When it comes to choosing a children’s Bible to use in our SRE classroom or church’s children’s ministry, we are spoilt for choice. Standing in the local Christian bookstore, or searching for children’s Bibles online, there are a myriad of options available to us.
I have no doubt that each and every writer and illustrator of children’s Bibles wishes to be a blessing to the church and see the word of God explained clearly to children. However, when it comes to our own ministry and the children we are responsible for teaching, we do have to be discerning about which one/s we use and the impact that they will have on our students.
To help us in this assessment, here are five questions to ask before using that children’s Bible in your ministry.
Is this God’s inspired, infallible word?
The easy answer to this is, ‘No’. Children’s Bibles, no matter how biblically faithful, are never a true substitute for the word of God, inspired and preserved by his Spirit and handed down to us through history. While we would presumably all acknowledge this in principle, it is important to remember this in our practice.
When we prepare our lessons, we must do so firstly from a good, accurate, English translation. Read through a word-for-word translation like the NRSV or ESV and a thought-for-thought translation like the NIV or HCSB. Doing this will give you a good grasp of what the Bible says in this passage.
Secondly, don’t underestimate what your students can understand. There are very good translations of the Bible which can be understood by children with only a little help from the teacher. Reading together from a NIRV, CEV or GNB can help your students dig into God’s word for themselves.
Is the language biblically accurate?
Once you have prepared using a good English translation, you are now in a position where you can assess the relative merits of the children’s Bible you wish to use.
Every children’s Bible is a creative retelling of Scripture. To do so, the author has both added and subtracted from the original text. The important question is what change have these alterations made to our understanding of the text. Have these changes enhanced the Big Idea that we want the children to understand? Have these changes detracted from the Big Idea that we want the children to understand?
For example, in a number of popular children’s Bibles, the healing of the paralysed man from Mark 2:1-12 doesn’t mention Jesus’ forgiveness of the man’s sin. In doing so, the author highlights the miraculous healing power of Jesus, but misses the primary controversy of the passage: that Jesus can forgive sins and in doing so, claims to be God.
The poetic license taken by the author can enhance our understanding of the passage. But it can equally distort the meaning into something that isn’t there.
Is the language age appropriate?
The main reason that a teacher will use a children’s Bible or retelling of a Bible narrative is because the language is more accessible to young children than that of the English translation they referenced above.
However, we must not assume that simply because it is marketed for children, that the children’s Bible in our hands will be immediately more accessible. We still need to interrogate the language. What words are used? Are they easily understood? Which words will we need to slow down and explain? What concepts are assumed in the retelling that will need to be explained?
Particularly in the SRE classroom, but also in our local church ministry, we cannot assume a high level of biblical literacy. There are many words and concepts that are used in Christianity that are not common in our communities.
What does ‘grace’ mean? Is it someone’s name? Something you say before a meal? Or a word to describe a ballet dancer? Yes, all of the above. But it is unlikely that these are the concepts you are talking about in your SRE classroom when you use the same word. The same goes for ‘sin’, ‘Pharisee’, ‘teachers of the Law’, ‘Nazareth’, ‘paralysed’, and many other words and phrases in our Bibles.
Using a children’s Bible doesn’t get us off the hook of careful preparation and deep thinking about how we use words in our ministry groups. We need to carefully consider their impact in our classrooms, and prepare accordingly.
Are the pictures biblically accurate?
Once we have investigated the words that are used, it is also essential that we investigate the appropriateness of the illustrations that are used. As the old adage states, a picture paints a thousand words, and how a children’s Bible is illustrated can have as deep an impact on the reader/listener as the words inside the pages. This can be a powerful way of helping the children understand the biblical truth. Equally it can be a source of great distraction or reinforce error.
Do the illustrations enhance our understanding of the Bible text? Do they illustrate the main ideas of the passage, or do they draw our attention to less critical aspects? How do the illustrations depict the facial expressions and emotions of the characters in the narrative? Is the poetic license in the illustrations distracting or helpful? What is the difference between a cartoon, a photo of real people, or Lego figurines? Does this change the way we understand the text? These are all important questions to think critically about and there is a great diversity in the children’s Bibles available for our use.
Are the pictures age appropriate?
Lastly, once you have assessed the accuracy and helpfulness of the images in respect to their impact on our students’ understanding of the passage, we then have to ask about the age appropriateness of the images.
A historically and biblically accurate photo depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion may enhance understanding of the passage, but is not appropriate for our Kindergarten SRE classroom. When it comes to children’s Bibles, the Easter scenes are a good test case for whether you should consider using the resource in the classroom or not.
Different depictions of the cross will be appropriate for different ages, classes and circumstances. Is the violence of the cross in the foreground or background? Are details like nails in the hand, or crown of thorns highlighted? How realistic or graphic are the images? Is blood emphasised or implied? What is the impact of the decisions that the illustrator has made?
Teaching God’s word is a wonderful privilege and one that we want to approach with the dignity it deserves. We must never underestimate the impact that reading the Bible will have to the children that we teach. Children’s engagement with learning can be enhanced through visual supports and evocative language, which makes the best children’s Bibles a wonderful tool for our ministry. Combining these threads means that we need to be particularly careful with our choice of children’s Bibles and other retellings of Bible narratives in our SRE classroom and church ministries.
Choosing the right Bible can help a child deeply engage with the message of the gospel. Using the wrong children’s Bible with deficiencies in adaptation of the text or inappropriate illustrations can be detrimental to our goal of helping the children know the message of the Bible for themselves. Let us be discerning, so that through our reading of Scripture—children’s Bible or full text—the children we are teaching can know and love God, be affirmed of what Jesus has done for them in his death and resurrection, and know how to live each day as his disciples.