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 five developmentally appropriate realities to keep in mind when talking about faith to preteens:
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 to 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. This will be helpful for those 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. 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.
Faith is abstract, and preteens are (still) 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 less about YOUR answer and more about 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. When you admit that you don’t know something, you model a true journey of faith. We’ll never know everything there is about God. If we could know everything, God wouldn’t be God. Allow what you don’t know to prompt further 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.
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.
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.
Have on-going conversations as ministry departments where you discuss how you will talk with students about faith. These should include how you talk about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, sin, salvation, spiritual gifts, etc. at every age and stage of a child’s journey throughout your church.
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 toward your goal for them as an adult.
Faith should be championed in the home.
Even though kids need multiple adults in their life that 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.
All parents want to be good parents, they may not know where to start. Parents also want to pass along as much information as possible while they still have time. Make it easy for parents to connect with your church. 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.
Remember, faith development is a long-game. You’ll never pass on everything a kid can know about God in an hour of programming. It takes a long-term relationship with trusted leaders who will walk alongside these kids as they grow up. Create a unique preteen environment in your church where these sorts of relationships can thrive.
If you don’t know where to start, check out Caught in Between: Engage Your Preteens Before They Check Out for practical steps for how you can create a dynamic preteen ministry in your church.
This article originally appeared here.