This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for some time now but haven’t felt brave enough. By writing what I really think, I know that I break from a lot of conventional wisdom and tradition when it comes to children’s ministry. At the same time, I feel strongly about this and I’ve thought about it and researched it a lot, so here goes…
I believe Christian Educators, parents and pastors should shield children from the details of the passion narrative/crucifixion story during Holy Week, if they address it at all with them.
I’ll lay out my reasons for having this opinion and then conclude with some ideas for how to address the passion narrative in worship and children’s messages. Certainly I see this as the beginning of a conversation, not a definitive guide.
To clarify, when I say “young” children in this post, I’m referring to children who are about ten years old or younger. Beginning in middle school and through High School, I think we can and should start discussing the crucifixion with children and strive to explain the details, as scripture presents them, without glorifying the violence or glossing over it. For younger children though, I think it’s appropriate, and even necessary, to shield children from the violence of the story and to offer age appropriate lessons that focus on other important aspects of our theology. Why do I think this? Here are the three main reasons:
- When we boil the crucifixion story down to a simple soundbite for children, we are actually presenting complex atonement theories that will shape their theologies their whole lives long. “Jesus paid the price for our sin.” (ransom) “Jesus saved us because we couldn’t save ourselves.” (penal substitution). “Jesus conquered death to set us free” (christus victor). I could go on, but you get the idea. When we look closely at each of these theories, however, we realize that it’s not as simple as a soundbite. Did God really send God’s only son to be tortured and killed because God demands payment for sin? That does not sound loving. Did God simply not have the ability to rescue Jesus and spare him from all of that pain? If so, God must be very weak. Unless we’re willing to truly get in to all of these details, (and they aren’t appropriate for a young child, in my opinion) we shouldn’t try to boil the work of Christ on the cross down to one simple and easy-to-remember phrase for children on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We might think we’re being faithful in telling the story, but what we’re really doing is letting ourselves off the hook when it comes to wrestling with the atonement ourselves.
- It’s incredibly violent. Many Christian parents I know are exceptionally cautious about shielding their children from violence in video games, movies, TV, books, and toys. Yet these same parents have no problem being very explicit with the violence of the passion story. We have to ask ourselves why this is. Do we think there is some value in exposing a young child to gruesome (and very memorable) details of the nails, whips, spears, and thorns? The logic I often hear is some variation of “without those details, children will miss something and not fully understand the Christian faith.” Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that by sparing them the gory details of Christ’s crucifixion we are denying them something? If we do, I would argue we need to take a good hard look at what our faith is and what it’s based on. Children are only children for the blink of an eye. They have their entire lives to be burdened with the violence of the world. We should spare them for as long as we can, even (or perhaps especially) the violence we find in the pages of the Bible.
- Children’s faith is developing just like their bodies and their brains, and because of this we have the responsibility to explain our faith with this in mind. Theologian and author James Fowler did a lot of work and research on stages of faith development that was published in the early 1980s. I think it’s on to something, for sure, though I would love to see much more research on children and faith development. Children’s brains simply aren’t equipped to understand some of the nuances of faith in the same way adults do. School aged children are often extremely literal and anthropomorphic in their understanding of God. This doesn’t mean that their faith is “lesser” or a “baby faith” but it does mean that we should take care to explain things in ways they can grasp. Let me be clear: children are tough, and they’re capable of a lot of things we don’t give them credit for. I believe children can eat “grownup” foods with a variety of spices. I believe they can take on chores and responsibility. I don’t believe children need to listen only to children’s music or live in plastic bubbles their whole childhoods. Children face hurt and disappointment, and we should not try to protect them from every wound. (Side note: I think the book How to Raise an Adult is great for this.) That said, the story of the crucifixion is a story of state sanctioned torture of a human being. Let’s hold off for a few years while our children are very young. They will get a complete picture soon enough.
How to involve children in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship and protect them from the details of the crucifixion:
Many may rightly ask: if we don’t share the details of the crucifixion with children, how should we handle it in worship or in conversations at home? Unfortunately there aren’t many children’s books that take on the crucifixion in ways I think are appropriate for children. Most children’s books and Bibles I’ve seen aren’t well done in this regard. Many contain cartoonish pictures of Christ being beaten and crucified. It’s confusing and jarring. (By the way, if anyone has an excellent resource, I’d love to see it!) Here are some ways I think parents and Christian educators can handle the passion narrative with young children:
- Stick to simple facts when telling the story: Jesus died on a cross and was laid in a dark tomb. Everyone was sad and missed him. Three days later, the dark tomb was open and empty and there was light and joy. The resurrection is a mystery of our faith.
- Avoid violent images and symbols in coloring pages and other children’s Easter materials. In my opinion, a great majority of the materials marketed to churches for children’s use during Lent and Easter is poorly done and developmentally inappropriate. Resurrection eggs, coloring books and children’s books often focus on thorns, crosses, nails and whips. It baffles me. Under no other circumstance would we give five year olds a coloring page with a man whipping another man, yet when it’s Jesus we make it ok. It’s not somehow appropriate or holy to hold up nails during a children’s message and talk about how they were driven in to the hands and feet of Jesus. There is no need for children to create a tiny crown of thorns, in my opinion.
- Be at peace with “not telling the whole story.” As parents and pastors we do this all the time. In our house we have a number chart that has the numbers 1-100. Our children refer to it all the time when talking about addition and subtraction and counting by fives and tens. Next, I’m sure, will come multiplication and division and fractions. At some point they’ll have a greater consciousness that there are numbers that are far outside the range of 1-100 and that numbers go to thousands and ten thousands and millions, but right now we’re focusing on the basics. “The basics” when it comes to Christian faith do not include the violent details of the cross. (Perhaps this is where I part ways with other Christian educators when I say this.) The basics of the Christian faith are these: Jesus is alive. God made the world and everything in it. God’s love is powerful. God is with us all the time, even when we are sad and lonely. God is gracious and slow to anger, rich in love and good to all. Perhaps a good focus for a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday children’s lesson is something about God being with us when we are sad and lonely. Perhaps a good message is that God’s love is powerful.
- Focus on faith practices rather than narrative. If you’re at home, you could focus on any one of the 50+ practices in Faithful Families. My favorite for this year is having an Easter Sunrise Breakfast. It starts out in the dark to give an age appropriate way to begin to experience the power of new life and resurrection. Many of the practices in Faithful Families also work in church or group settings. Coloring mandalas, walking the labyrinth, practicing breath prayers, all of these are useful ways to try and experience Maundy Thursday and Good Friday without focusing on the violent details of the narrative.
- Re-evaluate your own theology of atonement – When I’ve shared my opinion on the necessity to shield young children from the violent details of the crucifixion the response is often “You can’t get to the resurrection without the cross.” To that I have two responses: 1. This is a very adult lesson that children don’t need to take on. 2. What do you mean? Christ was crucified and God used that tragedy to bring about resurrection and new life. Christians have found this to be meaningful and mysterious for over two thousand years. But did God kill Jesus? I don’t think so. (See an excellent book by this same name for more.) The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is central to our faith, yes, but I would argue that our presentation to children is weak because our own theology is weak. When we don’t critically engage the question “What is the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross?” our children get caught in the crossfire.
What do you think? How will you present the crucifixion of Jesus to children this Holy Week? Let’s have a discussion about this in the comments. Share your ideas and techniques as well as resources you’ve found to be valuable.