A Book Children Can Grasp
At what age can children start understanding the Scriptures? Jennifer Lyell, author of the book "The Promises of God Storybook Bible," assures listeners that children as young as three years old can understand simple concepts of the Bible. With that in mind, and drawing upon her experience teaching 3-year-olds in Sunday school, Lyell explains why she chose to write a storybook Bible for kids.
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At what age can children start understanding the Scriptures? Jennifer Lyell assures listeners that children as young as three years old can understand simple concepts of the Bible.
A Book Children Can Grasp
Bob: For years, Jennifer Lyell has been teaching three- and four-year-olds the Bible in Sunday school. Jennifer says those are strategic years in a child’s life. Parents and teachers alike need to make sure we are redeeming this important time.
Jennifer: That child is going to, Lord willing—and we hope and plan and anticipate—going to grow to be an adult. God’s plans for that child are not unformed at age three. Age three is a part of God’s plans for that child, so that’s a responsibility. I get 100 minutes a week with them for 52 weeks in a year. That’s a lot of time; I want to spend it wisely.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, May 28th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. As a parent, are you making the most of these years with your kids?—making sure to pour a solid foundation on which their lives can be built? We’re going to talk more about that with Jennifer Lyell today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Just a few minutes ago, I got the opportunity to introduce you guys to my friend, Jennifer.
Dave: Yes, we did.
Ann: And we already like her.
Dave: We had lunch together.
Jennifer: Thank you!
Bob: Jennifer Lyell is joining us on FamilyLife Today. I have to tell you—you don’t think of many people, who have been to seminary, as being called as missionaries to three-year-olds. [Laughter] But that’s really kind of your story, isn’t it?
Jennifer: That is a great way to sum it up; I’ve never thought of that before. It’s interesting—I don’t know if you knew this before—but my seminary training and degree is actually in missions.
Jennifer: Yes; I went to seminary, anticipating and planning to go overseas as a missionary, because I had just spent time overseas doing missions. The Lord redirected that. I never expected that teaching little kids was going to be the place that is the most home for me. I’ve taught all ages; but preschool, in particular—and three-year-olds—is my favorite.
Dave: If I would have ever made a missionary to three-year-olds, this is the woman—
Bob: —this is it.
Bob: Isn’t that the truth?
Dave: Oh, yes; it just fits you!
Jennifer: I love it! That makes my heart feel [inaudible].
Ann: I want to explain, too, Jennifer is brilliant. She has a brilliant mind; you can tell you’re a great teacher. You’re passionate. These kids—you are a gift to them.
Jennifer: That’s really kind! I’m not sure they would agree when I’m trying to get their bottoms to stay on the carpet, and listen, and “We’re not going to have toy time if we don’t finish story time.”
Bob: The reason that Jennifer is here is because we want her to help us know how we—as grown-ups, whether it’s as parents, or grandparents, or people who are teaching the three-year-olds in Sunday school at our church—how we can move beyond just teaching really simple things. Because kids, at age three—this is your conviction—
Bob: —they can learn more than we believe they can learn.
Jennifer: Absolutely. I believe—having taught women, having taught teenagers, having taught the ages from two to ten—three-year-old’s are distinctly the age, I have found, that can best understand both the things that are certain about God, while also being able to reconcile and sit with the mysterious aspects of God in a way that truly helps them to have a broader, more firm foundation for what they’re both going to experience in life; and then, what they’re going to continue to learn about God’s Word.
Dave: I have never heard that. That’s fascinating.
Jennifer: And it’s absolutely true.
Bob: I’m just thinking of a mom, who’s going: “Now, wait a sec. I’ve got a three-year-old at home; I can’t teach them how to clean up their room! And you’re saying that they can understand the mysteries of God?”
Jennifer: Yes; at the end of the year, I teach on the Trinity for two weeks.
Bob: —to three-year-olds.
Ann: And they get it.
Jennifer: Yes, as much as you can get it. Part of what I teach them is that there are some things about God that we can know for absolutely certain—and God has allowed us to understand completely—those things are revealed in His Word. But there are also things we learn from His word that, because we are a little like God—which is how I talk about being created in the image of God, but not fully God—that we can understand a little bit, but not fully. That’s part of what helps us to want to hold onto God as He holds onto us in those mysteries.
They can know that there’s one God, who has three persons in Him. We can’t have three persons in us, but God’s different; He can. So one God, who has three persons. And all the persons are always God, all the time—always have been and always will be. We talk about there’s the Father, and the distinct aspect of Creator; then Jesus the Son, as Savior; and then the Holy Spirit as Helper. They get that as well. I draw little icons; so yes.
Dave: When I read your book—that’s like page 1 or 2—it’s very early.
Dave: I was thinking, “How does a three-year-old get this? I’m not sure I completely understand it.” You’re saying they really can grasp it.
Jennifer: They absolutely can.
Dave: Way to go!
Bob: Let me say—the book is called The Promises of God Storybook Bible. You took all of the years you’ve been teaching—and has it been three-, four-, and five-year-olds?—or mostly three-year-olds?
Jennifer: Really, this approach to the text of the promises of God; and really, the Trinity; and a lot of—there’s a thread of the heart, and the heart being disconnected from God through sin; and then, being reconnected. Hard hearts versus soft hearts—that’s a strong theme. All of that really came out of teaching three- and four-year-olds.
Even the Trinity—teaching and how I teach it—I’ve stumbled on this and learned on it.
I didn’t walk out of seminary and into this classroom; I made lots of mistakes—really came from the questions the kids would ask me. The Trinity conversation came from a child—actually to whom the book is dedicated, in part—who was a week after his fourth birthday.
I teach the Old Testament throughout that year, but we had taken a break in December to teach four weeks on Advent. I had just taught the first week. We were finished teaching; and he looked at this picture I have on my wall, which is a drawing of Adam and Eve in the Garden. He said, “Miss Jennifer, Jesus is God.” I said, “Yes,” and I’m getting snack time ready. He said, “God created Adam and Eve.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “But Jesus wasn’t born yet. Jesus is God; there’s only one God.” I remember I was trying to wedge out the Goldfish® container. [Laughter]
I paused and thought, “I think a four-year-old just asked me about the pre-incarnate existence of Jesus.” [Laughter] “What do I say?” [Laughter] I don’t remember what I said, exactly, to him that day. I remember the mystery language I came up with. He kept asking questions for weeks and weeks. It was really through that one child that I landed on how to reconcile the Trinity conversation.
One week, his dad came running in after he picked him up. I was cleaning up the class, and he said: “I need you to explain it to me the way you just explained it to him. [Laughter] He’s talking to me about it, and I don’t know how to talk about it that way.” So the kids really taught me this.
Now, because I’ve been teaching so long, the book’s not really written to three-year-olds—although that is sort of the introductory age to it—but I have ten-year-olds in our church now, who I taught at three. I also wrote it with the idea that for a child, who’s older, that this becomes a bridge resource that they could even read on their own, that goes into, then, them reading God’s Word. Because of that, I also feel really passionately about not just telling the stories but really giving more of a sense of the overview of the types of teaching that is in the Bible; because that’s where we need to get them.
Ann: I think a lot of parents are thinking: “Oh, yes. I’ll start reading the Bible with my kids. I’ll help them when they get into elementary school age.” But this is—you’re saying, “three-year-olds.”
Ann: What happened in your life that put this passion on your heart?—because this is like your passion—oozes out. How did this come about? Were you raised in the church? What happened?
Jennifer: No; actually, it’s interesting because, when I agreed to teach the three-year-old class at my church, I thought, “Oh, I think this is going to be too young for me,” because I like to teach substantively. Then, I realized the first year: “Oh, wait; these kids are developmentally really ready to understand and interpret things as individuals. They can be taught.”
I also realized, in my church, this was the first age where they were being taught the Bible every week. I just love that idea of being able to set the foundation.
Ann: It’s not just babysitting, down in church, while the parents are sitting in big church; you are teaching them.
Jennifer: Yes, I teach about 25 minutes; I mean, granted, 7 minutes of that is me asking them to: “Stop”; “Keep your bodies…” “Crisscross applesauce,”—all that.
In hindsight, I did not grow up in the church. Age three, for me, was a pretty tumultuous time. I’ve had other relationships and children in my life, for whom that was the case as well. My memories start at age three. My most vivid memory that is early is of being in a magnolia tree—was at my grandparents’ house—and it went all the way down to the ground. I would go inside of the tree to the branches before the leaves. There was a way—I was so little—I could just sit in the tree; I would sit in the tree for hours, and hours, and hours.
My mom left when I was very, very, very young—before then—and I lived with my dad. We were kind of bouncing around; I did spend a lot of time with my grandparents. I didn’t have a lot of supervision/oversight. Most of my memories are me, alone, outside playing/kicking around dirt. Honestly, it was the confusion of: “Okay, I’m a person; and there’s grownups, but I don’t really know where I fit,” and “I don’t know how to understand what’s happening,” and “I don’t know what to do with myself. What am I supposed to be doing right now, in this moment?” It sounds crazy—it’s not like I had that organized thinking—I’m sure I was also doing silly kid stuff.
But the passion now is for me to introduce children, at that age—because I know you can be thinking those things, right?—because I was! To help them to understand: they have a place; they have a place in God’s created order; they have a place in God calling a people to be His; they have a place to reconcile the fact that they’re sinners. Those were things—that now, with a biblical world view—I can look back and say: “God gave me this weird, very young, big-problems-of-life, irreconcilable processing. I didn’t figure that stuff out to any degree.” I’m still figuring it out, but I didn’t start until I was 21!
One of the things I love is—I’ll teach, almost every week, something to these three-year-olds; and I ask them questions at the end. You know, they’re/not every three-year-old is ready for as much of this as four—or whatever—it’s a scale. But they will know stuff at the end of every week that I did not learn, sometimes, until I was in seminary. I went to seminary just a couple years after I was saved. I tell them that all the time, and they love it; they think that’s just fantastic.
To me, they’re not alone: God has a plan; God made them. I’m honest about: “There are going to be things that happen in your life that are going to be so hard,” and “You’re going to sin in ways that you can’t imagine. Your mom and your dad are, and I do,”—and we talk about how our pastor does—“but that all of that is within the scope of God’s plan.” I want them to know that they’re not sitting on branches that are going to break; but that they’re sitting on truth, and that truth is for them. It’s not just for grownups; it is as much for them as it is for the pastor.
Ann: I think that’s so encouraging for parents and a good reminder that these years matter—because, as moms, I know, I can feel so frantic; I can feel so frazzled—I can wonder, “Do these years really matter?”—because I’m in the survival state.
Yet, as you were talking, I was thinking about my three-, four-, and five-year-old self. It was hard! I had deep thoughts. Abuse/sexual abuse had taken place by then. I can remember being in my bed, wondering: “What’s wrong with me? Why are these things happening to me?”
I can remember even—I didn’t go to church much, growing up—I remember my brother used to tease me: to tell me that I was adopted. He would bring proof like, “Haven’t you every wondered why your hair was blonde, and all of us have brown hair?” I remember saying to my mom, “Was I adopted?” It was interesting, too, because she said: “Ann, you weren’t adopted”; she said, “Now, you were an accident, and you were a total surprise,”—[Laughter]—which some people are like, “That wasn’t nice!” But then she said one thing—she said, “But I think God must have a reason why you’re here, and He must have something special for you.” I didn’t go to church; but I remember that planted deep in my soul, wondering, “Does God have something for me?”
I think, for parents, this is a great reminder to read God’s Word. These are seeds we’re planting in their hearts and souls; it makes a difference. So even take a few minutes at night and ask those questions, like, “What do you feel God has for you?” And then tell them, “God has something great.”
Bob: I have to ask you, right on the heels of that, because a lot of parents are here; they’ve got two-year-olds or three-year-olds, who have a prayed a prayer. Mom and dad walk away and go, “Did something really happen there?—or not?” You watch their behavior over the next couple of years, and go, “I don’t think anything happened.” [Laughter]
Ann: That’s a good point.
Bob: Help us process a three-year-old, who says: “When I grow up, I want to be a dinosaur,” and “I want to trust Jesus.” [Laughter]
Jennifer: That’s fantastic; because I’ve had that conversation, pretty much. [Laughter] From a teaching standpoint, I avoid the focus being on kind of the traditional gospel narrative of the Four Spiritual Laws or things like that. I think there is a context for that; I’ve used that a lot, teaching overseas, for instance.
But with children, I’m pretty hard core on the heart: “This is about the heart.” I use—when I teach and throughout the book—this construct of a soft heart and a hard heart. When I talk about the gospel, I really don’t—they don’t know the word, “gospel”; they don’t know the word, “Trinity”; I teach the Old Testament—they leave my class and never heard the word, “Israelite”; because I say, “God’s people.” It’s honestly just about language.
But with the soft heart and the hard heart—I taught from the first day, where we talk about creation—that: “God made Adam and He made Eve; He made them to be a little bit like Him. He gave them hearts that were connected to His; that meant that they could hear Him, just like you can hear me. It meant they loved Him, and they wanted to obey Him.”
Then we talk about the snake; we talk about how he deceived—how Eve had heard God—she did know what God had said; but yet, she saw, and she wanted, and she took. I reiterate this all year, through every single story—you’ll see it in the Scripture if you look—that as she took that fruit, and Adam took that fruit, their hearts changed. Their hearts became hard; they could not hear God the same; they could not love God the same; they could not obey God the same—that is the start of what we see unfold in Scripture.
Then, transitioning them to understanding: “But wait! God made a way! He made a way for our hard hearts to become soft again.” I even talk about the sacrificial system—people think I’m crazy—we talk about how there were two ways. The one way was for a time, but it didn’t work; they kept having to sacrifice more, and more, and more, and more.
What I know, and what I reiterate to them, is that—to me, I hope—is planting the seed against legalism, right?—that they’re going to recognize, “Wait!” At some point in their future, I’m hoping it’s going to come back up. The only true and whole way for our hearts to be connected back to God is by us understanding how desperately we need Jesus and that we were made to have hearts that were connected to God; and nothing in our lives will ever be tolerable or have the way it was supposed to be without that. Jesus is the way.
Bob: I have to wonder, as you’re explaining that for three-year-olds—
Dave: That was for adults! Are you kidding me? That wasn’t just for three-year-olds.
Ann: And if you didn’t know how to convey that to your child, there it is.
Dave: Get the book and do it!
Bob: Are there folks listening, right now, who are going, “I’ve never understood it that way”? If you look at your own life today and say: “I think I still have a hard heart. I may have had that moment, where I was moved and I prayed something; but my heart’s still hard.”
I’m asking you, Pastor Dave—you’re sitting down with that guy—“What do you say to him?”
Dave: I would say just what Jennifer said: “This is your moment to say, ‘I am going to make a decision that’s going to change my life.’ It’s amazing to think that it could happen at three years old, and it does. It could be your day right now. It’s as simple as saying: ‘Jesus, I believe, and I surrender my life and my heart to you. Transform my heart because I can’t. I’ve tried; I can’t. You can. I give you my life; I give you my heart. Change me.’”
Ann: I love the words: “I repent,” [Agreement from all] “I turn.”
Jennifer: Yes; that’s actually the one distinct grown-up theological term I actually teach; because I think it’s different than—you know, they’re kind of used to saying, “I’m sorry, Mom, for this,” and that kind of thing—because there’s a differentiation between how we respond to God and how we respond to parents.
Bob: We can be sorry for things, but the question is: “Are we turning from those things?”
Jennifer: Exactly, exactly.
Bob: I would hope that anybody listening—who’s going: “You know, I have had a hard heart, and I want a soft heart. I want to turn from old ways to new ways,”—you can go to our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. There’s a link there that says, “Two Ways to Live”; and it maps out for you two strategies.
I’ll suggest to you—the way you’ve chosen to live has brought you to the place where you are today. If that’s a dead end/if that’s not a good place—if you look at your life today and say, “This is not what life is supposed to be,”—go explore the other way to live. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link that says, “Two Ways to Live.” Read through that and consider what your life would look like if you were living your life with Jesus’ agenda in place rather than your agenda in place. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
On the website, you will find a link to the book that Jennifer Lyell has written for us, as parents, to read to kids. It’s called The Promises of God Storybook Bible: the Story of God’s Unstoppable Love. You can order a copy of this wonderful new tool for parents or for grandparents. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get your copy. Again, it’s The Promises of God Storybook Bible, beautifully illustrated/beautifully written. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order: 800-358-6329—that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, tomorrow, we want to talk more practically about how, as parents, we can make the most of these years with our kids; or as grandparents, how we can intersect with our grandkids and read them stories like the stories in The Promises of God Storybook Bible. We’ll talk more with Jennifer Lyell tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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