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EPISODE 83: Jared Kennedy and Discipling Children

Many Christians assume that discipleship begins with adults. But Jared Kennedy has a much bigger (and more Biblical) vision for discipleship that includes and even prioritizes discipling children.



Welcome to Questions That Matter. This is a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I have the great joy and privilege of being your host. My name is Randy Newman. And my conversation partner today is a good friend, Jared Kennedy. Jared is with The Gospel Coalition. He's written a number of books about children's ministry, and we're going to be diving into the question about how do we do children's ministry? What does discipleship of children look like? Jared, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Randy, it’s a joy to be with you today.

So let me tell our listeners a little bit more. You’ve written a book called Keeping Your Children's Ministry on Mission. You've also written a book called The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible. You have a few other publications. You've written a number of articles on The Gospel Coalition. But help our listeners know: How did this come about? How did you get into children's ministry as the calling on your life?

Yeah, absolutely, I really stumbled into it in a lot of ways. My wife, Megan, and I both studied biblical languages in seminary, and so we were Greek and Hebrew students primarily. And you don't take a lot of Christian ed classes when you're working through all of the language work. Our hope was to move to eastern Europe and be Bible translators among the Roma people, the Gypsy people, in Eastern Europe. And yeah, when our second child, Lucy, came along, we were both in seminary at the time. And she was early on, around age two, diagnosed with severe autism, level three autism. And at that time, the mission boards we were talking to, especially the ones working with translation work, encouraged kids with special needs to be in boarding schools. And it wasn't something that, just by conviction, that Megan and I were very comfortable with at the time. And so yeah, it sent us into sort of a soul-searching time. We were both still in school. We were just serving at our local church, and I had helped plan a Vacation Bible School in the past. And so my pastors asked if I would sit on a committee that would help pick out new curriculum for our children's ministry and pick out some furniture for a new building that the church was moving into, and that committee role grew into a ten-hour-a-week staff position and grew into a full-time staff position, and thirteen years’ worth of full-time pastoral work in the children's ministry area. And so I fell into it really and just fell in love. There’s parallels with working with kids. I won't make a joke about them being a little pygmies.

Good, good.

But you’re translating big truths down into a language and a developmental area where kids can understand that. And so I just fell in love with spending time with them and translating those truths down in a way that they could understand them, which then led me into writing and eventually into editorial work, which is a little closer to Bible translation work as the next stage. But that was where that passion began to develop, was caring for my own children and then seeing just that kids ministry is a mission field and that it involves taking the big truths of the gospel and translating them in a way that the youngest within the church can understand.

Well, now there are several different directions I want to go. I'm trying to decide. We definitely will explore… I want to explore about, all right, so what are the unique, I don't know, dynamics of discipling children? But let's talk a little bit about autism, because I'm sure this has been quite an education for you. Lucy is how old now?

She’s sixteen.

Sixteen. And so… I don’t even know how to formulate the questions. What have you learned? And I don't mean about autism, because that could be another discussion, but what have you learned about your own walk with the Lord and your daughter’s discipleship with the challenges of autism? Is that question close enough to helpful?

Yeah. I think there's a lot of things. I think in American culture, we celebrate individual autonomy and ability and a “be all that you can be” kind of culture, growing up in the nineties. And Lucy has really taught me that the Lord oftentimes puts limits on our lives and puts limits on our capacity to do certain things or a family’s capacity to handle certain things and that those those limits that we look at as weaknesses often are real gifts from the Lord. And so I think even of 2 Corinthians and the thorn in the flesh that Paul had and his request of the Lord to remove that from him three times. And the Lord's promise to him, that, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” And I think I've seen that a lot, that being a dad to Lucy has taught me a lot about prayer. And oftentimes, I don't know what's going on inside her head, or we don't know the best strategy for handling, whether it be a discipline question or a development question or a discipleship question, and oftentimes, we’re just asking for wisdom and insight on our knees together, and the Lord gives grace, through His people and through helpers and through maybe just a husband/wife conversation. But He’s taught me a lot about depending on His strength.

Yeah, there's this great little book by Andrew and Rachel Wilson called The Life You Never Expected. And Andrew and Rachel have two sons, twin boys, that have regressive autism. And Andrew just talks about the gifts they are to the church, too, in their unique personalities and the unique ways they love people, they genuinely have gifts they can use in the church, but even in their weaknesses and their inabilities, their disabilities, they draw out a compassion from God's people that potentially wouldn't be there if they weren't present. And so that book was really helpful for me, in seeing not only is the Lord going to teach me things through Lucy, but He’s going to teach our church community things through her as well. Yeah. Hopefully, that answered your question.

Yeah. That’s so helpful, and it’s beautiful.

Does that get at it?

So Andrew Wilson's book is fairly new, right? Isn’t that a very recent book?

It might be ten years old now. Oh, well, I’m totally wrong on that. Okay, great. Well, I saw an excerpt from it recently, so I thought it was new, but that's good. I'm reminded of Paul Miller's book, A Praying Life. And they have a daughter. I think it may be autism. I can't remember. But he says in the introduction, “People think I pray so much because I'm so spiritual. No. It’s because I'm so needy!” Just the need for wisdom at every single moment of, “Okay, how do we handle this situation?” And the evangelist in me wants to say I think this is a great opportunity for the church, because we see those children. We don't see it as a disability. We see that this is sovereignly chosen by God, and there are lessons that we can only learn by interacting with these people. Whereas I wonder if parents of children with autism and other challenges, it may be very difficult for them to find a resource where people consider their children a gift. So again, our biblical perspective about God's sovereignty and about people being created in the image of God can shape ministry. Well, maybe we'll have you back about that whole topic. I'm going to leave that at this point. I want to dig in more about your work about children.

Here's something you wrote in an article that I thought, “I want to explore this.” You talk about three ways family discipleship changes as kids grow. We certainly know that parenting, just basic, basic, parenting, changes. But how does discipleship change? You begin the article this way: “When your kids were toddlers, you established a regular family worship routine. Each night before bed, you'd gather your kids in the living room to read a simple Bible story and pray together. You were surprised at how much your preschool kids came to look forward to the evening family time. I'm thinking, “Often. Not always, but okay. Good enough.”


“Now things have changed. Your older kids don't want to snuggle on the couch anymore. You're running from swim meets the cross country practice. The evening routine has gone out the window. What does family discipleship should look like as kids move into the busy elementary and then teen years.” And you talk about three big shifts. So let's talk about those shifts, because I think we learn some things about how kids grow physically and maybe even emotionally. So what does discipling our children look like? Talk about those three shifts.

Yeah. You might have to remind me about the language I used in the article, but I think one of them for sure is this idea of a move from parent directed to self directed. So, I think, in those family worship times, you're picking out the Bible story book. You’re picking out the music maybe you sing together as a family, that devotional routine. You're kind of even teaching the kids what that bedtime routine is going to be when they're young. And I think by the time a kid is in sixth or seventh grade, oftentimes they’re going to the library at school, and they're picking out their own books that they're reading. They're, in some ways, telling you what extra-curricular activities they're interested in and which ones they’re not. And so I think it's helpful for us to teach them and empower them in some ways, with ways of their own discipleship being self directed. They're doing homework on their own. And so I think, in those younger elementary years, middle elementary years. It’s really important for us to teach kids how to study the Bible for themselves and give them skills, even something as simple as the old observation, interpretation, application kind of skills to think through a text and say, as we read that together, “Why don't you take us through what you saw. What do you think that means? And then how would you apply that to your life?” and begin working through that, so that they learn how to read their Bible on their own and can do that on their own time.

And so, just as in school you have little training wheels where you go from this stage to this stage, I think sometimes parents who set aside a time where, “Hey, we’re, as a family, going to all do our quiet time,” during this time, during the day. We’re going to spend time in the Word. And, “When you're doing this, here's a notebook, and I want you to write out these things in these categories.” In doing that, you're teaching skills to kids that they can learn and take with them into adulthood, but also into high school, when you're going to have a lot less… that is going to be something that comes on their own initiative at that point. So that's one big shift. I think another big shift is the shift from parent influence to peer influence.

There you go. Great. Again, that’s the language you used.

So yeah. My kids don't say crayons like I did in south Georgia growing up. They say crayons, which is some weird Louisville, Kentucky dialect.

Say it again, how your kids say it?



Which is a weird Kentucky dialect, what but what I learned… I looked this up. I was like, “Why do my children call their color crayons, their Crayola’s by this name?” And what I learned was…. I mean, this is the old linguist part of me, but what I learned was that oftentimes our dialogue that we speak with is picked up more from our peers than it is from our parents. It’s something that's picked up in the way that—and we're wired this way—to those we spend time with in peer relationships will often pick up even little…. I think we all know this in terms of the jargon we use at school that our parents didn’t use, whatever generation you grew up with, but even pronunciation oftentimes comes from your peer group more than your parent group. And that's why second generation immigrants oftentimes have an easier time learning the language of their new culture than their first generation immigrant parents did. It's because the way we learn language comes in that kind of relationship. And so I think recognizing that those peer relationships, in the way we talk, which is related to the way we think, which is related to our worldview oftentimes is formed in those peer relationships.

And so, as parents, I mean it's good to talk to your kids about who their friends are and how you choose a godly friend and the character qualities you're looking for in the kind of person that you're going to be spending that kind of time with. And so I think it's important to understand that, yes, parents have a lot of influence on their kids. Oftentimes, in that childhood stage of 0 to 18, you are going to be the most influential people. But as you move toward adulthood, those peer relationships begin to matter more and more and more. And so pressing in to seeing those relationships as vitally important and, in conversation, helping your kid navigate what those relationships look like.

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So you said the first shift was moving from parent-directed teaching to self-directed study, the second one is moving from adult influence to peer influence, and then the third is the move from building foundations to shaping hearts. I think that's the one that is perhaps the biggest challenge for us. So help us think about that? How do we shape hearts, which is much more of a holistic thing than just cognitive info.

Yeah. The Bible often talks about affections in this way, and so I think of Psalm 78, which is sort of a classic children's and family ministry passage, where Asaph says, “He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed the law in Israel, that He commanded their ancestors,” or the parents, “to teach to their children, so that the next generation might know these things.” And that word know in the Hebrew Old Testament is not just a mental assent kind of knowledge. It's an affections kind of knowledge, an intimate knowledge, that the commands and the testimonies might be known by the next generation, so that they would internalize them, and then they would share these things with the generation that comes after them. Asaph says that even the children yet to be born, that they would know these things, too. And the vision is that generation would pass to generation would pass to generation. And that only happens if there's an affectionate embrace of that.

It was this passage and others like it that, when Dorothy Sayers developed her trivium of learning, that she was thinking about, and her education model was you start in the grammar stage with really basic things, where you learn… I don't know. You memorize the books of the bible or basic verses or catechism questions and answers at a really young age. And then you move to the logic stage, where you’re beginning to put those things together and understanding how they relate to each other. And then finally to the rhetoric stage, where you’re able to tell others about that. Kids are fascinating when they move into the logic stage for the first time, when they move into that second stage. Because they begin to see-

About how old is that in most children, the shift to the logic stage?

I would say second, third, I mean you're really starting to see as you enter middle school, but second, third grade, upper elementary, and then into middle school. Where they’re beginning to… you see this in history class. You learn chronology of history then. You’re beginning to put the timelines together. Around eighth, ninth grade you're doing not just math problems where you memorize addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, but you actually start doing algebra, where you’re looking for the logical relationships at that time. Well, kids start putting logical relationships together everywhere. And so they know that mom and dad say certain things but don't do those things. They know that.

This podcast just took an ugly turn. But all right. Go for it. Keep going.

They know that, “My health teacher says this about soft drinks not being good for you, but then she brings a Diet Coke to class every day.” And their brains begin to see those inconsistencies in life. And it’s just part of normal development to move in… I've learned how to put logical relationships together, and now I'm seeing the logical inconsistencies in my parents and in other people that are important in my life. And there can be a tendency to become a Pharisee at that stage. I think we all raise Pharisees to some degree, at that age, where kids become very…. There's a tendency to be judgmental of others. Talk to my daughters about this. The private school kids are judging the public school kids, and the public school kids are judging the private school kids. You’re looking down on everyone else.

But the goal is—and when we're confronted with God's word and His ways and His law—is to turn that glance of looking for inconsistencies in a little bit more of an introspective direction and to look at our own heart and to see the inconsistencies in ourselves. And understand, “Yes, it's not just mom and dad who are inconsistent, but I am, too,” so that a child is able to own that brokenness and that sin and confess that sin and move toward the Lord.  Some things do only come out by prayer, and so I don't know that there's like silver bullets with that. But I think even recognizing the fact that this is something that happens as kids grow and then beginning to have those conversations with them. It's a way of… when you begin to see that judgment of others, even just to say, “We want to have compassion for other people, because it's not just them that are inconsistent and them that are broken, but it's us, too.”

And then I think another just really key way to communicate that to your kids is to admit that you're wrong. And when your kids see those inconsistencies in you, and they're right, to say, “You’re right. I’m wrong. I was inconsistent about that. I'm sorry. I did tell you this and then do something different, or tell you that I wouldn't do that and did it, anyway.” And to ask for forgiveness from our kids. And often repenting before our kids and being willing to ask them for forgiveness is one of the ways we teach them, model for them the need to ask for forgiveness and to repent themselves.

Boy, you're touching on so many really, really helpful things. I'm so grateful. You know, I was raised in a non-Christian home, so I didn't see that kind of gospel humility from my parents. I mean, they did a lot of things right, but they did not have a gospel perspective, not at all. And so their admitting failure or hypocrisy or apologizing, none of that. And then we raised three boys, and hopefully we implemented some of that. I know that it was nowhere near what it could be. It’s interesting, my wife and I are now in this new chapter as grandparents, and we've moved to be close to our grandchildren, and so that's a whole new thing. And the idea that my wife and I can help be part of that child rearing, not just, “Oh, grandma and grandpa are for entertainment and babysitting.” And sure, there's plenty of fun stuff that we do But we're also part of that, of reinforcing what mom and dad say about the Lord, about our faith. And what does that faith look like in older people? Not just brothers and sisters and parents. So it's a wonderful thing, of discipleship developing and changing as the children grow. But it's also as we grow, as we grow both in our faith, but also in our age. So you're touching on some really, really good things. Let's shift for the last part of this conversation about your book, which is…. It’s entitled, Keeping Your Children's Ministry on Mission, so I think the primary audience for this book, obviously, are people in ministry, pastoral staff who focus on children's ministry, but parents can benefit from this too. Tell us about the aim of that book.

Yeah. I think my primary audience is children's ministry leaders or pastors who are leading the children's ministry but also the children's Sunday school teacher. You'll find a lot in that book on certainly the goals and aims of a children's Sunday school department in a local church. And then how to think about putting a lesson together and to teach the Bible to kids. And so the heart of the book is about what does it look like to study the Bible, to interpret a Bible story, and to put a lesson together if you’re teaching a children's Sunday school class. And so I know a lot of us have curriculums we’re using, but the goal of the book was to give just some good questions, a little bit of educational theory that stands behind a lot of the Sunday school curriculum that you're picking up, so the Sunday school teachers kind of understand, “Why are we doing it this way?” So I think that was the goal of a lot of that book.

And then also to place the mission of children's ministry within the mission of the larger church community as a whole, which sometimes…. Sometimes children's ministry is just seen as, “That is the child care while we worship,” and so to understand that God has given a responsibility to the church to disciple the next generation and to see this as an important part of that holistic mission of discipleship that the Lord has given to the church as a whole.

Hmm. Such helpful resources. I don't know too many books like that, but maybe I'm not in that realm, but I think your book is…. This may be unfair, so correct me if I'm wrong. But I think a lot of the materials for children's ministry is very much how to, “Here's how to do it,” “Here are problems to avoid,” “Here are things you want to emphasize.” But you're trying to step back a little bit and much more with a theological, biblical, and educational perspective. Am I right? Is that what you're doing? Am I right about comparing it to other things or am I unfair there?

That's true. I'm really thankful to live in an era where there is more intentionality in children's ministry than I’ve seen there has been at different times. And there are perhaps there is in differing church traditions, too. My friend Jenny Smith, who works for Awana International, gives me a hard time because of how much church history is in the book. But I tell her I have dead friends and that I have to interact with dead friends about children’s ministry. So it is a little bit different, in that you are definitely going to learn from Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis, which I know you care about a lot. And Erasmus and others. Sorry, Eusebius is actually… one of the stories is from Eusebius. I said Erasmus, but I'm thinking of Eusebius. And so, yeah, there is a bit of church history in the book.

But I think people may be hungry for that more than we would assume. Not more than you would assume, but more than most people would assume. I think parents… I think a whole lot of them who are homeschooling or just augmenting the schooling that they're getting wherever, the larger the canvas that they have as the backdrop, the better. So I'm really thankful for that. I think that's great. Well, this is very good. I want to bring this to a close, but I want to thank you that you made sure that you mentioned C.S. Lewis, because that's obligatory. It’s mandatory. We have to make sure to include that. And we have to remember… it's just so amazing how many letters to children C.S. Lewis wrote and how he would answer children's letters, and that's important. And even if we have to translate or adapt what we're writing to children. That’s not dumbing down, that's being appropriate, and I love the fact that… You know, Lewis said that if you can't explain it simply to a child, you probably don't understand it very well. And so you've helped us with that translating, discipling the next generations, plural. So I'm really very thankful for your ministry. Any last comments you want to make before we bring this to a close? I'm really grateful for the things you've produced.

Well, I think about Lewis when I think about Matthew 18, and in Matthew chapter 18, at the beginning, the disciples are having that argument among themselves about who is going to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And it's at that moment that Jesus puts a child in their midst and says, “Unless you become like a child and welcome this child in my name, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” And in Mere Christianity, Lewis talks about what humility looks like. And I won't get the quote exactly right, but he said that, if you meet a humble chap, he won't be this smarmy guy who’s always self-deprecating and talking about how little he cares for himself. In fact, what you'll notice about him is that he isn't thinking about himself at all. He's joyfully thinking about you and asking you really good questions. And the way that Jesus confronted his disciples' pride in that moment and encouraged them to take the humble position of the child was not to tell them, “Oh, you’re worthless,” but to actually tell them welcome children. Get your attention off of yourself and open your arms and welcome children to you, because it’s then, when you get the attention off of yourself and put it on others, that real humility and joy begins, and I've always thought that's beautiful, and Lewis, he modeled it in his writing and his letters and with kids. And may we be like him.

Oh. Well said, well said. And bringing this to a great conclusion. Thanks so much. My conversation partner has been Jared Kennedy. I'll list a bunch of resources in our show notes. We also have quite a few things on our website, of Keeping the Faith. It's a whole branch of our Ministry. Click on that link. You'll see all sorts of great resources, audio, video. And as always, we're grateful for your listening to our podcast, we’re grateful for your partnership in ministry, and may it be that God would use the resources that He's helped us put together to help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks for listening.


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