Perhaps it is easiest to teach theology from behind a pulpit. However, when it comes to our kids, theology is learned best while slurping spaghetti, casting a fishing line, or looking out the car window. This is true for a couple of reasons. First of all, theology is not something “other” than normal life. Though theology can be a somewhat imposing term at first glance, in essence it is very straightforward. Theology is simply what we think about God. Everyone has thoughts about God; they are part of being human. We may adore God, we may be angry with God, we may even deny that God exists, but in each case these thoughts reflect our theology. Consequently our theology—how we think about God—has a profound impact on every decision we make. This is true whether we are 45 years old or 8 years old. Therefore, I believe that the best place to learn about theology is right in the midst of normal life. To a third-grader, theology has nothing to do with a particular dispensation, eschatology, or the hypostatic union. It has everything to do with the need to know what God is really like.
Second, you will notice that none of the activities mentioned above can be accomplished in a Sunday school classroom. I’m all for Sunday school; I’m a product of Sunday school. But I know that it’s just not the best place to learn about God. The best place for a kid to learn about God is with his or her parents. I remember listening in on my parents’ conversation from the backseat of our station wagon one night as we drove home from a large family event. It was late; I was half-asleep, and even with my eyes closed I could see the streetlights flashing as we drove down the freeway. My mom suddenly told my dad to slow down. My eyes flew open as we passed a wrecked car surrounded by burning flares. The crumpled vehicle was surrounded by police, firefighters, and ambulance drivers. No one in my family said anything spiritual or philosophized about why bad things happen to some people and not others. But I was quietly trying to make sense of the situation. I concluded that we were good people and good people don’t get into car accidents. Right there, with my little feet resting on the transmission hump of our dark blue Chevrolet, my third-grade mind wrestled with theology and came up with some very wrong conclusions. My parents missed a great opportunity to teach me an important truth.
One of the best times to teach your kids about God is when something unusual happens. For instance, when a dad loses his job he has an amazing chance to talk to his kids about theology. Many of us would be ashamed and embarrassed. We certainly would not want to dialogue with our kids about something this painful, choosing instead to hide this from our kids. When I was about 9 years old, my dad lost his job as a vice president of a computer corporation. He was without work for six months. My parents did not sit us down and orchestrate a learning time, but they did talk about it openly at the dinner table. While I slurped my spaghetti, I heard my parents talk about how our savings were dwindling, I heard my father pray for a new job, and over time I watched him be humbled without growing angry. I remember that during dinner one night, my dad told us that he had applied for a job at the local gas station and they would not hire him because he was so overqualified. My parents were scared and didn’t know what to do next, so they kept asking God for direction. That was a great thing for a child to see. They also talked about how grateful they were that God had kept them from buying a bigger house they’d looked at the previous year. Our house payment would have doubled, and we would not have been able to make the payments while my dad was out of work. God had spared us from losing our house. This experience taught me that God was protecting us long before we knew we needed protection. That’s a great bit of theology for a kid to learn. Had I heard that truth in a classroom, I would have forgotten it long before Sunday lunch was over. But because I learned it from my parents in the midst of tough times, I remember it still.
Tough times are great opportunities to teach and learn theology. Other opportunities come at fun, loud times or quiet, peaceful moments. I’ve learned from some older, wiser people to draw my kids’ attention to God during sweet and happy moments. I love to push my girls up high on the swing set until they throw their heads back with laughter. Occasionally, without stopping any of the action or interrupting any of their fun, I will ask them, “Don’t you think God is laughing right now with you?” The thought that God loves our innocent laughter and enjoys it with us is a huge part of understanding who He is and what our relationship with Him can be. Though this is only one small facet of who God is, it is sadly one that a lot of people have never experienced.
My boy is a fisherman. It’s one of his favorite things to do. Most of the time when we go fishing together, we talk about movies or some new girl he’s interested in. But occasionally it dawns on me that I have an opportunity on my hands. So sometimes I initiate a casual conversation about the complexity of nature. While we’re sitting in the grass waiting for fish to bend our poles, I’ll quietly toss out questions such as, “What if God hadn’t made mosquitoes?” or “What if God made the water freeze from the bottom up instead of from the top down?” We’ve rarely quoted Scripture at times like these. We don’t open a Bible commentary, and we’ve never used a flannel graph. But in the normal course of our day, we wonder and talk and think about the God of the universe. What a great way for a kid to learn theology.
In the course of teaching theology to our kids, we are absolutely going to hit on questions we can’t field. We are, after all, talking about an omnipotent God. Sometimes elementary-school-age kids ask questions that simply cannot be answered. Now we as parents and teachers might feel very deficient or even foolish at moments like these, but we shouldn’t. Good theology tells us that God is so big that most things about Him are a mystery. The Bible tells us a lot about God—and the truth it reveals is exactly what He wants us to know. But because He is infinite, there is so much more about Him that we can’t see or comprehend. With that in mind, it is absolutely imperative that our kids understand that it makes sense for some things about God to be a mystery. If this truth is communicated properly, a lot of angry frustration will be avoided and a great deal of comfort will be found.
Nothing is more important than having good theology and teaching it to your kids. I’d encourage you not to talk about God only at isolated times when you stop normal life. Don’t make these conversations super-serious and intimidating, taking out all fun and enjoyment so that you can think seriously about the Bible. God is present in every moment of our lives, and we need to learn to think about Him and honor Him all the time. Therefore, I suggest that we enjoy and learn about Him in church and talk about Him in the car on the way home. Talk about God at the dinner table between episodes of spilled milk as well as in times of fear and sickness. What we think about God shapes every part of who we are, so let’s teach our kids to think properly about Him throughout the course of our normal day. This is the real path to discipleship. And besides . . . it is so much more interesting than a flannel graph!