At times we hear from kids ministry leaders who are troubled by the violence in the biblical accounts of some of the session content. One pastor asked us how we approached the planning process:
How did you balance the need to convey the biblical message and keep it age appropriate? How do you respond to the modern desire to keep children from being exposed to the violence in the Bible?
There are two approaches to telling preschoolers and elementary kids stories that contain violence.
Avoid the Violence
The first approach is to leave the violent stories for Bible storybooks at home and not tell the stories in a group setting. Parents choose what stories to tell their kids and when to tell them. At church, the violent parts are excised. (For example, in 1 Samuel 17, the focus might be on David taking food to his brothers, not David’s slaying of Goliath.)
Just the Facts
The second approach is to tell the stories that contain violence, but to leave out any additional graphic detail or sensationalism that might distract from the point of the story. Along these lines, you’d tell a preschooler how God helped David kill the giant with a slingshot and five stones, and how this story helps us marvel at the power of God to do great things through ordinary people. You wouldn’t need to focus attention on David cutting off Goliath’s head, etc.
Many curriculum options for kids take the first approach. The Gospel Project takes the second. We stick with the facts of the story without dwelling on the violence.
Why We Tell the Stories
Here are the reasons we tell the violent stories:
- Small kids, especially preschoolers, may not fully understand death, but we believe they are far more perceptive than we give them credit for.
- Some of the world’s most beloved fairy tales are violent (“The Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel”), but because of our familiarity with these stories, we tend to overlook the violent elements and tell them to our kids anyway. Why would we tell our kids imaginary stories from culture and not true stories from the Old Testament?
- We’ve discovered that, as teachers, it’s our own unfamiliarity with the Bible that causes us concern when telling these stories. The teacher who is shocked by the story of Achan or Ehud or Jael has no trouble with Noah’s Ark (where God destroyed every living creature) or Abraham and Isaac (where a father almost stabbed his son). In this case, we teachers need to learn about the little-known stories and see the most familiar stories with fresh eyes.
- Violence in the Bible shows us how bad our sin is and what our sin leads to. We go from a perfect garden to a brother killing his brother. The good news of the gospel grows brighter when we see the darkness of sin.
- Our kids encounter violence in this sin-filled violent world. We can shelter our kids from hearing about school shootings or terrorist attacks… for a time. But eventually, the reality of our fallen world will confront them. It’s important for kids to know that God is not surprised by tragedy or unable to work in the midst of violence.
- The most important story in the Bible is the most gruesome and most troubling – the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s not necessary to show bloody pictures or sensationalize the details of crucifixion. But surely we must tell our kids the story of Christ’s sacrificial death for us. Unjust violence leading to cosmic restoration is the heart of the Christian faith.
Figuring out the age appropriateness of introducing certain stories is something that individual parents and teachers must discern. As curriculum providers, we do our best to walk a fine line. We want to faithfully tell the stories of the Bible in ways that focus on their main point without being distracted by or without denying the violent elements in the stories.