Klinefelter Syndrome, or Turner Syndrome]. Some of those disorders would affect a person’s sexual characteristics. It is important to show kindness and compassion to those who have these genetic disorders” in God Made Boys and Girls: Helping Children Understand the Gift of Gender, (Greensboro, NC: New Growth, 2019), 30. our genitals, the brain and hormone chemistry within our bodies, and in such secondary sex characteristics as our hair growth patterns and muscular-skeletal structure.

Kids need to know their bodies are gifts from God, and they need to learn about these differences. Gaining awareness of their bodies and learning appropriate names for body parts gives young kids a foundation for understanding biological sex and gender. This can start with toddlers, who for their safety need to be taught the proper names for their genitals and about what kinds of touches are appropriate.3Cf. Justin Holcomb, “9 Ways to Protect Your Children from Sexual Abuse” (Aug. 8, 2015), accessed online at http://justinholcomb.com/2015/08/11/9-ways-to-protect-your-children-from-sexual-abuse/. Young children need to understand some parts of their bodies are private and should only be touched when they need help in the bathroom, need help bathing, or during a doctor’s visit. During the adolescent years, continuing these conversations can help teens know they aren’t crazy as their bodies change and they experience new impulses and desires.

Second, God breathed life into man and woman—two people with complementary gender expressions. Gender is a term that, historically, was synonymous with biological sex. As a Christian, I affirm that gender is who I am biologically according to God’s created design. This is my true gender, who I am according to God. In this sense, a man or woman’s gender is never fluid. It cannot become whatever we want it to be, because it’s a part of our personhood.4Collins, All but Invisible, 212. I love how my own local church’s doctrinal statement celebrates this: “Gender is a fundamental given of human existence, with maleness and femaleness being congruent with human embodiment and being an unchangeable, stable, and consistent characteristic of each image bearer established by God’s creational intent.”5Bylaws of Sojourn Church Midtown (Louisville, KY). Adopted December 2018.

But the term “gender” can be used in two additional ways as well:

Gender identity is a term used in our culture to refer to an individual’s personal sense of identity as masculine or feminine, or some combination of each. It involves self-understanding—how people think about themselves.

Let’s distinguish between my true gender and my gender identity: God has purposes for my (Jared’s) gender. He designed me to be a man. But I could think of myself as a man or a woman. My sense of who I am, that is, my self-understanding, may match up or differ with God’s intentions and design for my gender.

There is also a third way the word “gender” is used. It’s used to denote the behavioral traits and roles that are typically associated with one’s biological sex within families or society in general. We’ll call this gender expression. It’s the enculturated ways people reflect their biological sex or gender identity in relationships.

Our kids need confidence both in how God has made them as well as how he has called them to live—all in line with their given gender. Contrary to common expectations, living in accordance with God’s design brings freedom rather than bondage.

Let’s distinguish between my true gender and gender expression: Again, God has purposes for my (Jared’s) gender. He designed me to be a man. In the culture where I was raised (the American South of the 1980s and 90s), the male gender was typically associated with macho traits like shooting guns, loving action-adventure movies, or driving a Z-71 pick-up truck. Such traits are enculturated. They’re rooted in society and culture.

If I were to wear a skirt, a form of dress typically associated with the female sex in American life, my wife would be confused, and my male friends might be tempted to mock me. But if you stick me on a plane overseas to Indonesia, then I could wear a sarong wrap, and I’d fit right in with Indonesian brothers in Christ.

God designed two different genders with differing gender expressions. The goal of making man and woman in this way was so they might together reflect God’s glory as his sons and daughters. While God made each person to represent him in some unique way, we need both women and men—with their complementary gender expressions—to get a complete picture of God’s loving character and purposes in this world.

The Bible binds our biology and engendered ways of living together. In the garden, gender expression matched the man and woman’s true gender. In the culture of Genesis 2, the masculine gender reflected the order God exercises over his creation. The Lord formed Adam from the ground (2:7), and then he placed the man in the garden to bring order to it, “to work [the ground] and take care of it” (2:15). A few verses later, God sent Adam to classify and name all of the beasts (Gen. 2:19–20). Adam is structuring and ordering God’s world like the image-bearing scientist God made him to be. In a distinct way, the feminine gender reflected God’s nurturing relationality (Is. 49:15; 66:13). The woman is the suitable helper for whom Adam had been looking. Her creation made human relationships possible (Gen. 2:18, 21–22). God orients the woman toward community (Gen. 2:22)—to give help to and influence the man as her companion.

After putting man and woman together, God went one step further. He commissioned the man and woman to work together (Gen. 1:28). As a married couple, the man and woman took on distinct roles to accomplish God’s purposes. As Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup describe:

By creating them as male and female, God invested their bodies with strengths and weaknesses that would bind them together in mutual dependence as they fulfilled the creation mandate. The woman’s body would allow her to cultivate new image bearers, but this would also make her more vulnerable. The man’s body would be unable to bear life, but his physical strength would allow him to protect and provide . . . The differences between them were not an end in themselves . . . They were the means by which they would together cultivate the good bounty of the earth and their own bodies. Together they would rule and reign over the new creation as King and Queen.6Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup, “Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV Part 3” Practical Theology for Women (Sept. 30, 2016). Accessed online at http://theologyforwomen.org/2016/09/toward-better-reading-reflections-permanent-changes-text-genesis-316-esv-part-3.html/.

Of course, all contemporary human cultures are fallen. Gender expressions today may correspond with God’s design or they may serve to exaggerate or diminish that design. It’s important to see that God gives us our gender so that we can reflect particular aspects of his character and our relationship with him in the way we live and relate. I love how Patrick Schreiner’s sums up what it means to be male and female:

The fundamental meaning of masculinity is sonship, brotherly love, and potentiality toward paternity.

The fundamental meaning of femininity is daughterhood, sisterly love, and potentiality toward maternity.7Schreiner, “Man and Woman.”

Our kids need for us to celebrate these truths, and they need us to celebrate them. They need for us to celebrate the people God has created them to be as gendered persons. Celebrating our kids will give them confidence in God’s design. Like Buzz Lightyear, our kids need confidence both in how God has made them as well as how he has called them to live—all in line with their given gender. Contrary to common expectations, living in accordance with God’s design brings freedom rather than bondage. Being a man or woman, being male or female, is a gift. And that’s something to celebrate!

A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Your Children About Gender: Helping Kids Navigate a Confusing Culture

  • 1
    See Patrick Schreiner, “Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology,” in Eikon: A Journal of Biblical Anthropology 2, no. 2 (Fall 2020): https://cbmw.org/2020/11/20/man-and-woman-toward-an-ontology/ and Nate Collins, All but Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 208.
  • 2
    I agree with Marty Machowski when he writes, “Just as the fundamental created elements of the earth are fixed, so is our biological sex. But the fall has also affected our chromosomes. Because of the fall, a very small percentage of people are born with genetic disorders [such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, Klinefelter Syndrome, or Turner Syndrome]. Some of those disorders would affect a person’s sexual characteristics. It is important to show kindness and compassion to those who have these genetic disorders” in God Made Boys and Girls: Helping Children Understand the Gift of Gender, (Greensboro, NC: New Growth, 2019), 30.
  • 3
    Cf. Justin Holcomb, “9 Ways to Protect Your Children from Sexual Abuse” (Aug. 8, 2015), accessed online at http://justinholcomb.com/2015/08/11/9-ways-to-protect-your-children-from-sexual-abuse/.
  • 4
    Collins, All but Invisible, 212.
  • 5
    Bylaws of Sojourn Church Midtown (Louisville, KY). Adopted December 2018.
  • 6
    Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup, “Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV Part 3” Practical Theology for Women (Sept. 30, 2016). Accessed online at http://theologyforwomen.org/2016/09/toward-better-reading-reflections-permanent-changes-text-genesis-316-esv-part-3.html/.
  • 7
    Schreiner, “Man and Woman.”
By / Nov 10

November is National Adoption Month. An important aspect of child welfare is the policies that govern how we care for the nation’s and world’s most vulnerable. Child welfare is one of the ERLC’s top priorities, and we regularly work with like-minded partners, Capitol Hill, and the administration to ensure that every child has a safe, permanent, and loving family.

Below are some of the child welfare policies the ERLC has been working on.

Adoptee Citizenship Act

Prior to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, the administrative steps required of families adopting internationally were unnecessarily burdensome. The process included applying for and moving through a lengthy naturalization process for their children, in addition to the lengthy and costly adoption process. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 granted automatic citizenship to all foreign-born children brought to the United States who had at least one parent who was a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, that act only applied to adoptees under the age of 18 when the bill was enacted, leaving an entire population of adopted children without full U.S. citizenship.

The Adoptee Citizenship Act closes the loophole to provide immediate citizenship to these children already adopted by U.S. citizens yet left out of the previous bill. This bill solves the innumerable problems these adopted Americans have had to endure in attending college, accessing banking services, or starting their careers because of a lack of citizenship. This bill provides equity to these children because they should have every legal right of any other child of a U.S. citizen. 

One Pager: Adoptee Citizenship Act 

Explainer: Adoptee Citizenship Act

Fulton v. Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, Catholic Social Services (CSS) has cared for children and families in need for over 200 years. Then in 2018, a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer informed the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services that two of its private foster care agencies, including Catholic Social Services (CSS), would not work with same-sex couples as foster parents. The city investigated the allegation, which it considered a violation of the city’s anti-discrimination laws.

When the agencies confirmed that, because of their religious views on marriage, they would not work with gay couples—although no gay couple had ever attempted to partner with CSS—the department ceased referring foster children to them and demanded they change their religious practices or close down their ministries. The Supreme Court has taken up this case, and oral arguments were held on Nov. 4. 

The outcome of the case will also reach thousands of faith-affirming foster and adoption agencies across the country. An unfavorable outcome for CSS may force other agencies into a similarly devastating choice to either compromise their deeply-held religious convictions or close down. Should CSS receive a decision from the Supreme Court clarifying their First Amendment protections, they can continue serving Philadelphia during its foster care crisis. Like the City of Brotherly Love, many states face foster family shortages. So, the closing down of faith-affirming foster care agencies is nonsensical and will leave many foster children without the loving homes they urgently need.

With the foster care system burdened by the number of children in need, the government should not hinder the ability of agencies like Catholic Social Services to serve its community simply because of their religious beliefs. When the court decides this case, it is our hope that it not only protects religious liberty but also protects the ability of faith-based groups to continue serving the children in Philadelphia who need safe and loving homes.

Explainer: What you need to know about Fulton v. Philadelphia

Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act

Across the country, child welfare and child protection systems are overcrowded and under significant strain. It is in this context that some states and cities are working to close those child welfare providers who are seeking to operate in a manner consistent with their religious convictions. This leads to fewer families available for foster care and adoption. The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act would prohibit government discrimination against child welfare agencies on the basis of their beliefs, and ultimately protect children in the foster system and children waiting for adoption by ensuring that a wide range of child welfare providers are available to serve them. Although the legislation has yet to become law, the ERLC was pleased to see the Department of Health and Human Services issue a new regulation in November of 2019 requiring its grant programs to adhere to Supreme Court decisions and congressional laws, thus ensuring that religious freedom is not infringed upon by the federal government. 

This law would prohibit government discrimination against child welfare agencies on the basis of their religious beliefs. Thus, it would protect children in need as foster systems are overcrowded and under significant strain. 

Explainer: The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act

Ensuring Intercountry Adoption Remains a Viable Option

In 2019, only 2,971 children were welcomed into families through intercountry adoption. The reasons for this decline vary, from certain countries completely halting their intercountry programs to other countries placing more children in homes domestically. There’s also been a decline in stateside adoption agencies facilitating intercountry adoption, narrowing the options for prospective parents.

Many countries and cultures are becoming more open to domestic foster care and adoption. That is certainly good news, and ought to be encouraged. However, there are still millions of orphans worldwide who long to be raised in a family where they are known and loved instead of remaining a number in an impersonal institution. Intercountry adoption must remain a viable option for welcoming those children into homes, and we must do all we can to facilitate those adoptions. In some countries, especially developing nations, the only chance a child might have at growing up in a safe, loving, permanent home is intercountry. The ERLC is working with like-minded partners and the U.S. Department of State to ensure that intercountry adoption remains a viable option for families and vulnerable children around the world.

Read: Why Intercountry Adoption Must Remain a Viable Option