What does discipleship look like for kids? What do they need? How do they learn? Three priorities should affect the way children’s ministry leaders answer these questions. Let’s take a look at these three priorities and see how Paul Reynolds’s new Bible guide for families, 66 Books One Story: A Guide to Every Book in the Bible, addresses each.
The Priority of Parents
The Bible identifies parents—not pastors or Sunday school teachers—as those primarily responsible for teaching kids about God (Deut. 6:7; Ps. 78:1–7). The home is the frontline of children’s ministry. But most parents aren’t professional Christian educators, so embracing this task often accompanies some occupational hazards. Reynolds, assistant pastor at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman, admits as much: “As parents, when we teach our children from the Bible it exposes our lack of knowledge and understanding” (10). A pastor’s responsibility is to come alongside parents and equip them with knowledge of God’s Word so that they can teach it to their kids. 66 Books One Story aids this pastoral task as a Bible handbook for parents and their elementary-age children (ages 7 to 12). Each chapter overviews one book of the Bible and then gives key teaching points and application questions. The goal is “to provide parents with a useful overview of Scripture to use as a base not just for teaching their children but also for their own study” (10).
The Priority of Jesus
The second and most important priority is Jesus’ central place in the Bible’s message. Speaking to the religious leaders of his day, Jesus observed: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). The deepest concern of the gospel-centered movement is that believers can receive biblical teaching but miss Jesus. As Sally Lloyd-Jones writes at the beginning of The Jesus Storybook Bible:
The Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne—everything—to rescue the one he loves. (14–15)
Reynolds agrees. “The Bible,” he writes, “is not primarily a library or collection but one story, the story of how God created the world and has been preparing a people and a creation for himself through the work of his son Jesus Christ” (10). Each chapter in his guidebook includes a “Salvation Thread” section that relates the message of the biblical book in view to the overarching message of Scripture. Reynolds’s gospel connections could be expanded—for example, the Exodus chapter focuses on the Israelites’ freedom from slavery/sin yet leaves out Christ as mediator, Passover lamb, and high priest—but they are age-appropriate and consistently Christ-centered.
The Priority of Kids
The final priority is the need to reach kids where they are. Key for this shift are the words of Paul: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). This verse describes the task of biblically driven contextualization, which is nowhere more important than with kids. Ministers and parents must take time to listen to the next generation—to their language and their culture. They must then do the hard work of translating biblical truth into cultural forms that engage kids in ways they will hear and understand. The task of contextualization requires two things, faithfulness and flexibility, and Reynolds is aware of the need to both engage kids and also remain faithful to the biblical text. I think 66 Books One Story achieves this goal with varying degrees of success.
First, Reynolds recognizes the challenge of using language that is faithful and clear with kids. “The temptation is to remove all words that children will not already be familiar with through school and friends, but this involves reducing or obscuring the meaning of some fundamental biblical concepts” (11). Reynolds solution is “to keep the vocabulary unchallenging in order to smooth the way to understanding” but retain certain key biblical words that he takes time to define in a glossary (12). I think this is the right approach, and Reynolds is successful. His book speaks with clarity.
Second, Reynolds seeks to relate truth to life. I’ve categorized 66 Books One Story as a Bible handbook for families, but it’s more than a reference book. The application questions make realistic connections to a child’s heart: “Can you think of someone who is sad? Or people in the world that don’t have enough money for food? How could you help those people?” (174). These kinds of questions are essential. As Reggie Joiner has said, “It is critical that our children grow up in our ministries [and] homes seeing how specific truths of Scripture apply to their lives and relationships” (Think Orange, 140). In this way, Reynolds’s book approaches excellent devotional volumes like Marty Machowski’s Long Story Short and Old Story New (New Growth, 2010 and 2012).
The book’s biggest weakness is its failure to engage a variety of learning levels and styles in an interesting and whimsical way. When writing for children, we should strive to be creative and engaging. Once I was teaching this idea to a seminary class, and one of the students objected, “But that sounds like Nickelodeon.” Without thinking, I answered, “No, it’s more like PBS Kids.” Sure, there is an entertainment factor—we want our teaching to be creative and engaging—but there is an aim in mind larger than selling a product or a character. Like the interactive exhibits at a children’s museum or the skits on Sesame Street, we have an educational goal in view. As I’ve heard it put, “We want to lead kids to hands-on, real-life, engaging discovery.”
So in spite of this book’s many strengths, I have concerns about how effective 66 Books One Story will be at engaging kids—particularly visual learners. As a reference book for kids, it does not live up to the standard set by its predecessor, What the Bible Is About: Bible Handbook for Kids (Gospel Light, 1986, 2011). The older volume uses Diary of a Wimpy Kid-style line drawings to capture kids’ interest and to communicate content. Whimsical visuals teach book outlines, Bible timelines, archeological discoveries, key vocabulary, and geography. While Jeff Anderson’s illustrations for 66 Books One Story are good, I’m afraid they don’t complement the book’s content and enhance its educational effect. If Christian Focus prints a second edition, they should include visually engaging maps, timelines, and illustrations that highlight background information.
I’m thankful for any children’s ministry resource that seeks to equip parents, point to Jesus, and engage children. Overall, I think that 66 Books One Story does a good job addressing all three priorities. I’m particularly thankful for Paul Reynolds’s passion for teaching biblical literacy and devotional Bible study to kids, and I pray the Lord uses his work to help children engage with God’s precious Word.