the right way

June 23, 2016


Teach a child the right way (part two), this may sound dumb, but children are born naked, without an instruction manual, a fallen nature and new parents are basically clueless, I wish I had this much to go on.

Before we look forward in the formation of the next generation, let’s first look to the past. If we can lay aside what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery—“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited”  —we will discover long-forgotten insights to help forge a path forward. So for a moment, I want you to lay aside modern educational models and contemporary youth ministry approaches and programs and consider an ancient model.

As our son approached the junior-high years, my wife and I began to rethink our views on educating and discipling our kids. We were dissatisfied with things we were seeing in her life, not only academically, but also spiritually and morally. In that process of reevaluation, we discovered an ancient approach to education called “classical education,” stretching back to the Classical Greeks and Romans and formalized in the Middle Ages. Educator Susan Wise Bauer offers a concise description of this approach:

Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study [Grammar Stage]. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments [Logic Stage]. In the high school years, they learn to express themselves [Rhetoric Stage].

While not an exhaustive definition, it gets us started and highlights the three-stage pattern of classical education called the trivium. In the early years of elementary school, called the Grammar Stage, children’s minds are like sponges. There is a natural wonder at the world around them and a corresponding love of learning. Young children are primarily interested in the what questions. They want to know facts about the world, and they absorb and memorize them with ease.

Nearing the middle-school or junior-high years, a student’s mind grows in its ability to analyze and think abstractly. During this phase, called the Logic Stage, students are asking the why questions. Many adults perceive such questioning to be a direct challenge to their authority, but often it’s merely the outworking of our natural inclination to sort things out for ourselves. At this stage, students want to know if there are good reasons to believe the so-called facts they were given at younger ages and to see if those facts provide a coherent picture of the world.

As students approach high school and enter the Rhetoric Stage, they grow in their ability to communicate. During this stage, students build on the first two stages by taking the what and the why and communicating what they’ve learned through the how-to of writing and speaking. Research, writing papers, giving speeches, debating and the like force students to articulate what they’ve come to believe as true.

The medievals believed this trivium pattern corresponded to the universal human experience of learning. It accurately captures the manner in which young minds are best trained.  3 Thus, we should take this ancient approach to education and breathe into it new life for our modern context. Indeed, the trivium provides us with a three-stage approach to discipling the next generation:

Stage 1: Teach the What—Grammar Stage (primary focus of grades 0–4)

Stage 2: Teach the Why—Logic Stage (primary focus of grades 5–8)

Stage 3: Teach the How-To—Rhetoric Stage (primary focus of grades 9–12)

Outlining a general approach is vital. First, it keeps us from getting lost in the details of training. Without the big picture, we may wander aimlessly, looking for the latest and greatest video series or searching for that one comprehensive curriculum package. Certainly, individual tools are important, but we need to understand the larger strategy within which our tools fit and make sense. Second, it brings to light the requisite context for effective training. Apologetics is the why, but there must be an appropriate foundation of the what in place first for the why to secure it.

So first, we must be convinced of the necessity of apologetics, and second, we must have a larger discipleship framework in place into which we fit apologetics. Now we’re ready to explore the practical how-to’s.

Stage 1: Teach the What

Before we can teach our students how to defend what we believe, they must know what it is we actually believe. They must first engage theology, the study of God. Apologetics is properly understood as a sub-branch of theology; theology is its foundation. When should theological training begin? As soon as our kids can speak.

From the youngest of ages, we need to teach children God’s attributes, Trinitarian doctrine, the deity of Christ, the meaning of the cross, the nature of Scripture, the nature of man, and the nature of the church. Grab any standard systematic theology and its table of contents will give you an overview of theological topics to teach. Of course, we need to communicate theology in an age-appropriate manner, so a child’s first exposure will be basic, but it will also be foundational. Just as learning language during the Grammar Stage of classical education provides the building blocks for all future learning, learning the language of theology builds a foundation for future training in apologetics. Here are three practical steps for this stage.

  1. Reading.

Read, read, read. I cannot emphasize this enough. Start by reading to them. Read children’s Bibles, individual biblical stories, classical stories, and any Christian children’s books you can get your hands on. Read to them at home, at church, and at school. Reading is an indispensable tool in teaching theology. It’s no accident God gave us His Word in written form and not on a DVD. We want our students’ learning to be primarily from words, not images.

  1. Catechism.

A catechism is simply a summary of Christian doctrine. It is generally laid out in question-answer format and is a fantastic tool to build a theological foundation in our kids. My wife and I are currently working our way through a children’s version titled First Catechism  4 with our three-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. We ask them a catechism question—“Who made you?”—and they memorize the answer—“God.” Trust me. You will be astonished by your preschooler’s ability to memorize large portions of information. By having our kids memorize the catechism, we are pouring into them the raw theological material we will build upon in later years. My wife and I also teach the class for two- and three-year-olds at our local church and are taking them through this catechism as well.

  1. Memorization.

Capitalize on your kids’ capabilities by having them memorize significant theological pieces. In addition to the catechism, have them memorize important passages of Scripture and the great creeds of the church. Singing praise songs and hymns is a great way to memorize theological content as well. Here is a list of ten important items to have children memorize:

First Catechism

Apostles Creed

Nicene Creed

Attributes of God

Ten Commandments

Lord’s Prayer

Psalm 23

The Beatitudes

The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-39)

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20)

Sadly, this is where much of our Christian education stops. Whether it’s children, youth, or adults, we just keep teaching the what and never equip our people with the why. (And I’m being wildly optimistic that most people even know this much).

Part three tomorrow

God bless from

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