Jesus died because you didn’t clean your room (and other things we tell our kids)

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This kid obviously cleaned her room for Jesus.

Last week was VBS at my church. It was the first time my daughter was old enough to participate. I filled in as a backup crew leader. Think small group leader, but with more herding kids from one activity to the next. Also, pretending to know the motions to the songs, which occasionally meant spinning in circles while everyone else was jumping up and down.

The curriculum we were using* was all about God’s unconditional love. Which is a great theme to highlight, especially when you’ve only got a couple hours a night to engage kids, many of whom have no other connection to the church. If I could choose just one message to share with kids, this would be it. (Even if I can’t get the hand motions right.)

One night, we were supposed to talk about the fact that God loves us even when we do wrong. The curriculum did a nice job walking through the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. It also had a few suggestions for how to explain why Jesus died. One of them was to share some examples of sin that kids can relate to.

Like not cleaning your room.

Why did Jesus die? Answer: because your room is a mess and you didn’t tidy it up like you were supposed to.

I get that we have to keep things simple for kids. But is this really the best way to explain Jesus’ death? Is there no other way we can unpack for kids the idea that the world is broken and in need of rescue and repair?

Do we trivialize the gospel when we make it about “sins” like not cleaning your room? Do we sell our kids short by not telling them a more meaningful story?

Later that night, I saw proof that the kids in my group were itching for a better story, that they didn’t need a trivialized, oversimplified concept of sin in order for the gospel to make sense.

The makers of the curriculum wanted to address real issues that kids face, and they wisely included bullying as one of the featured topics. During the discussion time that evening, the change in my group was palpable. Suddenly, these kids—who wouldn’t take anything seriously all week, who spent the whole time cracking jokes and posturing for each other—got very serious. They listened. Each had a story to tell. Multiple stories, actually. You could see the hurt in their eyes. Each of them had been bullied at some point. Heck, they even wanted to know if I had been bullied as a kid. (Asking me a serious question—that was a first.)

Our kids understand the world is not how it should be. They don’t need us to soft-pedal it for them. They don’t need to be fed trivial examples of sin in order to understand Jesus’ death.

We don’t need to treat our kids as if they’re porcelain china, as if they’ll shatter into a million pieces if we’re honest about the way the world really is. Just ask them if they’ve ever had a run-in with a bully, and you’ll realize: they know what sin is.

They deserve a gospel that makes sense in the real world. And that, I think, is the main shortcoming of a primarily legal or transactional approach to the gospel. It reduces sin to a theological abstraction, one in which not cleaning your room is every bit as serious as murder or rape or bullying. It says naively that “all sin is sin,” when all sins are not, in fact, created equal. (For more on the problems of equalizing sin, see this post by R.L. Stollar.)

This, by the way, is one reason why I’m increasingly drawn to the Christus Victor view of the atonement, why I believe it makes the most sense of what Jesus did on the cross (knowing that the significance of Jesus’ death cannot be reduced to a single theory of atonement), and why I think it opens the door to sharing a better gospel story.

Christus Victor says we are captives of a broken world. Yes, some of that darkness resides in us. We are both victims and culprits. We are trapped in a cycle of sin and death, but we also contribute in ways both small and large. Christus Victor says that Jesus’ sacrifice was God’s victory over sin and death, as opposed to appeasement for the trivial “sins” of a 4-year-old who doesn’t clean her room.

Our kids deserve a better story.

(Although, if it will get my almost-4-year-old to clean her room…)

Related post: The gospel sketched for kids

*In case you’re wondering, the VBS curriculum we used was Weird Animals by Group Publishing. There are many, many good things about this curriculum: the way they tied in stories of impoverished kids in other parts of the world (and respected the dignity of those kids)… the way they highlighted God’s unconditional love… the fact that they created a music soundtrack that won’t drive parents batty. (No, really. My daughter is STILL singing the songs.) But when it comes to telling the redemptive story of the Bible, I think we can do better. 

Image by Paul Walsh on Flickr

5 thoughts on “Jesus died because you didn’t clean your room (and other things we tell our kids)

  1. I whole heartedly agree – our kids deserve a better story.

    The tension that lay in kids and youth ministry is how to articulate a holistic Gospel message and how to do so in a manner that is age-appropriate using language that they are able to receive and not simply ‘parrot’ back.

    Those who develop the curriculum gravitate towards one atonement theory because it is easier to contextualize for a younger participant and fits better into a one time/short term event like VBS. It’s hard work to think of the larger arch of the narrative to invite them into – that yes, is even able to hold some of the moralist tendencies – that extends beyond a week of content.

    Fault does not lay in any one place and neither does the hard work of changing these approaches – from publishers to pastors, parents to participants we all have a part to play.

  2. Good points…especially about the challenge of doing something holistic over the course of a short-term event like VBS. It’s hard work. And I think part of the challenge churches face is that even if they’re inclined toward a more holistic gospel (as I like to think our church is), there just isn’t much out there that (a) tries to paint a bigger picture for kids and (b) is as compelling as everything else out there. Of course, I’m hoping to make a small dent in that when my book comes out next year. :)

    For what it’s worth, my other thought last week was, “Dang. VBS curriculum has come a LONG way since I was a kid.”

  3. Ben, thanks for this. I have been working on these thoughts for awhile with my children and we’ve settled on two things. Firstly, we couch all conversations about “making bad decisions” in the context of the New Creation. Our daughter knows that the world we are headed towards is a place where God has made a huge house and we all get to be there and there are lots of fun things to do and we don’t get ouches or needles, or get sick, etc. When we talk about it, she gets so excited and we come up with all kinds of good things that will probably be there.

    Secondly, we talk about the quality of a decision rather than the person (as much as possible) to help create an inner conversation for them as they develop. The other day, my oldest and I were talking about a bad decision she made and she said something remarkable, “Papa, I wish I didn’t make bad decisions anymore. I wish I could stop”. I told her that I felt the same way and that even parents wish they could stop making bad decisions. This led nicely into a conversation about how the New House God is making for us will be a place that we won’t ever make bad decisions again. We won’t have to worry about it at all, but until then we have to wait.

    I was blown away that she realized that it was hard to not make bad decisions and her desire was to stop. Without the previous conversations about the goodness of the New Creation, I wouldn’t have had much context to assure her that one day we will stop making bad decisions.

    Lastly, every night, I tell her that because she was created by God, she is good and very good. One of the VBS songs is driving me crazy so I skip it on the CD because it says, “You are good and there is nothing good in me” – bullshit. I wish the songwriter would have read their Bible. (I might blog this cause I had some reflections after VBS too).

  4. I’m grateful you are pointing out how kids really are able to handle the heavy lifting, that we don’t need to dumb things down in order to reach their level of development and understanding. Well done, Ben.

  5. I think we do sell kids terribly short. They are capable of understanding theological concepts that we think are over their heads. I once saw a VBS (not a packaged one but one a church individually created) that was called something like “the Big words” and they took them through concepts like redemption, atonement, justification, etc. The report I read on the VBS said it was successful and enjoyed by the kids.

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