Why are kids leaving home (and the church) without being captured by the gospel?

show them jesusA couple years ago our Children’s Ministry Director (Janet Stee) and I read through “Show Them Jesus” by Jack Klumpenhower. I think it is safe to say that we both felt it was one of the better books we had read when it comes to thinking through how to keep the gospel central in all that we do in Children’s Ministry. Jack graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me. I pray that this encourages and inspires you.

Tell us a little about yourself and your family.

I live in Colorado with my wife and two kids. We just sent the oldest kid off to college, so we’ve gone from parenting little ones to parenting teens, and now we’re figuring out how to be parents to an adult child. I’m grateful to God that both kids profess to be believers at this point in their lives, but each stage has had its challenges. We’re well aware that many Christian parents struggle with kids who grow up and leave the church, so we pray hard that God will keep our children close to him. That’s his work of grace, not ours.

Meanwhile, I keep teaching younger kids in Sunday school, and at Bible camps during the summer. In that role, I’m just one of the many volunteers who work with kids in churches everywhere and want to get better at it. Job-wise, I’ve done several interesting things in my life, mostly in journalism and marketing. Currently, this includes writing and editing for Christian publications.

The Children’s Ministry Director at our church and I read and discussed your book “Show Them Jesus.” We both were greatly challenged and encouraged by your book. Tell us what your primary motivation was in writing this book.

A few decades ago, I was part of a church that was “gospel-centered” before that became a catchphrase. We tried to remember, in all we did, that the good news Jesus and what he’s done for us is the engine of the Christian life. I was volunteering in children’s ministry, and I noticed that we weren’t very good at applying that truth to our work with kids. In our culture, we’re used to telling kids what to do, or entertaining them, or telling them to believe in themselves. But the gospel is different from all of this and it doesn’t come naturally to us, especially with kids.

So, I started working on ways to teach the gospel to kids. It took much thought and help from others, but after years of practice I felt I had something important and useful to share with the wider church. I also heard a few prominent pastors mention that they saw a need for gospel-centeredness in children’s ministry. That’s when I decided to write Show Them Jesus.

You explain in your book on page 3 that “a frightening number of kids are growing up in churches and Christian homes without ever being captured by the gospel of Jesus.” Explain how this happens and what we can do to avoid it.

We want our kids to have true faith, believing and trusting Jesus both for salvation and in daily life choices. There’s no sure formula we can follow to make this happen, because such faith is given by God. This means parents who’ve taught their kids about Jesus and still find those kids rejecting the gospel should not blame themselves; they should be pleading with God to bring their children to faith.

But we also should do our job when it comes to training our kids. The Bible says faith comes by hearing the good news about Jesus (Romans 10:17, John 20:31). So we must make sure our children regularly hear gospel preaching, and we must tell them daily about Jesus. Merely telling them to be good is not the same as telling them about the Savior who loves them, died for them, rose in victory, and calls them to repent and find their joy in him. Many kids who decide to walk away from the church and from Jesus don’t really know who they are rejecting. They’ve had a bellyful of moralizing, sentimentality, stirring music, and pop religion, but they’ve seldom been fed large helpings of Jesus.

Not all parents feel qualified to lead their children in family worship. What are some basic steps that parents can take to teach their kids the Word of God?

One thing is simply to read to Bible to your kids. Pick an easy translation and one of the narrative books, and start reading a section a day. Bedtime or after a meal usually works well and can become an enjoyable habit. I think the book of Luke is a great place to start, since it tells about the life of Jesus and doesn’t require much background knowledge. Don’t put pressure on yourself to add any profound teaching or questions. Just read. And if your kids want to talk about it, talk.

Families that want a bit of structured teaching and discussion can also use a family devotional guide. I recommend any of the guides by Marty Machowski for parents who have never led family worship before. Those guides take only about ten minutes a day, which is a good goal if you’re just getting started.

Finally, faith is learned by practice, so we all need encouragement to pray with our kids—often, and about everything. Prayer feels uncomfortable when you don’t do much of it, so we have to just start the habit of saying many quick prayers many times a day, as opportunities arise, to get over that hump. If we do, and prayer starts to feel normal, we will give our kids an invaluable start on a life of faith.

Why is it so important for those who are teaching children in the church (or at home for that matter) to weave the gospel into every lesson?

The good news that Jesus died and rose again, and is bringing us home to God, is the central message of the Bible. This means we will misread and misapply any part of the Bible if we divorce it from that core message. For example, the Bible teaches that due to Jesus’s saving death and resurrection for us, we are made able to do good works that please God, out of gratitude for what he’s done and in the joyful hope of heaven, with his daily help. Now, there are many connections to the gospel in that statement. If we ignore those connections, and teach good works without showing those connections, we’re liable to end up with the wrong kind of “holy living.” We might try to do good works in our own strength, or as a scheme to earn salvation, which is not at all what the Bible teaches about good works.

Can you make some recommendations when it comes to gospel-centered curriculum for Children’s Ministry?

I’m happy to say that this is becoming a difficult question to answer because more and more publishers are making a strong effort to create curricula that constantly points kids to Jesus. I almost hate to start naming specific resources because I know I’m leaving out some that deserve a mention. But I’ll name a few anyway.

First, the big ones: Presbyterians certainly should consider the excellent curricula published by Great Commission Publications, especially the Show Me Jesus series. Likewise, Baptists ought to look at The Gospel Project for Kids from Lifeway. These are examples of a concerted effort from big players to publish lessons that keep Jesus central. In both cases, though, I find some of their publications to be more gospel-focused than others, so it pays to look carefully.

I’m also a big fan of Treasuring Christ and of The Gospel Story for Kids. Both deserve a close look from anyone picking curricula for their church. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the What’s Up? series of lessons, which I have had a hand in.

Can you make some recommendations that would help parents raise up their kids to be amazed by Jesus? (books, articles, blogs, etc.)

There are several good books and websites, but I think what’s most helpful is for parents themselves to be amazed by Jesus. When parents know and love Jesus, and grow strong in faith, it rubs off on their kids. This usually happens through regular Bible reading and prayer, and faithful attendance at a church that preaches the gospel. I realize it sounds old-fashioned for me to say you need to read the Bible, pray, and go to church—but you really do.

11 of my favorite quotes from “Show Them Jesus” by Jack Klumpenhower

show them jesusOur Children’s Ministry Director (Janet) and I have been reading and discussing “Show Them Jesus” for a number of weeks now. I believe this wonderful book should be read by anyone who is leading, teaching, or raising kids. It’s just that good! My greatest desire for the children and youth of New Life is to see them grow up and love Jesus Christ more than anything, or anyone else. This book will help give you ideas on how to make that happen. “Show Them Jesus” is loaded with references to God’s Word and it is thoroughly gospel centered.

You can find Jack’s website here. (You will find lots of great articles and resources.)

Here are just a few quotes from the book that I wanted to share with you.

When kids go to college and stop following Jesus

Today, a frightening number of kids are growing up in churches and Christian homes without ever being captured by the gospel of Jesus. As children and teenagers they may seem to be believers, but then they reach their college and young-adult years and quit. They quit church-and any growing commitment to Jesus.

These kids actually have good reasons to quit. They look back and realize that they learned much about Christian behavior and churchy experiences, but whatever they learned about Jesus didn’t really change them. They never saw him so strikingly that he became their one, overriding hope and their greatest love. They were never convinced that Jesus s better-a zillion times better-than anything and everything else. p. 3-4

The way to handle every sin

It means that the most powerful way to handle every sin in the life of the church is to apply a deeper understanding of the cross of Christ. p. 15

Raising little Pharisees

No how-to-live lesson can wake the spiritually dead. You might as well be teaching corpses. If a kid is still dead in self-love, such a lesson will, at best, only get him to work harder at a selfish, manipulative sort of religion. But new life springs up where the good news is proclaimed. It hatches loving wonder at Jesus and true gratitude to God. “For it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). p. 46

How do kids grow spiritually?

We make a mistake if we think kids are saved by hearing the good news and trusting Jesus, but then grow as Christians some other way. p. 49

Jesus is always better

If kids are leaving the church, it’s because we’ve failed to give them a view of Jesus and his cross that’s compelling enough to satisfy their spiritual hunger and to give them the zeal they crave. They haven’t seen that Jesus himself is better than any “Jesus program.” He’s better than the music used to worship him. He’s better than a missions trip. He’s better than their favorite youth leader. He’s also better than money. Better than video games. Better than romantic teen movies. Better than sex. Better than popularity or power.

We’ve failed too many kids. We’ve fee them things to do. We’ve feed them “worshipful” experiences. But we’ve failed to feed them more than a spoonful of the good news. Now they’re starving and they’ll eat anything. They’re trying to feed their souls with something-maybe even a churchy thing-that feels like it fits them, when what they need is someone utterly better than themselves. p. 52

My favorite quote from the book

The good news takes us daily from despair to astonished laughter. With relief in our eyes we look at the man who’s done all this for us. And who do we see? We see the strongest, yet gentlest, most regal, and yet most humble person imaginable. Most of all, we see the kind of lover we’ve never known before. Jesus’s love for us is pure love. It has nothing to do with us being the least bit lovely. If it did, we’d feel pressure to keep up whatever earned his love. But no, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). He loves us forever. No payback needed. No conditions. No guilt trips. We are loved, period.

And where that is believed, the heart is won. p. 69

The Bible is one epic story

The Bible is one epic story about God saving his people. We can’t rightly understand any part of it unless we understand the context. This epic story centers on the person and work of Jesus. If we cut individual stories off from the Bible’s central story arc about Jesus, we miss the main thing the Bible wants to say-and fashion Bible stories that aren’t biblical. p. 86

Teachers need to think through the lesson carefully ahead of time

If you teach Bible lessons, you do need to come up with your own lesson content. Even if you use published lessons-even if they’re good, Jesus-centered lessons-you still need to set them down for a time. You need to go through the process of studying, thinking, and finding wonder in Jesus yourself. p. 102

Teaching the good news to kids from the Old Testament

Years ago someone told me to never mention Jesus when teaching the Old Testament. That way, the theory went, my students would feel the full brunt of the old ache-the weight of sin and the hunger for salvation. When I get around to teaching Jesus, the good news would feel that much better.

Well, I can’t do that. Never mind that it’s bad theology-the good news is just too good! I’m not able to keep such a secret. How could I possibly know the full song begun in the Old Testament and not sing it out every time I teach? It’s too explosive. If I tried to hold it in, I would burst. p. 120-121

Making all of this very practical for teachers

The next week I came to class with a plan. I had a sign that I taped to the wall. It read:

Jesus is better than anything else because…

“Here’s what we’re going to do, ” I told the kids. “Every week, when we’re done with our lesson, well write out at least one thing we learned about Jesus that completes this sentence. Some weeks we may learn two or three things, or even 5 to ten things. But whatever we learn about Jesus we’ll write down on a card and tape to this wall. We’re making a list. This way I’ll have to teach you about Jesus every week, and you’ll learn lots of ways he’s the best.”

I laid out the rules: “Every card needs to be different-something new every week. And it has to be something amazing enough to go on the wall. We’re going to do this all year.”

One kid was looking at the wall, imagining. “That’s going to be a long list,” he said. “The longest list in the church.” Exactly. p. 128

Teaching Jesus to kids the wrong way

The first point of studying the person of Jesus must always be to wonder at him, not to copy him. There are teachers who show kids how astounding Jesus is only to tell them, “You should be like that.” Ouch! Those kids quickly get to where the last thing they want is to hear another way that Jesus is better. They learn to resent Jesus. Then our chance to wow them with Jesus is lost.

Yes, Jesus is our example. As kids come to love him, they will want to be like him. When that happens regularly, wanting to be like him will follow naturally enough. p. 133