By Dan Scott
You might think it would be easy to transition kids from talking about Bible stories to talking about faith as they enter their preteen years (9-12). But as they grow and develop, abstract thinking makes the topics trickier and conversations stickier. Here are 5 developmentally appropriate realities to keep in mind when talking about faith to preteens:
1. Fewer kids have a background in Scripture.
How we talk about the Bible needs to be both foundational and exploratory. If kids don’t have a reason to believe that this book matters, simply sharing stories might not be enough. You need lay a foundation of why the content of the Bible matters to people both inside and outside the faith. How you communicate should be exploratory to capture the imaginations of kids who are ready to grow in their understanding of Scripture.
Often we want kids during the preteen years to go deeper, but we need to understand that deeper learning can happen regardless of how much you know. Rather, deeper learning is the ability to take an idea from one setting and use it successfully in a different setting. With that in mind, even kids who are new to faith can start understanding how what they’re learning on Sunday translates to the rest of their week.
2. Faith is abstract, and Preteens are primarily concrete thinkers.
Preteens are caught in between concrete and abstract thinking. Some of them are great at it, while others will struggle to understand abstract ideas about faith. As they move from concrete to abstract, they will start having lots of questions about faith. The answers we give them and the words we use can either add clarity or cause confusion.
Remember it’s not about your answer but their process of discovering an answer for themselves. Know your audience and choose your words with them in mind. Don’t go into more detail than you need to answer a question. And, “I don’t know” can be the best answer because it prompts exploration and self-discovery.
Most preteens still need a concrete experience in order to understand abstract ideas. Don’t default to discussion questions because it’s easy. Conversations about abstract ideas can be difficult for kids unless the question is based on a concrete experience.
3. Faith is connected to personal identity.
As this generation struggles to find themselves, it’s important to help preteens see themselves as God sees them: deeply loved and worth saving. Whenever we talk about sin and salvation, we tend to focus on how bad we are, all the wrong we do, or how much we mess up. For kids who are hyper-focused on what people think of them, if we put too much focus on the bad, that may become the default of how they view themselves.
We should always start any discussion on sin and salvation with the reminder that the Bible starts in Genesis 1 and not Genesis 3. Remind kids that they are created in God’s image for a unique purpose. And while they are no longer perfect, God loves them enough to do whatever it takes to make relationship with Him a reality.
For the preteens still in the concrete thinking stage, be careful with the words you use to help kids understand sin. Don’t equate sin with mistakes. Kids might unnecessarily think that getting a problem wrong on a math worksheet or losing a game is a sin. Those are most often mistakes that are simply part of the learning process.
4. The Preteen Phase is one of many faith environments at your church.
Each family ministry environment at your church needs to understand where their department fits into the end in mind you have for an emerging adult leaving your church when they graduate. You should be having on-going conversations as ministry departments where you discuss how you will talk with students about faith, including the God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Bible, sin, salvation, spiritual gifts, etc. at every age and stage of a child’s journey through your programming.
When we create the right environments, kids will be drawn to return week after week for the long haul. Let each phase do what it can do best, and help kids build towards your goal for them as an adult.
5. Faith should be championed in the home.
Even though kids need multiple adults in their life who champion their faith journey, parents are still the primary influence in a child’s life. Preteen parents are feeling an urgency as they know the inevitable “pulling away” will start to happen in the near future.
Knowing they want to pass along as much information as possible while they still have time, make connecting with parents simple. Find out how/where your parents like to receive their information and use that avenue. Don’t make them have to search for information. Equip parents with the tools they need to pass on faith and prompt them to have the important conversations they’ll need to have during the preteen years.
Dan Scott is an elementary curriculum director and author — and father of preteens— who has been working with kids for over 20 years as a teacher, pastor, and communicator. He is passionate about engaging the hard-to-reach preteen age group. This passion led him to write the new book, Caught in Between: Engage Your Preteens Before They Check Out (http://caughtinbetweenbook.com), which offers the latest research findings on preteens, sums up conversations every parent and ministry leader is having about their preteens, and walks readers through a comprehensive plan to engage preteens in ways that will ensure they have what they need as they navigate the shift from childhood to adolescence.