Teaching Children Theological Vocabulary, by Emily Jensen
I clutched the steering wheel as a sixteen-year-old driver who’d narrowly missed an accident, and I wondered, “If God is faithful to forgive my confessed sins, what happens if I die before having time to wipe my account clean? Will I go to hell?”
Those were deep thoughts for a dance team co-captain on her way home from school, but they were my honest questions. Although I vividly remember my confusion, I’m sure my youth group leader, parents, and Christian friends would have been surprised by my misunderstanding. Forgiveness was a common word in our circles—how could I hear it and use it without knowing what it meant?
This taught me something—professing Christians can conceal their misunderstanding of common theological words and still “fit in”. So as tempting as it is to think that my children grasp the theological language I throw their way, they might not. Although it takes a lifetime to refine the nuances of theological vocabulary, specificity and accuracy matters to the very foundation of our children’s faith.
Here are four ways we can cultivate a clearer understanding of theological language in the daily discipleship of children we interact with:
I’ll never forget when one of my favorite education professor’s said, “Chatty moms are great for a baby’s development!” This seemed like good news for a verbal processor like me. Regular exposure teaches vocabulary using repetition and conversational context clues, so children can learn theological fluency as they read biblically-based books, hear adults have gospel conversations, sing rich hymns, listen to the bible read-aloud, hear sermons on Sunday, and eavesdrop on quality audio teachings. Some studies suggest a typically developing child needs to hear a word dozens of times before they can use it, so say bible words to your children (and say them often). Grasping definitions is a long road that requires intentional guidance, but basic familiarity is a first step.
Along with basic familiarity, children can learn theological language by hearing clear, age-appropriate definitions. Different denominations and religions use words like, Jesus, baptism, peace, consecration, and faith, but sometimes they mean completely different—even heretical—things by those words. To give children a solid grounding for orthodox definitions, we can teach basic catechisms. Even if they don’t fully understand what they’re saying, having biblically-rooted, memorized definitions for major theological words and concepts can help them grow in comprehension for years to come. You can also use vocabulary flash cards. Pick a new word each day or each week, and intentionally discuss its meaning. If those things seem too overwhelming, just pause when you’re reading a bible passage and clearly explain what unfamiliar words mean.
What you say to a three-year-old is going to be different from what you say to a thirteen-year-old, but it’s important to ensure your child knows the true, biblical meaning of the words they’re using.
As our children hear theological vocabulary and grow in their understanding of specific definitions, we can connect those concepts to real life. It’s a great thing to hear an adult say, “Be patient!” and know that patience means, “Waiting without complaining,” but it’s also helpful to understand “patience” through actionable practice. When a child wants to go outside, but can’t until the rain stops, we can get down at their level and explain, “Let’s have patience. With God’s help, we can be content and look for another way to enjoy the day he’s given us. Do you want to read a book?” Similarly, a child can apply the concept of forgiveness when they reconcile with a sibling without carrying bitterness into the next activity or they can learn cheerful giving when they willingly dig into their piggy bank to put their coins into the offering plate. When a child lives theological language, they can begin to learn it.
Prayer for Transformation
Several years after my sixteen-year-old self questioned the true meaning of confession and forgiveness, I finally came to a God-induced realization that my record was so long I could never keep a clean account. The knowledge of my spiritual bankruptcy caused me to hope in the only person who could eternally clear my debts and provide undeserved righteousness.
God’s convicting and transforming power is essential to our theological teaching because children can misunderstand (even when we’ve been clear) and children can know the right definitions without believing them. So along with intentional exposure, training, and application, we must pray. We pray that they learn to love the deep truths of the faith, seeing things like forgiveness as desperate personal needs and not just cognitive concepts. Ultimately, our hope isn’t in our ability or sufficiency to teach theological vocabulary, but in God’s ability to help true believers persevere and grow. Let’s teach—but let’s also trust.
This is a guest post by Emily Jensen.
Emily is the co-founder of Risen Motherhood, currently serving as the Content Director and the co-host of the weekly podcast. Emily enjoys being on the women’s ministry team at her local church, speaking to mom’s groups about the beauty of the gospel, and teaching in the church preschool nursery. Emily, her husband, and their five young children reside in central Iowa.