Often it’s thought that to be faithful to Scripture and an authentic follower of Jesus you have to believe certain things about the creation of the world and human origins. As children’s ministry leaders who want the children we teach to have a clear understanding of what the Bible teaches, this is an important issue. So, what exactly do we teach children in this area? I’ve sat and listened to presentations about the origins of our planet and humanity to non-church children that have spelled out that the universe is approximately 6,000 years old and the earth was created in six 24-hour periods. Is this the correct approach?
To teach children this you must imply that science is inaccurate and cannot be trusted. However, that is not how we live our lives. We take medicine, we drive cars, we wear synthetic fabrics, we eat processed foods, we build with new materials and so on. Our lives are shaped by science all the time in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. As children grow older, many can see the gap between the idea that science cannot be trusted about the origins of the world and the lives we live, which are totally dependent on science. Not only are non-church young people deciding Christianity isn’t for them because of this but children raised in Christian families are also abandoning the faith because what they see and hear don’t stack up.
As children’s ministry leaders we need to be very careful that, in teaching the faith, we make the main issues the main issues and and not make belief and faith in Jesus dependent on secondary ideas. While in some evangelical circles belief in a young earth and a literal 24 hour reading of the creation narrative is prevalent, this position is not the historic position of Christian thinkers over our 2000 year history. In fact, this is a reasonably recent development. For example, Augustine, writing in the fourth century, wrote that the the six-day structure of creation in the book of Genesis represented a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way. It had a spiritual rather than physical meaning, which he believed is no less literal.
Creationism, as we know, with its argument for six 24-hour days of creation, was popularlised in part by one of the Seventh Day Adventist founders, Ellen White. In the late 19th century she argued for a literal, scientific reading of the Genesis narrative. This interpretation saw Genesis chapter one, which in Hebrew is structured as a poem, being read in the most literal way possible. In the United States, in particular, this theory gained popularity as a response to the perceived threat of evolution, which some Christians increasingly associated with atheism.
However, a critical problem with creationism was that it tried to make the Bible read like a science textbook. It looked to a beautiful poem in Genesis to provide an account of creation that matched the growing rational-scientific worldview prevalent at the turn of the 20th century.
However, the Bible is not an encyclopedia. It does not provide the answer for every scientific question that we and future generations might dream up. What the Bible does do is tell us the story of a loving creator God who cares deeply for all his creation and who wants to have relationship with humanity.
We are not doing future generations a service when we only try and teach them creationism. We might think we are being biblically faithful to teach children to read Genesis literally, however, the only thing we are being faithful to is a recent worldview that says everything can and should be read through a scientific lens.
Never did Jesus ask us to believe a specific interpretation of Genesis, he simply asks us to follow him. So when we are next faced with the question of how do we teach children about the origins and age of the universe, first ask: “Does my teaching keep the main thing the main thing, or am I simply asking children to put their faith in a recent historical interpretation of Genesis?”
Teach your children that they can be faithful followers of Christ while believing different understandings about the origins of the world. Expose them to people who have different interpretations, let them see that loving God is not the same as believing a certain view of Genesis. Find out more yourself. Read books, start a theology course, ask Christian scientists what they believe and why, ask theologians such as the lecturers at Carey Baptist College about their beliefs. Come to understand the diversity of opinions and celebrate that, in Christ, we are all one.
Most importantly, think of the children you teach who will grow up one day to ask the hard questions themselves. Will your teaching have inspired them to seek more, or will it have convinced them instead that Christianity is irrelevant and untrue?
• Carolyn Robertson, Children’s Ministry Executive Team member