Helping Children Find Themselves in God’s Story
By Lindsey Goetz
Before he dies, Moses speaks to the people of God gathered in the wilderness. It’s been 40 years since they rebelled against God, and most of the generation that disobeyed has given up the ghost.
And yet, when Moses speaks to God’s people, he recounts the stories of their rebellion and wandering in the wilderness as though they actually had been there. Perhaps one of the places we see this most clearly is in Deuteronomy 5:3-4:
“The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire…”
In Reformed traditions, when we baptize infants, we are marking them as a part of the people of God before they have the ability to make that choice for themselves. Indeed, we baptize them because we believe that they don’t make that choice for themselves; God is the one who has moved towards them in grace. I love that the baptismal liturgy we use at our church rehearses the whole gospel, prefaced with the words, “For you, little child.”
Other traditions have a similar aim in mind when they dedicate babies—they are saying to a family and to a child, “We are here for you, praying for you as you grow, and your story is bigger than you are.”
Let’s explore four principles for parents, children’s ministers, and those who worship in communities of faith with children as we seek to help children grow up into this identity as part of God’s people, as participants in what Michael Goheen calls “The True Story of the Whole World.”
We teach the Bible as one big story.
How can a child see herself as a part of God’s story if she doesn’t know it? As those who love, serve, and parent children, we must faithfully work to build Bible literacy in the children we shepherd. This includes teaching specific stories from the Bible, certainly, but it also includes connecting each of those stories to the bigger story. Children’s Ministers and Sunday School teachers do well to find curriculum that is gospel-centered, that helps teachers and parents point to Jesus in every story and strive for God-centered biblical application, rather than distilling each passage to a few moralistic talking points.
We regard them as a part of God’s people now
It seems straightforward, but we help children grow up understanding themselves as a part of God’s people when we treat them like a part of God’s people. When we make space for them to serve, and give, and participate alongside the rest of God’s people in the work of the people, we help children understand that they belong to the people of God now. In our church, each time we take the eucharist, the children are welcomed forward with the rest of the congregation to receive a blessing. No matter how shy my daughters seem at that moment, the wonder in their eyes gives away the profound impact the simple act of having a cross traced on their forehead and words of blessing spoken over them. It is an act and experience that they carry with them into their playtime throughout the week. Such a welcome opens a child’s eyes to the possibility that she could even see herself in the greatest story of all time.
We preach the gospel to one another in our households.
Once, I was in a group of church leaders when someone pointed out that I continually brought up the gospel. This was profoundly encouraging to me as someone who misunderstood the gospel for many years, to have come to a place where it so resonated in my heart that it came out my mouth frequently enough that someone else commented on it. This should be what our households are like—gospel-saturated places where every member of the household daily lives in and drinks in the Gospel. As adults, we must pray and train our eyes by regular study of the Word of God to see the gospel played out around us. As we do this, we must grow daily in our ability to recognize the movements of the grand narrative of the gospel (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration) in our day-to-day lives and point them out to our children and the young people around us. When we do this, we help the young people among us to see God’s story in real-time; we give them the wonderful gift of understanding that the greatest story of all the world is still being told. And it involves them.
We invest in intergenerational relationships.
One of the key factors that determines whether or not a child will remain faithful to the Lord as they grow into adulthood is the presence of quality relationships with adults other than their parents who know and love the Lord. We help children see themselves as a part of God’s big story as they get to know people at different points in their faith journey who can testify to the work of God in the world and in their lives. These kind of relationships take intentional work, but the payout is worth the work. In her book Children Matter, Scottie May writes that the simple but intentional act of looking into a child’s eyes and saying, “I’m glad you’re here today.” is a great investment in the sorts of relationships that will form a child’s identity as one of God’s people.
Any parent, aunt, uncle, friend, teacher, or grandparent who has had a child approach them with an armload of books can testify that children naturally love story. As those who love and serve children, then, let’s make it our aim to lovingly and graciously teach children the Word of God, by which they may come to know him and to see themselves as a part of his wonderfully big story.