Rachel Turner urges us to think very carefully about what we are saying about the Almighty
“I don’t see it!” I yelled through the house to my husband as I ruffled the cushions of the couch searching for his lost folder.
“It’s purple and small and very important.” His stressed voice replied. I could hear him opening and closing cupboards in the kitchen.
I looked under loads of stationary on his desk – a red folders, a blue notebooks and random papers. “I really don’t see it, honey. Maybe you left it at work?”
He swept back into the room, frustrated.
His eyes flitted hopelessly to his desk and then his face lit up. “There it is!” he crowed as he picked up the blue notebook.
“That’s a blue notebook, not a purple folder!” I sighed. I had been looking for at least 10 minutes as he had been increasingly getting agitated. I had touched that notebook at least three times.
“Folder, notebook, it’s all the same thing. And it’s purple, see? In the light?”
It was not. It was a blue notebook, but I had been searching for a purple folder.
I was looking for the wrong thing. The words he used painted a picture for me of what I was looking for. But that picture was wrong.
Children and young people are constantly constructing their picture of God. They take information they hear from school and church, from their parents and the Bible, from YouTube and the random thing their friend said, from their own experiences and thoughts and mush it all together into a picture of who God is. And many times, the picture is wrong.
How children and young people view God is vitally important because to have a relationship with God, you have to want a relationship with God. When their view of God is warped with unrealistic expectations or false assumptions about his character, the idea of life with God becomes very unappealing to them.
As leaders, we can be significant in how we help children and young people navigate this process of creating a picture of God that is accurate. We can also sometimes be part of the problem! Here are some areas to be aware of.
1. How you portray God when you tell biblical stories.
I was recently at a gathering where the story of Samuel hearing God’s voice for the first time was being told (I Samuel 3). When it came time for the leader to say God’s line “Samuel”, she covered the mic with her hand to create a funnel, and in a guttural, gravelly man voice, she shouted “Samuel”. The room erupted in laughter. Again and again, she repeated this performance as the line continually came up in the story, with the audience squealing in delight. She then went on to talk about how God communicates with all of us, big or small, which is a beautiful truth and she did it very well. But let’s pause for a moment. What picture of communication did the telling of the story paint for the listeners? According to the story that they just saw, what does the voice of God sound like? And what was their reaction to it? The telling of the story made for a delightful, hilarious experience, but did it paint an accurate picture of God? When children and young people attempt to perceive God’s communications to them, what will they be expecting? And it is a voice they will want to seek?
How we present God matters when we tell stories. It is a representation of how to understand pictures of how God interacts with people and what to expect from him. Are we being conscious of how we are doing it and what impression of him we are painting?
What are your experiences of art, performance, or storytelling that enhanced your view of God and your connection with him? Some people will point to paintings, others to particular performances. I have my favourites; you will have yours. (Mine are how Jesus is portrayed in the television show The Chosen -I basically cry and laugh through it-and the fantastic moment in the Prince of Egypt animated film when Moses encounters God for the first time – still gives me chills.)
Let’s be aware that our retellings of scripture may turn out to be formative moments in how children and young people see God.
2. What Bible stories you are telling
I once had a member of my congregation tell me all sorts of stories about his friend over a year– how chaotic he is, how inappropriately hilarious he is, how unwise he was in uni and the funny consequences of his choices. At some point, he turned to me and said, “OOo, you should hire him! He would make a great youth pastor.” I laughed and told him that there was no way I could hire his friend, as he sounded like the last person who I could trust with teenagers. The man was crushed. “He’s also really wise, has a job that requires lots of responsibility and is really good at it, loves Jesus a lot, and is awesome with young people!”
But I didn’t know those stories about his friend – only the ones that painted a view in my head of someone who would be a completely unsuitable and untrustworthy youth leader.
It’s not just how we tell stories that matter, but what stories we tell. Every once in a while, I suggest taking a moment to review the biblical stories that you have told children and young people. Are you noticing themes in the character traits that you are focusing on? Children and young people need the breadth and range of different character traits of God, not just a few. If we only ever tell stories of how God is loving, protective and rescues us, we are setting them up to be confused when they encounter situations where bad things happen to them. They also need stories of how God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, sits with Peter in prison, and sends the disciples out onto a calm lake right into a storm so he can show them who he was in it. They need to get a rounded view of God, not just a narrow one. How can you include more stories of aspects of God that you missed out on? His justice, his love of mercy, his adventure?
3) Tell your own stories
Children and young people need to see that the God of the Bible is the same now. When you tell Bible stories, I suggest that you also tell stories of how God is the same God who is active in your life. If you tell a story in scripture of how God spoke to Samuel, also make sure you are enabling stories of how you and others perceive his communications in your life. If you tell a story of how God is like the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son, don’t forget to tell a story of a time you needed to run back to God, and you felt embraced and welcomed. Sometimes, children and young people struggle to connect on their own how the God of the Bible and the God of our lives are the same, and how it looks. Your personal stories, the stories of your team, and their own stories are invaluable in helping them create a more accurate picture of God.
As you wade into this, please do not get discouraged or self-critical. I can probably list you at least 20 times I have done this terribly. We are all on a journey of discovering who God is and how we can help young people see him, know him and love him better. The good news is that every new bit of information helps to inform and refine how children see God. Sometimes, we have to unwind weird views that get in there, from social media, from their brains, from school, and sometimes even from us. It’s a privilege to get to walk alongside them on that journey. You can do it!