You expect me to answer yes, don’t you? But what if I said the answer largely is no? Kids aren’t mature enough to fully understand about Jesus.
A few days ago, I got an email from a preschool teacher asking if kids of that age are old enough to understand the gospel, and wondering whether trying to teach it to them might be a hopeless endeavor. Since writing Show Them Jesus, I’ve been asked similar questions about young kids, and preschoolers in particular, a handful of times. It seems to be a common concern.
It’s also a good question. After all, the gospel comes to us in words and is built on abstract concepts like atonement for sin—and young kids aren’t capable of much abstract thinking. Also, the gospel in the Old Testament is revealed largely in shadowy previews, and young kids struggle to understand those. So my answer is: no, little kids aren’t mature enough to understand the gospel very thoroughly.
But then again, neither are any of us.
The good news of who Jesus is and all he’s done to save us is so rich, runs so deep, that most of us comprehend just a fraction of it. A lifetime is barely enough to unearth a few nuggets of the full treasure. Besides, due to sin all of us have minds that remain clouded and unable to grasp many glories.
Still, we eagerly learn as much as we’re able. There’s an inherent clarity to the Word of God, and for us the Spirit uses it to produce an appreciation of Jesus and a trust in him sufficient for the understanding we have. It’s the same with kids—even the littlest ones. They’re able to learn far less about the gospel then an adult can, but still we teach them what they can understand. We get them started on that lifetime of getting to know Jesus.
I mention this because we need encouragement when it seems like kids just don’t get what we’re trying to teach them. We need to know that it’s okay to start small, with just the most basic ideas about the gospel.
Here then, are some gospel wonders most preschoolers can understand.
Sin, punishment, and forgiveness. Kids who’re old enough to understand right and wrong are also old enough to understand punishment and forgiveness. In fact, most of them have a lot of experience with it. They know that they should obey and what might happen if they don’t. So I sometimes talk to them about Jesus like this:
“God makes good rules. But sometimes we disobey God. When we disobey God, we deserve for him to punish us. Punishment from God is very bad because his rules are so important. But Jesus loves us so much that he decided to get punished instead of us—even though he obeyed God’s rules. That means we don’t have get punished by God.”
Fatherly love. How perfect it is that a chief benefit of belonging to Jesus—our status as children of God—is innately understandable to little kids! Even the youngest child knows that his life depends on a loving parent. It’s where he gets care, attention, discipline and affection. We might talk to them about it like this:
“A good father gives you so many things! He takes care of you. He listens to you. He shows you how to behave. He loves you. God is the best Father of all. If you belong to Jesus, God makes you his child. Then he takes care of you perfectly. He listens to you anytime to want to pray. He helps you behave. And he loves you so much, forever—because he’s your Father.”
The call to faith. One element of the gospel is that it compels a response. Faith can be a difficult concept for little kids, but they know all about coming when they’re called. They’re also prone to trust; so much so that Jesus used a child as an example of what faith in God should be like. I might talk about the gospel call this way:
“You heard that the Bible says Jesus took your punishment. Believe it. You need to trust him to do that for you. You also heard that God is your good Father. Believe that too. You need to decide to obey him because he’s your good Father.”
I never push little kids into a “decision” moment that comes with any claim they’re saved. I just encourage them from a young age to believe, always, for the rest of their lives.
God’s care for his people. It’s important to show how the Old Testament points ahead to Jesus. But if the youngest kids have trouble understanding those previews, it’s okay simply to show what God does for his people. For example, if we’re teaching about the battle of Jericho it might be too much to expect preschoolers to grasp how God gave his people the good land in Canaan as a foreshadowing of the home we’ll one day have in heaven with Jesus. But we still should do more with that story than simply teach a moral lesson like “follow God’s instructions the way the Israelites did.” We can teach what God did for his people, like this:
“God made the walls of Jericho fall down so his people could live in that land. He gave them that place to be their good home. God loves to give his people a good home.”
Even without the mention of our future home with Jesus, teaching about God giving a home is still in the gospel spirit.
Prayer. Praying with kids may not involve telling any Bible stories, but it’s still excellent gospel teaching. When we’re quick to pray we teach kids to always trust God. Anytime we stop to pray we’re living out our faith in Jesus. So modeling how to “pray without ceasing,” about absolutely everything, gives kids concrete practice in believing the gospel.
Demonstrations of the gospel. The amount of formal lesson time little kids can handle is limited. So we should not despair if we can’t get them to understand a gospel message very well during lesson time. We can still set those kids up to understand the gospel simply by demonstrating God’s love in how we love them, how we listen to them, how we forgive them—and, as I mentioned above, how we pray with them constantly. For the youngest kids, a class time that includes these things goes a long way toward preparing them to understand the gospel when they’re more able to receive it in words.
All of these are gospel truths even preschoolers can grasp. They remind us of God’s commitment to make the unsearchable riches of his grace clear to us—even the littlest of us—in so many ways. There are jaw-dropping wonders to see now, whatever our age, and boundlessly more to look forward to in the years ahead.
Thoughts? Please share or comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how we learn from each other! (Pick any name you like, and no one but me will see your email address—and I won’t use it, I promise)