The first week of summer is always a fun time at Sterling Mennonite Fellowship. On that Sunday, as people come in for worship, the whole church is decorated with paintings and murals. The fridges and freezers are filled with home-made cookies and other snacks. The crafts are ready to go. The excitement is in the air. Vacation Bible School is about to start.
Three Mondays ago, we welcomed over 60 kids and 50 volunteers into our building for our VBS Day Camp. In the mornings, we spent our time in the church, learning about different Bible stories, singing songs, doing crafts, playing games, and acting out dramas. In the afternoons, we took field trips to the Manitoba Museum, a water park, and to volunteer at two different organizations in Winnipeg. On the Friday, we closed our program with a BBQ for all the kids and parents.
It was an amazing week and I really enjoyed what I got to do. Maybe it’s because I’m the pastor of our church, but I was asked to lead the Bible station. And I loved it.
Preparing Bible activities for kids really helps me think about my own faith. Taking complex biblical ideas and boiling them down so that a child can understand them is a challenge, but I have found that the faith of kids hasn’t yet come face to face with the scepticism of older years. They are able to take simple truths and believe, even when we, adults, struggle with them.
But that doesn’t mean kids are without questions. This year, the grades 5-6 especially, caught me off guard with some great ones. As we talked about creation, one kid asked who created God. When we talked about some of the amazing things Jesus did, one kid asked how it was possible for all the people at the feeding of the 5000 to hear Jesus while He was teaching.
The children made me think. But this year, what challenged me the most about the Bible station were the stories I was supposed to prepare. Every year we get a VBS curriculum that provides us with great activities, songs, materials, and themes for the Bible station. For each day, there is a special character, Bible point, memory verse, and Bible story. The lessons are made simple so that kids can experience and remember truths about God.
I’m not always that excited about following curriculums, and this year seemed to be even harder. Our Bible point for the second day was that “God is for us.” As described in our material, this means that God is on our side. That point alone is controversial. Do we want our children to believe that God will support them no matter what? Is God a God who chooses sides, or are we the ones who need to choose to be on God’s side? That’s a whole different message; one of sacrifice, service, and submission.
The Bible story that went along with this Bible Point was the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 1-6). The curriculum told us to use this story as our way of telling the kids that God was on their side no matter what stood in their way. God had promised Canaan to the Israelites, but there were already other people living there. The people worshipped other gods and “weren’t about to just give up their land.” So God wiped them out to make space for His people.
We were supposed to see ourselves as the Israelites and all the things that stand in our way as “a bunch of really mean warriors.” When we face up to them, God will be on our side.
I changed the story for that day. I taught the kids that God, the creator of the universe, is in control of and more powerful than anything. He is a God, who, when He was here on earth in human form, could speak to a storm to calm it (Mark 4:35-41). This God wants the best for us. Like a good parent, God doesn’t give us anything we want, but guides us to what is life-giving. That’s what it means when we say, “God is for us.”
So why not just tell the conquest story? Doesn’t it seem like a cop-out not to use it? After all, it’s in the Bible. We can’t pretend it’s not there. It’s true, but using a complex story to share a point like this seems inauthentic to the text. It raises too many questions for me:
- How do we justify the image of God in the Old Testament with that of God in the New Testament? We hate using the word “contradictory,” but if it’s not, why and how did the message change? Was it just a different time where war and killing was okay? Our context doesn’t seem much different.
- We have used these passages in the past to justify our own greed and colonization, claiming that God is on our side, no matter how many “new worlds” we conquer and people we destroy. God is for us, right Canada? The use of these passages in the light of Jesus’ message are suspect. Even if we don’t find any problems with the conquest stories, are we really supposed to put ourselves in the shoes of Moses and Joshua? Isn’t our call as disciples of Jesus supposed to be different?
- Using these stories as metaphors helps, but it doesn’t change the story. Even if we see our enemies as forces of evil (rather than people), we still need to deal with the fact that God seemed to command mass genocide.
I have enough problems talking about this story with adults. Stories of genocide and war are not easy ones to fit into a theology of love and peace. It would seem inauthentic to use this story in a simplified version to tell kids a lesson that is, at the very least, questionable. I do believe there is a time and a place for these stories, but we need to be ready to sit and wrestle with the text. We need to dig deep; not settle for easy answers. Twenty minutes with kids who may never have heard of God or the Bible is not exactly the perfect time for that conversation.
One solution I found was to focus on ways of experiencing God rather than simply hearing about Him from me. I made sure the kids had enough space and time to pray together as a group about anything that came to their minds. That was always one of the best moments for me each day. In one session, the kids had over ten things that they wanted to pray for. We spent more time sharing and praying than we did talking about the story for that day.
I don’t want to short change any kid’s experience with God. I don’t want to simplify the Bible in such a way that when they grow up they wonder why no one ever talked honestly about the difficult things in it. I want them to experience real faith with a real God. I want to be genuine about my own struggles and make sure the kids know that questions are okay. I want them to know they don’t need to be fake or simple with their Creator. No matter what they are going through, they should know that the God of the universe is there for them.