Education & Formation: Second Case Study
Statement of the Case
Grace Church is a middle class, diverse, suburban mainline protestant congregation somewhere in the Midwest. The church has approximately 600 members and has just received a new associate pastor, Chris, who has been there for less than a month. His first responsibility has been to lead an eight week Bible class for third graders. The class meets once a week and covers major themes and verses of the Bible in preparation for the church’s traditional third grade Bible presentation, which will take place during a worship service some time after the class. There are 12 third graders in his class.
The first class period goes very well. Chris focuses on the creation stories, Noah’s Ark, Abraham, and the Joseph story. He receives many positive comments from parents. The next week, Chris decides to spend the class time teaching about Moses and the Exodus story. In an attempt to get the kids excited, Chris uses the class time to tell the entire Exodus story in a narrative format. He works really hard on putting it into a script form and brings in props to illustrate the major events. The kids seem so into the story that he decides to continue without pausing for questions so that he can keep the story flowing together.
At the end of the hour, he asks for questions. A little girl named Rachel raises her hand and asks why God decided to kill all of those children in the story and asks if it was the angel of death that came to take her dad four years ago. One of the other kids in the class says that he doesn’t want to go to bed that night because he is afraid that he might be taken by the angel of death. Soon, all of the kids are expressing their concern about what God might do to them or their parents. With just a moment left in class Chris manages to get out a quick, “You don’t need to worry, God is love,” but before he can go any further, parents begin showing up to pick up their children.
On his way home that night, Chris is sick to his stomach worrying about what had happened in the class. He wonders if he has done something wrong.
- What are the central concerns for a Christian educator in communicating Scripture to children?
- How might Chris respond in a developmentally appropriate manner to the questions of biblical interpretation raised by the case, while taking into account the central concerns of communicating Scripture to children?
Both Augustine and Piaget (as well as Erikson and Kohlberg) advocate a stage-based approach to learning--one in relation to the study of scripture<ref>Augustine, On Christian Teaching, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 33-35.</ref>, and the other in understanding child development<ref>As quoted in James Fowler's Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, (San Fransisco: Harper & Row, 1981), Chapters 7-9.</ref>. On the basis of their arguments, I think it is critical for Christian educators to consider the age appropriateness of scripture passages in communicating them to children. This is not a matter of elevating some passages of scripture above others, or "glossing over" parts of the Bible that are disturbing or difficult to explain. It's more about understanding the abilities and limitations of one's audience. Children who are not able to "distinguish the self's perspective from that of others"<ref>Fowler, 56.</ref> will certainly not be able to navigate between the complicated perspectives of God, the Israelites, and the Egyptians tied up in the Passover story, and will either miss the inherent message of the story, or else take an undesirable one from it, as related by the case study.
Fortunately, the Bible exhibits a diverse range of story and genre, with narratives and messages appropriate for every stage of development. Additionally, the manner, medium, and depth in which a story is told can be adapted to suit the developmental abilities of the learner. In our particular case study, when narrating the Exodus to a group of young children, Chris might speak of the "plagues" in general, giving limited examples and emphasizing God's protection and deliverance of God's people. For elementary aged children, who are just beginning to understand distinct perspectives, the medium of role play--acting out the parts of Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, the Israelites, and even the Angel of Death--might be a more effective way for them to understand the story from multiple points of view. Even if understanding is still limited, a child is less likely to be frightened of something tangible attached to a friendly face, than of a complex abstract concept.
Planning and allocating time for questions is an essential part of the educational process--it allows for education to be flexible, and adapt to the context of the particular learners in a particular place, time, and developmental stage. Along with this, it's important for educators to realize (and convey to students) that some questions are more difficult to answer than others, and that not all questions are possible to answer. What's more important is for the questions and concerns of students to be heard, understood, and placed into context. If fears and concerns about the death of parents or self emerge and begin to dominate a group conversation, is it possible that the children are at an age (or in a context) where death is first beginning to be experienced and wrestled with? If so, perhaps other Bible stories and lessons might be planned for the near future that address death, or at least cast it in a different light.
Finally, it would be important for Chris to acknowledge that parents are an important part of the educational process, and that difficult conversations begun in church are sometimes best continued at home. An email or phone call to parents immediately following the Bible study would certainly be in order, relating the development of the class discussion and the potential fears of the children, along with some advice for ways for parents to continue engaging their children in discussion of their Biblical encounters.