Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Gospel According to...well, the Gospels: 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation Class

The image of Jesus I grew up looking at
each Sunday in worship.
One of the most intense assignments I give Confirmation students is to read the entire Gospel of Mark and report what they learned about the life of Jesus, the patterns they noticed, or even the things that struck them as odd.

This post is part of a series that I am the middle of exploring how students can get the most out of their Confirmation experience. Check out the full list and other posts here.

I know I have told this story here before, but my favorite reaction to this assignment came about 5 years ago. One of the girls in the class started off the discussion on Mark even before we were ready to start class by complaining to me:

“Why didn’t anyone ever tell me Jesus was so mean?”

All I could think of as a response was, “I am so sorry. I should have told you before.”

So often how we teach our children about who Jesus is, what he said, and what he did doesn’t involve reading a standard Bible translation with them. We teach them about Jesus through picture books, nativity sets, children’s Bibles, movies, Sunday school classroom posters, stained glass windows, and even plush Jesus dolls.

I am not arguing against any of these methods of teaching children about Jesus and to be disciples of Jesus (okay, maybe I would argue against the doll), but it is important to be mindful that as a child grows, their understanding and picture of Jesus should grow as well. Obviously the gospels themselves are the best tool to stimulate that growth.

The first step in preparing a student for Confirmation class and an adult understanding of Jesus is helping them to understand what a gospel is in the first place.

A gospel is the “Good News,” which in Greek is “euangelion.” (This is where we get the word “evangelism” – to tell the Good News.) Practically, though, a Gospel is a book about Jesus’
life, ministry and teachings.

Most likely, a child who attends worship or Sunday school regularly has heard of the four Gospels that are in the Christian Bible, and these are numbers 41-44 on my list of 100.
41. Matthew
42. Mark
43. Luke
44. John
45. The Acts of the Apostles

In a perfect world, a child will also know about the sequel to the Gospel of Luke – the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the stories of Jesus’ followers and the start of the Christian Church (and which also gives us an even five for this post)

What children may not be aware of is the fact that each of these books stands alone as a complete story of Jesus’ life and ministry. They are not chapters in one long story of Jesus’ life. They are complete and unique versions of the life of Jesus. This is one of the pitfalls of children’s Bibles; they simply pick and choose stories from the gospels and compile them as though they were one continuous book.

The best and simplest way of teaching this to older children (as with teaching children anything from the Bible) is to sit down together with a Bible (not a children’s Bible) and read stories from the gospels together. Help them learn to look up passages from the gospels and Acts. Teach them their order in the New Testament. It is as simple as that.
This is why by the time a child is 8 or 9 they should really have their own “adult” translation of the Bible that has child-friendly study aids – all such Bibles provide an introduction to each book of the Bible, including the gospels. Here is a link to a helpful NRSV children’s Bible and an NIV children’s Bible.

If students come to Confirmation class with this kind of basic knowledge of the gospels, then we can spend time talking about the ways in which this Jesus they learned about as a child is actually a little more edgy and a little less cuddly than their Sunday school teachers may have led them to believe.

In addition, we wrestle with the following questions:
• Who wrote the gospels and how were they used by the first Christian churches?

• Why do they seem so similar and yet so different? Is it possible that they copied stories from each other as they were writing? (This often comes as a shock to students who have been taught that plagiarism is wrong.)

How does each gospel portray Jesus? Is he impatient? Is he a storyteller? Is he a political activist? Is he a keeper of wisdom?

• Why do some gospels have stories of Jesus birth, while others start at the beginning of his ministry?

• Why don’t the gospels tell more stories (or any stories) of Jesus as a child or as a teenager?

• How and why were these gospels chosen to be included in the Bible while others were rejected?
Should Christians study the gospels (such as those credited to Thomas, Mary, James, Peter etc.) that were not included?

My very precocious student’s statement that no one ever told her that Jesus was so mean reflects exactly the kind of epiphany and growth that can and should happen in Confirmation class. Needless to say, such an epiphany is not possible when a student lacks even a basic knowledge of the gospels before they begin this year of study.


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