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Age-Appropriate Bible Instruction: How to Handle Gritty Stories

Heidi Dean shares four tips on dealing with difficult Bible stories from experienced classroom teachers.

Sodom and Gomorrah. Tamar and Judah. Lot’s daughters. There is plenty of dark and gritty content in the first book of the Bible alone before we make our way into the next sixty-five. The Bible does not come to us G-rated because it describes true events of a sinful, fallen world.

We need sensitivity in considering the age of our students and how much “truth about sin” they are able to handle at a given age. What best practices can we keep in mind when handling gritty, PG-13-rated episodes? How do we stay both true to Scripture and age-appropriate?

I spoke with Brandon Helder, third grade teacher at Grand Rapids Christian School in Michigan and Sarah Bollock, fifth grade teacher, at Lafayette Christian School in Indiana. They both had terrific ideas for handling “sticky issues” with elementary students. Here are four tips we discussed for dealing with gritty stories in the Bible:

1. Remember the Goal of Lifelong Reading

Unlike other books that students may read only once, God’s revelation in Scripture is something we expect students to return to again and again. When our goal is to develop lifelong Bible readers, we do not need to feel pressured to “cover everything.” There will be time when students are older to explore sections that are intellectually or emotionally hard.

“The older you get, the more you recognize how complex people and the world can be,” Brandon noted. “Our eyes become opened to the hard impacts of sin.” Young children are often unaware of the more disturbing things in life, making childhood a unique season to be protected.

2. Speak Truth While Omitting Unhelpful Details

Telling the truth does not require sharing every detail. As the THINK acronym reminds speakers, something may be True but may not be Helpful to share if it is not Important, Necessary, or Kind. Similarly, we can cover a darker story briefly, without going into all the details.

Brandon recommends previewing the content to be ready to summarize the PG-13 events. While his students use Bibles that are appropriate to their grade level, Brandon uses a study Bible so that he can find support from biblical scholars for difficult lessons. For young students, prepare a brief summary or explanation, perhaps redirecting away from unnecessary details. Brandon has used responses like:

  • How did Abraham have a baby with Hagar? “In the times of the Bible, it was common for a man to have more than one wife.”
  • Moses murdered someone? Noah got drunk? “Like you and me, they made sinful choices. Can God still use sinful people?”
  • What is “adultery with Bathsheba?” “Adultery is acting like someone is your husband or wife when they are not. David took her to be his wife even though she was someone else’s wife.”
  • A hot button issue, divisive in nature: “There are different views about this. It would be a great conversation to have with your parents.”

3. Trust Your Knowledge of Your Class

By being in the classroom with your students daily, you have observed your students’ emotional and intellectual capacities. You have seen how they handle the topics addressed in reading material, in life, and in discussion, so you are often able to sense what students’ responses will be to the events in the Scripture passage. At kindergarten level, it may be that the concepts of killing, hurting, death, or betrayal will be new and sensitive, so trust where your intuition tells you to summarize with fewer details. Older grades will likely have been exposed to these ideas and be less sensitive.

Personal knowledge of her students has helped fifth grade teacher, Sarah Bollock, better navigate situations. “If I know that a certain student will be uncomfortable or just plain silly, I will talk with them in advance and tell them how I really need their help with this lesson,” Sarah advised. “For example, with the virgin birth, I ask that student not to make any comments that will distract the class from the amazing miracle of Jesus’ birth. I find that when they have a special preview, they are able to manage much better.”

You can also help the whole class avoid silliness by expressing confidence in their maturity before explaining the content. When they hear your complimentary words—“I know you are now mature enough to understand this”—they tend to rise to the occasion.

4. Trust in the Wisdom of Teamwork

Discuss with fellow teachers of your grade level, or grade levels directly above and below, how to best handle portions of Scripture. Discuss as a team: How long should we read children’s Bibles? When should we transition to the full Bible? Can we move to the full Bible earlier by reading an easier translation and knowing what to omit?

“Team discussion” includes input from the curriculum you have chosen. Most curriculum companies have thought hard about the scope-and-sequence of when content should or should not be introduced. No curriculum is perfect, but it has nevertheless gone through multiple reviews and focus groups to best guide a teacher into age-appropriate study.

Sometimes a parent or child has unusually high sensitivity to particular topics. Allow your administration to work with that individual while you as a team remain true to your collective wisdom, seeking to best serve the students as a whole.

Next month’s article will go on to address ancient aspects of the biblical text that may be off-putting to the modern reader. Read on as we discuss a variety of practices from circumcision to polygamy to slavery.

Written by Heidi Dean

When telling the story to children, use true-but-vague language for a grizzly episode.

Prepare stock answers for questions a student may raise about a sexual or violent term.

Register to discuss Bible instruction with colleagues on February 11–12, 2021.

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