By Teresa Welch
Educators call them teachable moments. They can happen more frequently than you might imagine. And they give us the greatest chance to help children see and remember Bible truths.
“Miss Teresa,” he began, “if Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden and Heaven is supposed to be like the Garden of Eden” (you can see where this is going can’t you) “does that mean we will be naked in Heaven?”
Kids started to giggle. The teaching assistant looked shocked. I had four options.
• Ask Nathan to stop interrupting with off-topic questions.
• Ignore Nathan’s question and move on.
• Answer Nathan after class.
• Seize the opportunity as a teachable moment.
I chose the last option.
Each day, parents, teachers, and other adults can take advantage of what we have labeled as teachable moments: those times when a child asks a question, wonders aloud, discovers something new, or is challenged by a dilemma.
But what if we didn’t wait for teachable moments to just show up? Instead, I suggest we anticipate every encounter with a child as a teachable moment.
Guide Students in Discovering Answers
Instead of waiting for children to ask questions about the Bible, lead the children in Bible discovery. Begin by providing every child with a kid-friendly version of the Bible. (For early elementary children, it is ideal to have a copy of the exact same version of the Bible for each child.) Teach them how to look up passages of Scripture by using the table of contents while also training them to memorize the books of Bible. Provide context for the verses by providing background materials to the specific story or text. Allow students to read verses out loud. Remember each child’s reading ability is developing, so give each child permission to ask for help with or skip words he or she doesn’t know. Be patient and encourage other students to follow along in their Bibles and listen carefully.
From verses that are read, have children identify key words or phrases and ask them to explain what they already know. Encourage them to ask questions about concepts they don’t understand. To teach more about a word or concept, have children do their own research using a Bible dictionary. Show them how to use a concordance to locate other uses of particular words or phrases. This will increase their vocabulary and their confidence in using the words appropriately.
When the biblical text names a place, have students find the location on a map. Investigate reasons why the location might be important to the story or find other stories that occurred at the same location. Have students use a Bible timeline to locate when the Bible story would have occurred or when an epistle, psalm, or prophecy was written. Ask children questions about what occurred before and after the day’s story so they can begin to put together the story of God throughout time while they learn the individual stories of God’s people.
Lead children to investigate the people in the stories. Begin by asking students what they already know about the biblical characters. Encourage them to learn more by looking up the name in a concordance and finding other places the character appears. When a story centers around a group of people, have them find information to share that will help them better understand the story.
Create teachable moments each week by helping the Word of God come alive to your students by integrating this research into active learning. Include details of this new information in stories, art, games, and drama. When children ask questions, use the resources available to help discover the answer. If the answer requires more time or different resources, have children brainstorm ways they could find out the answer, and encourage them to research their question and bring back information to the group the next week. Don’t just wait for students to ask questions. Encourage their questions and lead them into discovery.
Equip Them to Serve and Lead
A group of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders travel a couple of blocks on Sunday afternoons once a month to play board games with a retirement community of senior adults. In another church, a class of second- and third-graders collects a weekly offering and writes letters to a child in Africa they adopted through a sponsorship program. A group of kindergartners and first-graders draw pictures to send as an encouragement to a different missionary each month. Teachable moments occur when children are routinely integrated into the service opportunities at your church.
Notice I used the word routinely. It is wonderful that once a year children fill shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child or backpacks for an underfunded school. However, age-appropriate service opportunities need to be routinely integrated into the educational program for children. Investigate the ways your church is serving locally and internationally and identify ways children can also serve in these ministries. Connect these opportunities with what children are learning about Christ’s teachings about love, grace, and mercy.
Elementary children should also begin training for leadership opportunities. Children aren’t just the future leaders of the church; they are among the current leaders of the church. They can lead songs, read stories, pray aloud, make videos, play musical instruments, read Scripture, prepare lessons, run computer equipment, design crafts, act in dramas, serve as teacher’s assistants, and so much more.
One children’s ministry puts service and leadership together for its yearly fifth-grade mission trip. Students prepare for the trip over several months. They begin by writing and sending letters to raise the financial support the trip requires and also to ask for prayer partners. Then they meet regularly to learn about the location and people they will be serving. Each child is assigned a specific task for the trip and prepares for this task in advance. Tasks include leading songs, preparing crafts, leading games, or preparing lessons for the weekend VBS they will host for children in the area. Children are also trained in how to share their faith story and teach others about Jesus.
Children encouraged to lead and serve will find themselves surrounded by teachable moments when they become the hands and feet of Jesus to others.
Surround Them with the Community of Faith
My identity in Christ has been formed and shaped by the community of faith since childhood. I remember my Sunday school teachers and the Bible stories they taught me. But I also remember the people from the church who taught me about the love of God through how they welcomed and encouraged me from an early age. My weekly interactions at church with the Grabowskis, Allens, Loves, Caters, Smiths, Stantons, Eichenbergers, Sextons, Wiggins, and many others taught me how to be a part of the family of God.
Every child needs the same experience I was afforded. Classrooms can teach information, but it is in hallways, fellowship halls, and homes where this information is practiced and applied. Remember that children are concrete learners until late childhood. Faith is formed through stories, rituals, personal experiences, and their interactions with others. Children learn the character of God by observing the faith of their parents and other adults in their community.
Teachable moments occur when children are no longer isolated in a wing of the church, but are regularly included in the entire community. Children need to participate with a community worshipping and praying together, listening and speaking to one another, celebrating and mourning with each other. The community of faith should come alongside children to allow them opportunities to share their knowledge, use their developing vocabulary of faith, and practice behaviors, so as to help form attitudes and values. It is not just parents and teachers who educate children in teachable moments; it is the responsibility of the entire church body to create them.
Be on the Lookout
The church needs to be a place where a child can ask questions, even the provocative ones such as Nathan’s. We need to provide opportunities for children to apply their learning and put their faith into practice, while surrounding and supporting them as the body of Christ. Don’t wait for a teachable moment someday; make them happen.
Teresa Welch serves as professor of Christian education and ministry with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and is adjunct professor of Christian education with Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. She served as a children’s minister for 15 years with churches in Ohio and Illinois.