Dr. Arnold interviews Jared Kennedy about sharing the gospel with children.
Topics of conversation include:
- A story from First Clement about a wayward teenager
- Rhythms and habits to consider when discipling children
- Encouragement for those working in children’s ministry
- Encouragement for parents
- Resources for family discipleship
Jared Kennedy is an editor at The Gospel Coalition and an adjunct instructor at Boyce College. He serves on the Theological Advisory Council for Harbor Network, and is the author of several books, including The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible (New Growth Press, 2017), and Keeping Your Children’s Ministry on Mission: Practical Strategies for Discipling the Next Generation (The Gospel Coalition, 2022).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:17):
I like to say that I was raised in a Christian home—but barely. My parents got saved when my dad was 35, my mom was 29, and they were pregnant with me. So I was actually baptized in the womb when my mom got baptized. And so I was raised in the church. And they were all great churches. I went to Sunday school every week. I memorized Scripture, went to Christian summer camp at Camp Barakel in Michigan, and learned what it is to seek the Lord and to love him with all my heart. I’m so thankful for my parents and for faithful teachers along the way, who knew how important it was to impart the faith to children. After all, it’s the heart of Jesus.
Brian Arnold (00:50):
In Matthew 19, we read this beautiful story about Jesus interacting with children. It reads, “Then children were brought to him, that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them and went away.” Jesus took children seriously in the kingdom, and so should we. Every week, millions of children go to church. And they’re the future of the church—if we treat that ministry seriously, and pour into them, and if parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters engage with children. Well, here to help us think about children’s ministry, both in the church and at home, is Jared Kennedy. Jared serves full-time as an editor for The Gospel Coalition, as an adjunct instructor at Boyce College, and on the theological advisory council for Harbor Network. He’s the author of a number of books and resources for children and adults, including The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible, and Keeping Your Children’s Ministry on Mission. Jared, welcome to the podcast.
Jared Kennedy (01:54):
It’s so good to be with you, Brian. Thanks for having me.
Brian Arnold (01:57):
So we always ask our guests one big question, today that is—how do we impart the gospel to our children? So you have your new book on children’s ministry in particular, and you begin it with a story. And the story comes from one of my neck of the woods areas of study—First Clement, which was written right after the New Testament. So tell us that story, and why that story impacted you so much.
Jared Kennedy (02:21):
Well Brian, I first encountered that story…I taught eighth grade Christian Studies at a classical school here in Louisville while I was studying in seminary. And one of the things we did was we read Eusebius in the Penguin Classic Series, and a little book called The Early Christian Writings that had different letters from early first century Christians, together with the eighth graders. And I encountered this story from Clement because Eusebius tells it in his Ecclesiastical History. And it’s such a beautiful story. It’s a story about one of the pastors, an elder—Clement calls him a Bishop—in the Ephesian church, who finds a young man and sees that he’s fit for ministry. And the apostle John is there with him, identifies this young man, and encourages him to study under the tutelage of this pastor.
Jared Kennedy (03:25):
The pastor baptizes him and disciples him, and then—as so often happens in church life—the kid enters the teenage years, gets involved in the wrong crowd, and he basically joined a street gang, joined a group of bandits that were hiding out in the mountains near the church. And so John comes back a few years later and checks in with his pastor, checks in with this young man, and discovers that the young man is missing. He’s gone to the hills. He asks the pastor how the young man is doing, and he says—he’s dead. He’s dead to God. And John, when he hears that, when he hears the young man has left the faith, the first thing he does—you know, 80-year-old apostle, who’d been imprisoned on the isle of Patmos—mounts his horse, rides up into the mountains to chase this young man down.
Jared Kennedy (04:24):
And he gets up into…is met by the gang’s sentries, says, “take me to your leader,” recognizing the leadership gifts in this young man, and then pleads with him to come back to Christ. And when I read that with a group of eighth graders—maybe it was because I was working with teenage kids at the time—it just convicted my heart, and reminded me of the parable of the lost sheep that Jesus said when—you know, it’s in Matthew chapter 18, I have it in my Bible here—it says, “See that you don’t despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think if a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them wonders away—will he not leave the 99 on the hills and go look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly, I tell you, he’s happier about that one sheep than about the 99 that did not wander off.” And John’s spirit in that story just reminded me of that. That we’re going to have kids that are raised in the church—some that stay with the faith, and some that struggle with doubts and begin to wander from the faith. But the commitment that God has given to his church community is to chase after lost sheep. And I think that begins with the next generation.
Brian Arnold (05:54):
And that is such an encouraging word. I was encouraged when I read it in your book. Just for all those who might even be listening, who sense that—of a lot of kids leaving the faith today. Some of them will come back. And there’s no guarantee. There’s no promise that they all will. But the reality is this is not a new phenomenon, it’s been happening from the very beginning. And not only is the Lord in pursuit, but also we should be in pursuit as well, to demonstrate the love of Christ to them. Well, one of the things—
Jared Kennedy (06:24):
One of my mentors said to me, Brian, that God himself has prodigal children—who are we to expect that some of us won’t as well? And so sometimes I think we hear the statistics and we do feel surprised. But sometimes folks wrestle with doubt and they wander from the faith, and it’s our responsibility—those of us who have strong faith in Christ—to chase after those kids, again and again.
Brian Arnold (06:51):
So it, although starts with raising up a child and nurturing them in the fear and admonition of the Lord, what is unique about discipling a child, that might be different than even discipling an adult?
Jared Kennedy (07:09):
Well, for one thing, kids just learn really differently from adults. And so I think that’s just their vocabulary level typically is different, they’re trying to figure things out, bit by bit. And so I…you know, you walk into an adult Sunday school class and you’re going to order your Sunday school lesson based on an outline, you know, so here’s point A Paul wrote to the Romans, here’s point B. Here’s what chapter one says, that kind of thing, and go through it, point by point. If you walk into a children’s ministry classroom, or you walk into a time of family worship in your home, and you try to walk through an outline for 45 minutes, that is just absolutely not going to work. So most of the time with kids, the way that we teach them is organized more by habit and routine. It’s ordered by sort of the space of the environments where we’re teaching them, where we’re playing with them.
Jared Kennedy (08:17):
And often, we’re moving from one sort of rhythm to another. So in a children’s ministry classroom, you’re going to start out with a game, typically, or a craft. And then you’re going to move toward the story rug and have everyone sit in a circle, and read the Bible story together. And then you’re going to sit down at the tables for snack, and have your goldfish and your juice, which is my favorite part of children’s ministry. And then have, you know, talk through some questions and answers about the story. And then you’re going to go back and probably play another game or craft to reinforce that through the end. But in the rhythm of moving from thing to thing, deep truths about the faith are taught. But they’re taught with a vocabulary, in a way that kids can understand them. And I think the same’s true in our homes. But by developing routines of, you know, singing together in the minivan as you ride down the road, to a Christian music album, or developing the routine of praying together by a bedside, or reading a story together at night, or having a conversation over family dinner—it’s in that habit and that routine of repeating that again and again that the faith is passed on to the next generation.
Brian Arnold (09:39):
It’s just constant. Constant sowing, sowing, sowing. And just praying, right? That the Lord causes the growth in it. On that, how kids learn differently, I’ve got to tell the story. I was pretty recently leading a first grade class at school, or I’m sorry, at church. And, you know, for me it was more, can you guys just sit still? Right? Like, let’s get on the carpet, stop wiping boogers on the kid next to you, right? I need you guys to focus on this video for just a second, and I’m going to try to get one big idea through. Well, there were two simultaneous first grade classes happening, and I was teaching this one with my wife and just trying to manage chaos. And I had to go to the other room—no joke—I walk in, all the kids are completely quiet. They’re not sitting on the floor.
Brian Arnold (10:24):
They’re sitting in chairs, kind of in a semicircle. And the teacher says to them, “Now children, explain to me again the difference between justification and sanctification.” And I thought—here I am, a seminary president, and I am not even anywhere near that discussion with these kids. But I think your point is well made. I mean, that actually probably isn’t the most helpful way to help inculcate the faith to kids, right? They’re going to be more story-oriented and one big idea. And seeing these truths of God displayed in the world. I remember Bruce Ware one time telling us a story about, you know, how God holds the oceans in his hand. And he would go to the ocean with his kids and grab up a handful of water and say—did you guys see the ocean go down? And they’re like—well, no. He said—well, watch again, watch the level of the ocean go down. He does it again. And of course, nothing happens in the ocean. He says—but think about God. God’s hands can hold the ocean. And just, you know, that truth struck me. And I imagine to this day, still, his kids as well. So it’s an important thing, I think, that you’re aiming at to hit the heart of the child in the way that God created children.
Jared Kennedy (11:35):
Yeah. That’s, that’s awesome. Brian, I think too, I think we learn how to, you know, wrangle those things over time. And you’re going to have classrooms that…they just have a difficult week, where they’re not dialed in, you know? And you’re going to have family worship times like that too, at home, where kids are just not dialed in. They’re fighting with each other. No one’s listening. And so, you know, sort of—we’re going to put your arms around them, and pray, and finish as fast as you can, because you recognize the habit in this season is maybe more important than the truth that you’re saying. We will have another conversation that’s coming up in the future. And so, there are certainly those times when it seems out of control, but oftentimes it’s what…sometimes it’s the big, beautiful truths, like what Dr. Ware said, that stick with kids for a long time. I think sometimes it’s even just our character and our demeanor, and how we handle things when it’s getting a little wild. That is something that sticks with kids for years and years.
Jared Kennedy (12:49):
And so I…there was an older lady in the church when I was growing up, her name was Ms. Edwina. And she led our Bible drill group. And I do remember the verses we learned in Bible drill, but I remember her just being so intentional, and being there every week, quizzing us over and over and over about those verses. And that faithful presence is something that lasted a long time with the next generation as well.
Brian Arnold (13:17):
Well, you’ve done a good job of convicting my heart today, already, with that. This challenging word—it’s caught, not taught, a lot of times, right? Of they’re going to see—is the faith really taking hold in my dad or my mom’s life in a way that represents the truthfulness of what they’re proclaiming? So you’ve been in children’s ministry a lot. I do want to focus, even probably more significantly on homes, but maybe say a word of what you see in the churches. That if you said, if I could speak to all children’s ministers, and just for two minutes encourage them in what they’re doing, how would you do that?
Jared Kennedy (13:54):
Yeah. Well, I think I’d probably open my Bible to Matthew 18, and I’d remind them of what Jesus said. And, you know, he had a group of young men who were training to be pastors, a group of young men who were basically trainee church planters. And they were fighting over who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And what he said was, “Unless you become like a child, you’ll never enter into the kingdom of heaven.” And so his first instruction to them was to humble yourself, and be humble like a child. And then immediately, he said, “And when you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me.” And so one of the pathways to growing in humility, for all of us, I think, is being with kids and learning how to welcome them with open arms.
Jared Kennedy (14:50):
And so if you’re doing that work, working with children or students in the youth ministry in your local church, Jesus’ promise is that this is a way of welcoming him into the church community as well, that serve them as you would serve the Savior. And then work hard to protect them, to celebrate them, and know that they are precious in his sight. It’s amazing to me that the disciples completely forgot this within the span of a chapter. So it’s the very next chapter in Matthew 19, when they are turning moms and dads and kids away and telling them not to come to Jesus. But Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And so that would be my deep encouragement to you in the local church—is just remember that this is a priority of Jesus. And so you should be encouraged that you are following in his footsteps in welcoming kids.
Brian Arnold (15:53):
That’s a great word. You know, one of the mistakes, or misunderstandings, that seems to be happening a lot today is parents expecting in one hour at church that their kid is going to be discipled in the way they want to see them discipled. When in reality, parents are with children lots more than that. So now, maybe, what encouragement would you give to parents who are listening? They’re not involved in children’s ministry, but they maybe have gotten in the habit of just thinking, “You’re going to get, you know, The Gospel Coalition’s material on Sunday morning and we trust it, that’s great. Go and do that.” But then maybe not, you know, doing in-home devotions, or encouraging their children in the faith. So how do you talk to parents, as a guy who’s in children’s ministry, saying—look, we can’t do all of this ourselves, you need to do it as well?
Jared Kennedy (16:47):
Yeah, I think one of the things that was super convicting to me was when I started thinking about…well, in Psalm 78, the psalmist, Asaph, says, “He established a testimony in Jacob, and the law in Israel, and he commanded the fathers to teach their children so that the next generation would know these things.” Well Asaph is—he’s writing a Psalm, but it’s kind of a commentary on what had already been commanded to the Israelites back in Deuteronomy six. And in the law, God gives parents the responsibilities to pass the faith down to the next generation. And he does it in a number of different ways. You know, he tells them—do this throughout your whole day. So when you get up in the morning, when you sit down to eat, when you go to bed at night, when you walk along the road. In each of those places throughout your day, in all kinds of teachable moments, you should be teaching your kids.
Jared Kennedy (17:49):
But then he gives them a weekly Sabbath. And the kids are involved in the Sabbath experience of the family resting together, and remembering the worship of the Lord, and worshiping together with the community. And you see this every time there’s a festival given to the Israelites as well, the kids always have a part to play. And so you think of the Passover festival and…or you think of Joshua setting up the 12 stones before they entered the land. The first thing he says is—when your kids ask about this, be ready to tell them this is the Passover that we celebrate because God passed over the Egyptians and delivered us out of slavery, or these 12 stones represent the 12 tribes of Israel, as we crossed over on dry land into the new promised land. That in each of those situations, God had the kids in mind.
Jared Kennedy (18:49):
And I’ve thought about a lot…I think, am I as intentional with my family as God asked the Israelites to be? Am I thinking about—what are the teachable moments, day by day? Am I planning weekly rhythms on the Lord’s day? Or as we sit down at the table together, where we’re rehearsing the Word together? Am I thinking about the seasons of the year? What are we thinking about as a family as we prepare for Easter, or as we prepare for Christmas? And for me, that preparing for Christmas was the thing that really kind of convicted my soul and kind of got me started on a family discipleship journey. One of my mentors gave us this little book that had Christmas ornaments for stories throughout the Bible for 25 days leading up to Christmas, and we bought a little discount store Christmas tree that was two feet tall and read those stories to our kids and then hung the ornament up.
Jared Kennedy (19:55):
And that just became a family tradition for us over the years. And it’s something that we still do after many years. And I think that instruction of being intentional with your moments, with your weeks, and also with the seasons of the year, and building those habits into your life so that this is a part of what you’re teaching, year after year after year, is the way that is the way the faith is passed down. It’s the way the faith in the Old Testament was passed down. And I think that’s a big part of the way that we’ll pass it down as well.
Brian Arnold (20:32):
Well, Jared, I love that. The intentionality with habits and routines in life. But what would you say even to somebody who might be listening, I mean, there might be a single mom out there who is working multiple jobs just to keep her family afloat and moving forward, who says—I would love to do all those things, but just to even get home and get my kids fed and showered and homework done and into bed. So how would you maybe encourage somebody in that situation in life? Because this is still important, right? We would say it doesn’t mean—oh, well you’re busy, so you don’t need to do those things, but something that could be a word of encouragement to someone like that?
Jared Kennedy (21:12):
Yeah. I would say—do one thing. And I would also, I think maybe even before that, I would say—you’re not alone. That to be a parent is to suffer. Every parent experiences great difficulty. And then I know a number of parents that experience more difficulty than others, but Christ is present with you in that. And then I’d just encourage you to pick one thing. We don’t begin a…none of us can start 30 habits at once. So pick one, and maybe that’s just putting on a music CD in the car as you drive down the road—or no one listens to CDs anymore, so putting on—I’m showing my age—but put on an album in the car as you drive down the road, or just kneel beside your child’s bed and pray with them at night. But those…pick that one habit, and then over time, as the Lord prompts you, maybe add to those. But believe that the Lord can use that one thing, that one mustard seed of faith, to bring a great harvest in the future.
Brian Arnold (22:25):
Well, I think that’s the biggest thing I’ll take away from today. Grab my 8-track of Carmen, pop it in, and let the kids listen. No, I think that is really helpful to narrow down to kind of that one habit of life, that then begins to build into other habits as well. And I think parents will be encouraged as they see it beginning to take root in their child’s heart, to invest more there. So maybe in the last minute here, what are some other resources, in addition to your book, that you give out to parents to help them think through discipling their children?
Jared Kennedy (23:00):
Yeah, there’s a lot of great resources. Julie Lowe’s book, called Childproof is one of the best books on discipline your kids. Julie’s a counselor with CCEF. That is just a treasure, that book. Julie has number of kids, some of whom have been adopted, some of whom have special needs. My wife and I have a special needs daughter—that book’s just been a great encouragement to us. Another one is called Habits of the Household by Justin Whitmel Earley. It’s a newer book, but it’s chock-full of really great ideas to start little habits with your family. And so those are two books that I would encourage, that I think are just great resources.
Brian Arnold (23:48):
And let me just throw two more on top of that. I loved Sally Lloyd Jones’ Jesus Storybook Bible when my kids were younger, and right now we’re doing the New City Catechism together. So we didn’t get a chance to talk about it today, but catechizing children has been a really good way for us to get some of those truths into their heart. So, Jared, you know, you said a lot of really helpful things today. And one of the things I think we need to remember is—it’s not just dropping your kids off for one hour a week, thinking that they’re gonna be discipled, but it’s really going to take parents, grandparents, siblings, single folks in life to start determining what kind of parent they want to be and what kind of children they want to raise, if we’re going to raise up the next generation to love the Lord. So thank you for your time and the conversation today.
Jared Kennedy (24:30):
Thanks so much for having me, Brian. I really appreciate being here.
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