This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 1 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
When I speak to parents at churches and conferences on the subject of teaching kids apologetics, there is one question someone always asks: “At what age should we start teaching kids apologetics?” My answer: “As soon as you start teaching them about Jesus.” Unsuspecting parents, looking for a simple numerical answer, must then sit through my minispeech on how apologetics should be a seamless part of everything else we teach kids about Christianity from the earliest age.
Asking when we should begin teaching apologetics assumes it is a discipleship endeavor that is separate from the rest of a child’s spiritual development. For many people, the reason for that idea is an assumed definition of apologetics that is overly narrow and difficult to apply to young kids. With a more comprehensive understanding of what apologetics is, however, it becomes clear that there is a much wider scope of teaching opportunities available. Yes, even for kindergarteners.
RETHINKING THE DEFINITION OF APOLOGETICS
Most Christians who have at least some knowledge of apologetics think of it simply as defending the faith. Christian parents, aware of the fact that the world is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity, often want their kids to learn apologetics so they are prepared to make that defense. But if a parent thinks teaching apologetics means sitting a child down with a textbook on biblical archaeology or textual criticism, that child won’t be learning to “defend their faith” for many years. Meanwhile, young elementary kids are already hearing from classmates, friends, and popular media that God doesn’t exist, that the Bible is a fairy tale, that Christians are unloving, that the most important thing in life is to be true to yourself, and much more. The bridge must be gapped, and it starts with identifying what kinds of knowledge are involved in defending the faith.
Just as a subject such as algebra can be broken into multiple competencies such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, apologetics can be broken into four key knowledge areas: (1) What Christianity teaches; (2) Why there’s good reason to believe Christianity is true; (3) What others believe; and (4) How others challenge Christianity. Within each of these areas, there are abundant opportunities to teach young kids apologetics — no archaeology textbook required. In the remainder of this article, I will define these areas and offer three teaching examples for each that are appropriate for young elementary-age kids.
WHAT CHRISTIANITY TEACHES
Many kids spend hundreds of hours in church but eventually leave home with a shallow understanding of what Christianity actually teaches. Kids can’t defend what they don’t accurately understand, so teaching apologetics necessarily begins with helping kids develop a rich understanding of the Christian faith.
Perhaps that sounds obvious. Isn’t this what churches and parents already do at a minimum? Yes and no. Kids certainly are taught major Bible stories and basic Christian doctrine — Joseph had a multicolored coat, Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Daniel spent time in a lion’s den, and Jesus died for our sins — but individual biblical accounts and concepts do not fit themselves together automatically in a cohesive understanding of Christianity over time. Adults must be intentional in helping kids form that deeper knowledge.
Example 1: Emphasize context. One way to help kids understand the relevance of individual biblical accounts is by consistently asking, “What happened before this?” “Why is this story an important part of the Bible?” “What happens next?” Asking such questions keeps kids mindful that the Bible tells one story and explicitly teaches them how individual accounts fit together.
Example 2: Define key words. I once asked my young daughter how Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. She replied, “He broke the bread into 5,000 pieces.” Yes, we had always labeled acts like these miracles, but that didn’t result in her understanding what a miracle actually is. Teaching kids how to define words accurately is critical in a world where bad definitions run rampant. Parents or church educators can do this by choosing a key word each week to define. A few examples of commonly misunderstood words include: faith, religion, church, sin, salvation, resurrection, love, justice, judgment, Christian, eternal, science, miracle, and supernatural.
Example 3: Highlight common misunderstandings of Christianity. Adults see examples of people misunderstanding Christianity all the time. Those misunderstandings can be ready-made lessons to help kids understand what Christianity does teach. For example, I saw a man claim on social media one day that “if God existed, there would be no church shootings. I later said to my kids, “Someone I know said that if God exists, nothing bad would happen to a person sitting in church. Do you think that’s true? Why or why not?” This led to a great conversation on how being a Christian doesn’t protect you from the sinful choices people make.
WHY THERE IS GOOD REASON TO BELIEVE CHRISTIANITY IS TRUE
In everyday life, we assume that when a person makes a claim that something extraordinary happened, he or she will offer good reasons for why others should believe those claims; justification is expected. But lifelong Christians often forget how extraordinary the truth claims of Christianity are and teach kids the claims without the corresponding understanding of why those claims are credible (why should we believe Jesus was God incarnate and came back to life from the dead?). It is this area of apologetics that shows kids why Christianity is worth defending.
Example 1: Teach a framework for investigating the truth of Christianity. From a young age, kids can learn four key questions for investigating the truth of Christianity: (1) What evidence is there for the existence of God? (2) Can all religions point to the same truth? (3) What evidence is there for the resurrection of Jesus? and (4) What evidence is there for the reliability of the Bible? This framework can become a lifelong guide for learning. Start by teaching a simple point in response to each of the questions, and methodically add points over time.
Example 2: Teach the logic of miracles. A skeptic once commented on a blog post I wrote about Easter: “I used to be a Christian until I realized that I know from science dead people stay dead.” This, of course, is a misunderstanding of Christianity. Christians don’t believe that Jesus naturally came back from the dead, and science only tells us how the natural world functions on its own terms. Christians believe the Resurrection was a supernatural event — a miracle. This commenter simply presupposed that miracles don’t happen. Adults can help kids understand faulty common assumptions about miracles by helping them memorize a simple logical truth: if God exists, miracles are possible; if God doesn’t exist, miracles are not possible.
Example 3: Discuss the nature of evidence. Even though Christians can make a compelling case for the truth of Christianity, not everyone is a Christian. But if there is such good reason to believe Christianity is true, why doesn’t everyone draw the same conclusion? Kids must learn that evidence requires human interpretation, so there will always be multiple possible explanations for what we see. The question is, “What is the best explanation?” Adults can demonstrate this reality by creating scenarios and asking kids to identify a best, possible, and impossible explanation. For example, tell kids a carrot is on a kitchen floor and ask them how it got there. Did mom drop it while cooking (best explanation), did a dog take it out of the refrigerator (possible explanation), or did it grow there on its own (impossible explanation)?
WHAT OTHERS BELIEVE
Many Christian parents see their spiritual development job as teaching their kids about Christianity alone. However, kids can’t be prepared to defend their faith when they don’t understand the beliefs held by those challenging them. Since challenges to Christianity often correlate with specific worldviews (for example, challenges from atheists are often rooted in one underlying claim that there is no evidence for God’s existence), an understanding of how other people’s beliefs fit together is an important part of apologetics.
Example 1: Use sorting games. As a simplified example, to teach the differences between the atheistic and Christian worldviews, create index cards that say, “God doesn’t exist,” “God exists,” “Right and wrong is a matter of opinion,” “Right and wrong is determined by God,” “People determine their own meaning of life,” and “There is an objective meaning of life for all people because God created us with a purpose.” Hang poster boards labeled “Atheistic Worldview” and “Christian Worldview,” and ask kids to place the worldview cards onto the corresponding poster. This provides a helpful visual of how beliefs fit together. Once kids can sort two worldviews, add more cards and/or more worldviews.
Example 2: Demonstrate that religions cannot be equally true. While people commonly claim that various religions can be equally true, this is not a logical possibility. Religions make contradictory claims. If God exists, it’s logically possible that (1) He didn’t reveal Himself at all or that (2) He revealed Himself and one religion is true, but it is not logically possible that all religions are true. Kids can understand this readily when presented with the contradictory claims of various world religions (e.g., Hindus believe in a cycle of rebirths; Christians believe humans live one life). This can be done as part of the sorting game in the last example or as a simple discussion.
Example 3: Identify and discuss secular ideas encountered in daily life. Popular ideas such as “Do what makes you happy” and “You’re free to decide who you are” may sound good at first, but they are contrary to a Christian worldview. If adults are not intentional in pointing out secular thinking and distinguishing it from biblical truths, kids won’t necessarily see the differences. This requires adults to be on the lookout for examples kids encounter and use them as teachable moments. Ask, “Is this an example of biblical or unbiblical thinking? Why?” Common opportunities include movies, music lyrics, books, magazine covers or articles, and bumper stickers.
HOW OTHERS CHALLENGE CHRISTIANITY
This is the heart of what most people think of as “apologetics” — defending the faith against specific challenges. But without an equal emphasis on the preceding knowledge areas, kids won’t have the context they need for evaluating challenges. When those pieces of understanding are taught simultaneously, however, even the youngest kids are ready to hear and grapple with specific claims against Christianity. Though adults sometimes fear they will cause doubt in a young child’s mind by bringing awareness to these issues, it is important to remember that kids will soon hear many of them on their own. Parents should embrace the opportunity to first have the discussions in the safety of their homes.
Example 1: Proactively introduce challenges. While some challenges require too much background for the youngest kids to understand, the majority can be framed in an age-appropriate way. As one example, skeptics often suggest that there is no more evidence for God than there is for a Flying Spaghetti Monster. A parent can share that with their child and ask, “If there were a Flying Spaghetti Monster, what evidence would you expect to see in our world?” (Stray noodles?) Then ask, “What evidence would you expect to see if God exists?” Help them think through the comparison and determine if the skeptic’s challenge is a good one.
Example 2: Play logic games. We cannot prepare kids for every specific challenge they will encounter, but we can teach them from an early age to think critically and apply that thinking to faith challenges of any kind. One way to do this is by playing logic games. Make statements like the following and ask kids to explain if they are good or bad logic: “Carrie says three plus three equals six. Jimmy says three plus three equals five. That means there’s no right answer.” This, of course, is bad logic; just because people disagree on the answer doesn’t mean an objectively right answer doesn’t exist (note the parallel to faith discussions). Offer logic challenges regularly and kids will soon point out examples of bad logic they encounter on their own.
Example 3: Plan “questions nights.” When kids are growing up in a world in which they continually hear challenges to faith, their own questions are bound to arise. However, they will not necessarily choose to bring their questions to adults. An easy way to draw those questions out proactively is by facilitating regularly scheduled “questions nights” where kids are invited to ask any questions they have about God, Jesus, or the Bible. This creates an ongoing family forum where kids learn that asking questions is good and that their home is a safe place to do so.
Kids obviously can’t learn everything they need to know about apologetics in kindergarten. With the help of intentional adults, however, they can start developing the foundation of a confident faith that will last a lifetime.
Natasha Crain is a national speaker and author of two apologetics books for parents: Talking with Your Kids about God (Baker, 2017) and Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side (Harvest House, 2016).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith