A question often heard in children’s ministry circles is: Should children be memorizing verses when they don’t understand the words?
First of all, we know most kids memorize fairly easily. Kids often pick up a new language quicker than their parents and likewise, most kids learn verses more easily than adults.
Guess what? There’s a reason for this. A chemical (NR2B) is more prevalent in young children and enables kids to be proficient in memorization. As we grow older there is less and less of NR2B in a person’s brain. I won’t explain this any further (you can look it up) – because I don’t pretend to be a scientist. I do know, however, that kids learn volumes of information when they are young.
Think about a helpless newborn baby. Within a few weeks, she is smiling. Then she learns to sit up and giggle and crawl and recognize familiar people. By age one, she’s saying a few words or at least recognizing the words. By age two she is having complete conversations. In those first years, kids learn to talk, play with toys, mimic dad and mom … and for many of them, how to play a game on a computer. All of these actions require memorization – whether that’s remembering actual words, actions, or remembering directions to play with the toy or game.
By the time they’re four or five, many can write their names and read simple words. Within a few years, they’re reading chapter books. They can also sing a repertoire of songs, name all their favorite cartoon characters, and tell you super hero stats. Memorization is what they’re doing every day. That’s how they learn.
THE CHILDREN’S MINISTRY QUANDARY
The question is: But why should we make them learn what they don’t understand?
A couple thoughts.
They memorize words they don’t understand all the time. As an early childhood educator, I directed a preschool during the Ninja Turtle popularity. You could not trip those kids up on the names though I’m sure they had no idea that Michaelangelo, Leonardo, and crew were historical people. They had no trouble pronouncing the names even though they were BIG words.
Sometimes we’d heard a child sing a song with inappropriate lyrics that he picked up from an older sibling. He had no idea what he was singing except that the words had shock value and were therefore “funny.”
Back to Scripture. Why don’t they understand the words of a verse? If we’re teaching children a verse that they don’t understand, shouldn’t our first response be to help them understand, rather than giving up? If our child comes home with a failing math grade, we start helping with homework or get a tutor to explain the concept. Yet, when it comes to Scripture, we say “This is too hard. He can’t learn what he can’t understand.”
Guess what? That’s not the child’s problem, that’s our problem. We’re the adult and the one who does know the meaning of the words. Our challenge is to explain it so he learns with comprehension.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
I grew up in a Christian home. Because my dad was a pastor, I went to church … a lot: Sunday school, children’s church, VBS … I was there.
The Child Evangelism missionary for our area also attended our church so a lot of families had Good News Clubs (afternoon Bible clubs). As the preacher’s kid, I was invited to those clubs and it seemed they never learned the same verse on any given week. My parents actually got concerned with the conglomeration of Bible stories and verses I was getting with no connection between them and they made me choose just one club to attend.
But I liked learning the verses because if you learned a verse, you got a prize and I liked prizes.
This is the truth. As an adult, I don’t remember the prizes, but I do remember the verses. Or at least a lot of them. One I remember learning is John 5:24 – Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.
Now, my parents were aware of what I was learning, so I won’t say they didn’t explain the meaning of the words. Maybe they did, but the only thing I remember is I liked the word verily – a fun word for a five-year-old to say. (I was a little upset when we switched translations and “verily” was now “surely.”) I cannot remember ever not knowing that verse. I can say it as quickly today as I did then … and now I do know the meaning. So even though a child might not completely understand the meaning of the verse, he will eventually understand.
WHAT THE LORD SAYS ABOUT IT
But most importantly, what does the Lord say about memorizing?
The Bible has so many different places that talk about meditating on God’s Word, but let’s just consider three of them.
*** Psalm 119:11 – I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
When you store something, you keep it in a safe place, ready to use as you need it. If you’re making cookies, and you use flour that you’ve stored – that means you use the flour that’s in your cupboard – not flour that you need to run to the grocery to purchase at the last minute. Likewise when we store God’s Word in our hearts – it is there ready to use. We don’t need to search to find it.
*** Colossians 3:16 – Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Here Paul is saying that the Word of Christ is to dwell in us. Dwell means to live and has the connotation of being at home, not in a strange place. Again, that would mean that we have the Word of Christ within us, ready to come to mind when we need it.
*** 2 Timothy 3:15 – and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
Timothy learned God’s Word from the time he was young. His mother and grandmother taught him the Old Testament Scripture so well that when Paul arrived with the message of Christ’s death and resurrection, he was ready to grasp it and accept the message of grace. (We know it was Old Testament Scripture because of the timing.)
I obviously feel strongly that kids can be taught Scripture and that they have a surprising capacity for learning big words. Don’t underestimate them. Those good things we learn as children can stick with us for the remainder of our lives. Let’s be diligent in our teaching.
What do you think? What are your pros and cons for teaching the Scripture to young children?
(This blog regularly posts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)