We’re one third of the way through the Sunday morning service and the kids go up the front for a children’s talk with the minister, the Sunday school teacher or someone else rostered on for the job this week. So often what proceeds is an extended discussion of hiking, lunchboxes or bravery, followed by a punchline which draws a connection between that discussion and a biblical story or teaching. The kids love answering the questions in the first half of the presentation and are sometimes fascinated by the props that the teacher has brought along to spice up the talk. Problem is, the teaching time is often largely a failure.

Teaching by the means of an extended simile is not especially effective with under-nine-year-olds. You can maybe see this by the fixation little Beth or Huan has on wanting to continue talking about their family hiking trip, after we have well and truly moved on to talking about Jesus. Adult teachers gravitate to metaphors and similes because they seem so fun and vivid; because they are so meaningful for our own understanding; because we have seen them used over and over again in children’s talks in church, so we just assume it must be best practice. But in fact, by and large, it is not the best approach. Metaphorical thinking involves abstraction and a sophisticated connection between the illustration and the biblical reality. This is not something seven-year-old-Jarrad and his peers are so great at.

What then, is a better way? Here are three alternative kinds of children’s teaching. Some of these might on first glance seem to be little different to the Lego and aeroplanes and bowls of fruit used in metaphorical teaching, but they are much easier and more realistic for younger kids to grasp.


Concrete Examples of General Truths

Think about the majority of the teaching on a TV show like Sesame Street. Grover is near. Now he is far. Then he is really really far away. Now he is hilariously near, face squished right up to our screen. Cookie Monster has all of the cookies. Now he has some of the cookies. Then he has none of the cookies. Finally he gets all of the cookies (nom nom nom nom nom!). These teaching segments do not involve a symbolic connection between the scenario and the concept being taught. Rather they are concrete examples of a general idea.

In teaching about peace, hope, rescue or faith, we can give specific examples: playground peacemaking, hope for summer holidays, rescue from a fire, faith in a chair that we sit on. These are concrete, specific instances of these general realities. These explanations get convoluted and spill over into metaphor, when we try to map too many elements of the concrete example onto a moral or spiritual reality. Keep it simple. We trust God with our lives like we trust a chair we sit on. In Jesus God makes peace with us like Sami and Jamal made peace in the playground. Here the like is not a simile ‘like’ but an in-just-the-same-way-as ‘like’. So a mother hen loves her chickies, Colin Buchanan sings; God loves his children too. Both are specific examples of genuine parental love.

But be on the lookout for trying to explain biblical metaphors! These run the same risks as our own made-up metaphors and similes—redemption, for example. When it comes to explaining a biblical metaphor to younger kids, it would be better to take one of two approaches. First, you could explain the biblical concept of redemption without any heavy metaphorical dimension. Use it as a synonym for rescue, or something similar. They will get a more sophisticated understanding of redemption as they get older. Or second, you could define the term redemption, without explaining the metaphorical connection to salvation. Teaching is a long-term cumulative process. You could simply say “This is a word the Bible uses a lot, we’re going to understand what it means.” Understanding the non-theological meaning of redemption will still prove useful down the track.


A Story with a Moral or a Lesson

A story which teaches a lesson, is another approach. In many ways these are extended versions of the concrete example of a general truth approach already discussed. A story teaching the comfort that comes from hope, or commending forgiveness, is memorable and meaningful to little kids. The meaning of the story does not need interpretation, it is built into the story’s literal meaning.

The classic In the Jungle One Day in a Land Far Away advert by the Christian Television Association, teaches the general principle of forgiveness through a specific story involving jungle animals. Forgiveness is taught, there is no symbolic translation required.


Instruction, Storytelling or Memorisation Without Comprehension

All learning, but especially childhood learning is a long, slow, steady process. Not every individual instance of teaching must somehow achieve everything educationally, theologically and spiritually. There is plenty of value for a kid to learn the literal definition of ‘redemption’, as discussed above, only to grasp its relevance to the doctrine of the atonement many years later. There is value in learning the stories of Jacob, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, Daniel, Zacchaeus, Dorcas or Saul of Tarsus without understanding much of the meaning at all when they first learn the stories. Learning to recite the fruit of the Spirit, the books of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the twelve tribes of Israel; memorising the lyrics of many songs or the answers to a catechism by regular repetition will be useful down the track, even if the children didn’t really know what they’d memorised at the time.


In other words, our children’s ministry, by its earnest intentionality, can actually be less effective by trying to do too much! In the context of ongoing work of teaching and church and family life, a larger work of discipleship is actually taking place, so we can be less ambitious in our children’s talks. Happily, in taking a less complex, sophisticated approach, our children’s talks will also be more effective as a result.