We were cuddled up on the couch before bedtime when our son began spouting off the tough questions.
“Why doesn’t the Bible talk about dinosaurs?”
“How are we with Jesus when we die? Will it be like falling asleep but not dreaming?”
“What will our bodies be like when they are resurrected?”
“I’m just a person who really wants to know these things,” he says.
And I believe him. Actually, I wouldn’t expect anything else. He loves to learn facts and information, the why and the how. In our house, Google and YouTube serve primarily as sources of information about space travel, creatures, ecosystems, weather patterns, and the like. He locks the details in his mind for later use and delights in sharing them with others.
As his parents (and his pastors), we have a big responsibility to help lay a theological foundation for our son that will stand the test of time. He’s going to ask more questions. Tougher ones, even. I have a deep conviction that an important part of our role is to help provide for him a theological foundation that can handle those questions, withstand the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world, and supply the freedom to explore his faith within it. Otherwise we’ll be selling him short, setting him up to fail, and missing the mark as his first spiritual guides. Our kids are smart, curious, creative, multifaceted people made in the image of God. They deserve to inherit from us a robust theology that’s as deep as they are.
1. Create a safe space for questions. In your home and in your church, it’s important to create a safe space for kids to ask questions—lots of them. It takes significant courage for some kids to voice a question. But questions are essential to our growth and development. We learn by asking questions. And, as parents and children’s ministers, we learn what’s on our kids’ minds and hearts when we listen to their questions. Use phrases like, “I’m so glad you’ve asked,” or, “I like hearing what you’re wondering about,” or, “What other questions are rolling around in your head?” Even the simplest or seemingly silliest question has value. If this moment isn’t a good time to unpack the question at hand, give it value by saying, “That’s a really good question. Let’s talk about that during dinner tonight.”
2. Get comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.” Sometimes kids’ questions are just plain hard. Often, we don’t know the answers. There’s a very real temptation to make up an answer in the interest of wanting to give them something quick and concrete. Parents and pastors alike have been known to give rote Sunday school answers or to dumb down complex issues. But kids see right through made-up answers and people who blow them off. Our kids deserve more than that. Sometimes the best thing we can do is admit that we don’t know everything and that we adults still wonder too. I often say, “I wonder the very same thing. What do you think?” Or, “That’s a question that I haven’t found the answer to yet.” Or simply, “I don’t know. Let’s think about that together.” It’s okay to not know. It’s not okay to pretend we do.
3. Explore together. Commit to exploring a question together. Begin pointing the kids in your sphere of influence to good resources: a pastor you trust, a family member with wisdom, books that help us understand who we are and how God sees us. Ask, read, listen, and learn together. As you do, look for places to identify what you already know to be true about God and how God sees us.
4. Be consistent. Consistency of word and life is a significant component to forming a solid faith foundation, and it goes a long way toward shaping our kids’ theology. Kids naturally notice how things they hear from the significant people in their lives match up (or don’t match up) with what they see or experience firsthand. The formation of a theological foundation is a multisensory process. In fact, actions often speak louder than words. If what we believe is that God loves all people, kids need to experience how that is lived out. If what we believe is that we are all made in the image of God, kids need to hear that you don’t have to look a certain way to have value. If what we believe is that our relationship with God is the most important thing in our lives, kids need to see how that affects our schedules and our spending. If what we believe is that God is with us, then kids need to feel the presence of God through God’s people in their most difficult, most ordinary, and most wonderful moments. A strong theological foundation is one that has meat to it and is laid by real and consistent encounters with the living God through the faithful people of God.
5. Embrace your role as a theologian. Big questions matter. Some of the biggest questions we ask as humans are: Who is God? Can I know God? Who am I? Does God see me? Does God care? Where is God when bad things happen? What will happen when I die? We could go on and on. These questions become the lens through which we perceive ourselves and the world in which we live. They impact our sense of identity, value, and self-worth. They shape how we move through the world and how we approach life. It’s important to spend time exploring these questions for our kids’ sakes and for our own. While you don’t have to get a theology degree to be a good parent or Aunt/Uncle of the Year, you can make space to deepen your own thinking, which in turn will better equip you to shape the small people around you. Read the book your pastor quoted in a sermon. Listen to thoughtful podcasts on your commute. Learn from good theologians. This stuff has kingdom value. And stuff that has kingdom value is worth our time and our resources.
If you are a children’s pastor or ministry coordinator, your role as the resident theologian is vastly significant! It’s not the pastor’s job or the college professor’s job—it’s yours. You’re the one privileged to partner with parents, equipping them to handle the tough questions, resourcing them for the journey, and holding space for kids to explore their faith. Each lesson, song, story, game, and conversation lays bricks in the theological foundation of our young worshipers. May they be strong and well formed, set into level ground and anchored in truth.