Everywhere we turn, it seems that Scripture is being taken out of context and used to harm people and communities. As children move from biblical storytelling into a fuller and more complex understanding of Scripture, context—both biblical and historical—becomes increasingly important. While many children begin to learn Bible stories as short stories in almost a fable-like style of storytelling, there is a lot more context and depth that comes as children grow in their thinking and reasoning skills.
One of the things that can happen early on in faith formation is teaching kids “memory verses,” which are specific verses that kids can learn by heart and repeat in the future if they need reassurance or comfort. Some comforting memory verses are 1 Corinthians 13:13, John 3:16, 1 John 4:7, and Psalm 91:1. Talking to kids about those verses (or others if there are others they have learned by heart) and what they mean to the kids or why they think they’re important helps remind the kids of the verses themselves and to start to think a bit more deeply about them. Even kids who haven’t memorized Scripture could have fun in the conversation by asking the grownups verses they know.
From that the conversation can shift into how when verses say “you,” we don’t know if it means one person or a whole community, or why a verse says a particular thing about God and so sometimes we need to look at more than just one verse. Explaining that each verse is part of a larger story or part of a message that someone is trying to share helps kids begin to think about the texts in a context. Using examples like John 3:16 and then talking about John 3:17 as well helps give a fuller understanding of the verse. After that, reading the whole story of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus can help kids understand the even larger context. For those who have been talking about metaphors with kids, as mentioned in my last blog post, the story of Nicodemus is a great opportunity to remind kids of the ways Jesus and others used metaphors and sometimes it was confusing.
Part of teaching kids about the literary context (where a verse is within a story or message) also opens the door to talking to kids about what to do if they hear someone say the Bible says something that confuses or scares them. When that happens, they can get a grownup they trust to help them look at the verses before or after or the whole story that the verse comes from to try to understand it better. This helps protect kids if someone is trying to use the Bible as a weapon against them or someone they care about, and it helps them develop a deeper understanding of Scripture as a whole.