Listening to the Bible is often seen as a second rate option...
Pure, undiluted Bible: Opening up God’s word with kids
We all know that reading the bible is important, but we seem pretty bad at actually doing it as families. Nate Morgan Locke is on hand to help
Reading the Bible together as a family is amazing.
Really?! That’s not how these articles start. They start with something like: “Reading the Bible together as a family is hard.” First we acknowledge the obvious challenges involved and then I try to convince you that it’s maybe not quite as difficult as we first made out and that it is a really important thing to do anyway and then I give you some handy hints on how to make it easier.
But let’s be clear from the outset. The reason we’re not reading the Bible together as families is not because it’s too tough or that we don’t think it’s a good idea. No, we’re not doing it because we don’t think it’s worth it. We’re not convinced that the Bible is relevant enough to our children’s daily lives that we need to read it with them. While there are some stories of the Old Testament, a couple of the Psalms and some parts of the Gospels we think they need to know, the rest isn’t really necessary for them. When it comes to reading through the Bible we don’t think that the investment is worth the reward.
But let me explode your paradigms for a minute. Let me present to you just how refreshing, stunning and beautiful reading the Bible together as a family can be. And then I will actually give you a list of handy hints - because this is a magazine and hints fit in little separate boxes with bullet points which look more inviting on the page.
First, a story. My then 3-year-old daughter and I were walking to the local swimming pool when the question of which changing room we would use came up: “Daddy, will I go in the same changing room as you?”
“Is that the boys’ changing room because you’re a boy, or the girls’ changing room because I’m a girl?”
“Good question. But I think they’ve got a family changing room, so we’ll probably use that one.”
“Daddy, when we take off our old selves and put on our new selves, do we use a family changing room or a boys’ and girls’ changing room?”
“When we read Colossians, which is in Turkey - but not like the turkey we have at Christmas - Paul said - but not Sophie’s daddy, Paul - that we have to take off our old selves and put on our new selves.”
“…er …well, I think Paul meant that we should ‘take off our old selves and put on our new selves’ wherever we are… so we can er… leave behind our Adamic humanity and put on the new humanity which is like Christ because he was the image of God that we’ve been changed into by the power of the Holy Spirit. I think, to be honest that the taking off / putting on analogy was to help us see that the gospel calls us to radical change. It’s more of a figurative thing. Am I making any sense?”
“Daddy, can we have crisps from the machine after swimming?”
Lily knew about Paul’s instructions to the Colossian church because we’d been reading Colossians together as a family. Only a few verses at a time, but we made our way through over a couple of weeks. She knew it was written by a man named Paul to a group of Christians in what is now Turkey, because we looked it up. And now, here she was, processing it and connecting it with the imminent prospect of having to put on a swimming costume and wait for her daddy to find the pound coin he’d allocated for use in the lockers.
The real deal
Now, as parents, my wife and I have read children’s story Bibles with our kids at bedtime since they were born, but here we’re thinking about reading God’s word proper - the real deal: actual Bible reading with actual children, Old and New Testaments with older and newer people. And I am of the view that it’s one of the best things that we do together as a family and that it could be for yours too.
Watching them think about what a particular phrase might have meant “in those days” and asking ourselves what that same phrase might mean for us “these days” is fascinating. How were the Colossians supposed to understand “taking off” their “old selves”? Was it like clothes or was it like a snakeskin? Cue tangential conversation about snakes:
“Why do they shed their skin?”
“I don’t like snakes.”
We tend to be more committed to studying God’s world than to studying God’s word
“Are all snakes like the snake in the garden of Eden?”
“He doesn’t mention snakes in Colossians so it’s probably not that.”
And the great benefit of having read this Bible passage together was that Lily, on that walk to the swimming pool, wasn’t recalling something she’d heard in school assembly or her church toddlers group; I wasn’t having to guess what had been taught and trying to weigh up how accurate her description of events was - I had been there. This was a conversation we’d had together and now I was seeing that some of it was starting to be absorbed. It was so uplifting to hear.
The easy way out?
All that being said, reading the Bible together obviously still requires investment. Surely it would be easier to not do it? And of course, yes, it is easier not to, it but it’s a real blessing and joy when we do.
It’s easier to let trained children’s and youth workers in our churches take the responsibility of reading the Bible with our children, but we miss out when we don’t share the gospel with them ourselves. I completely agree that it takes a church to make a disciple, but that’s no reason for parents not to spend time reading through the word of God with their children too.
It’s easier to think in more general terms about faith formation and journeying with our children as they consider life’s big questions; but without specific, intentional study of the Bible they’re much less sure of the particular faith we’re commending to them. Without our close reading of the Bible it’s easy to get carried away with what sounds right to us at any given time, or we become so preoccupied with what we think God might be saying and doing that we overlook what he’s actually said and done. It’s great to have a ‘God talk’ whenever they spontaneously start (even on the way to the swimming pool) but why wouldn’t we want to allow God to speak from his word and even to allow his word to set the agenda?
It’s easier to give children age-specific Bible reading notes and encourage them to read it for themselves as they grow up, but this exacerbates an individualistic, private conception of faith which loses the richness of seeing others refreshed by biblical promises fulfilled in Jesus. It also adds to a sense of dependency on resources and adds to the feeling that we don’t know what we’re doing without them.
It’s easier to say we’ll concentrate on prayer and singing to bring the things of God into the family home, but without the fuel of biblical teaching the fires of faith and worship can’t burn as brightly. I’ll just add at this point that as a family we generally try to do all three in one. Our Bible reading is followed by a time of prayer and we’ll often finish by playing a song from whichever device is closest to the table at the time.
It’s easier to give a higher priority to homework because there’s the possibility of being in trouble at school, but creating space to study the Bible is its own reward. Though I’ve no desire to divorce the two, it’s good to ask ourselves why we tend to be more committed to studying God’s world than to studying God’s word. Could it be because we’re anxious about the social impact of academic success but less fearful of our children missing out on gospel joy? These are difficult questions for any parent to answer, but we shouldn’t shy away from them.
It’s easier to give up when the children moan about it and let everyone find a screen to watch until the next extracurricular taxi service is required, but the sense of togetherness in the faith, the privilege of pointing your children towards the treasures of scripture, and the opportunity to demonstrate the value and significance of God’s word is unmatchable.
Please don’t mishear me. I’m not trying to undermine the challenge of our natural disinclination to Bible studies. We don’t do this every day. We don’t have a colour-coded wall chart of memorised Bible verses. We struggle to make the time because we forget just how encouraging a time it will be. I fully appreciate that advocating regular family Bible reading makes us sound about as realistic as the CBeebies version of Topsy and Tim (do those parents ever raise their voices?!). But I do know how great it can be when we do it and I’d love you to know it too!
So let me encourage you that reading the Bible together as a family is a great privilege that so many parents are missing out on.
Some top tips to start reading the bible
Put your family Bible on the dining table. That way you’ll always know where it is when you want to start.
Don’t try to make your Bible reading last longer than it needs to. Three minutes is enough sometimes and (very) occasionally you may find the conversation keeps going for 20! Little and often is better than an occasional deep dive!
Pray before you begin. But don’t try to cover everything that’s going on. Just ask God to help you understand what he’s saying.
Pray when you finish. Again, asking God to give you understanding.
The reason we’re not reading the bible together as families is not because it’s too tough, it’s because we don’t think it’s worth it
Remember you’re not leading a Sunday school session. There is no need for craft activities, worksheets and a game. This involves no preparation - aside from remembering where you got to last time.
Read through books of the Bible rather than constantly jumping around. This way you get familiar with the context and content much more clearly. You’ll be much more able to follow the argument or narrative.
Allow older children to read. Let younger children recognise the chapter numbers and headings. This is a shared experience in which everyone feels they’re actively participating.
If you’re unsure about the background to the particular part of the Bible you’re reading, ask your church leaders. If they don’t know, find new church leaders.
Decide together what book of the Bible you’re going to read next. Maybe a letter, maybe a history book. Don’t try to read all the Psalms in one go! Use them as breaks between other books.
Try to use the same translation as you would use in church on a Sunday. That way you’re reinforcing what happens at home. Reading a ‘proper grown-up Bible’ gives children a sense that faith is something to ‘grow into’ rather than ‘grow out of’.
Remember that the Bible is not primarily a book about you and what you should be doing but is written about God and what he has done.
Above all, always bring the conversations back to what we know about Jesus. He warns the Pharisees that they: “Study the scriptures diligently because they think that by them they have eternal life yet they refuse to come to [him] to have eternal life.” These are the scriptures that testify about him.
For youth and children’s workers
Remember that you’re trying to change a culture rather than put on a series of events or run a project. That’s not to say projects and events won’t help but they’re not the goal.
Get the church leadership onboard. It’s always difficult to make something change in a church if the leadership aren’t convinced. You can be an advocate for the families and champion Bible reading in homes.
Get parents onboard. There may be some reluctance, so look for parents who are keen and build momentum with them.
Encourage new parents to start early. It’s great when people can get into the habit.
Try a kick-starting event or initiative. Maybe you could gather families together and get them excited about the book of Ruth. Then suggest families read it together over the next term.
Visit families at home. This is a great thing to be doing anyway but if you’re trying to encourage Bible reading in their home it’s great if you can picture what that would look like for them.
Keep going! Changing a culture doesn’t happen overnight so plan for the long haul. You’ll want to think two or three years down the line.
If you have a family of your own, model what this looks like. You’ll be able to share the challenges of reading the Bible together as well as the blessings.
There is a vast array of Bible translations on the market. So how do you choose the best one for your family Bible time? Well, as suggested, it’s beneficial to stick with the Bible translation you use at church, but your church might not have a preferred translation, so what do you do then? To help you out, here’s a short guide to different versions!
Different Bible translations can be set on a scale between ‘formal equivalence’ and ‘dynamic equivalence’. Formal equivalence tries to translate the Hebrew texts (for the Old Testament) and Greek manuscripts (for the New Testament) word for word, creating a very literal translation of the original.
Translations favouring this approach are much closer in literal meaning, but this does leave these versions with lots of idioms and sayings that don’t make much sense when translated directly into English, and many cultural references that mean little to the 21st Century reader.
Dynamic equivalence tries to solve these issues by translating the sense of the words into English, rather than their direct literal meaning. Translators using this method look for English equivalents of idiomatic language to help the reader understand what the writer is trying to portray. This makes for a translation that is much easier to read, but these versions could be accused of straying too far from the original manuscripts.
The GNB is still relatively well used in churches. The CEV was written to be read aloud, but doesn’t use words like ‘grace’ as the translators thought it too laden with Christian nuance. Instead it uses phrases such as ‘God’s great kindness’. However, the NIV and NLT are both useful translations to use in a family time.
If you’re looking for a children’s Bible, then choose one that has a wide range of stories, so that you can get a feeling for the big story of the Bible as well as encountering individual stories. These are good places to start:
For older children / young people
The Action Bible
Jesus Storybook Bible
For younger children
Big Bible Storybook