This year my church asked me to do something I have never even heard of before – they asked me to plan and run a Good Friday service for our kids. I admit that when this request first landed on my table, I was filled with a fair amount of anxiety. Those of us who grew up in the church, know that the story of Easter is one of the most gruesome and violent tales in the entire Bible. We also know that it is almost impossible to share the Gospel message while evading terms such as “death”, “sin” and “hell.” Yet, how is it possible to bring across the main theme of the message without producing untold nightmare and endless streams of sadness, anger, and other appropriate emotions?
As I sat there in my office, turning over this very question for a few weeks, I thought about several scenarios. My first thought was to simply Google a good YouTube clip. I did find one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LgFZDCguR8E, and it portrayed the story of Jesus brilliantly without going into nasty details. I ended up showing it to my kids, but I also knew that wasn’t enough. As a children’s pastor, I’m expected to come up with my own ground-breaking ideas. A YouTube clip, regardless of how good it is, simply isn’t going to cut it.
Eventually, I came upon a “Sweet Story.” I told the story of Easter using candy and chocolates, and the kids absolutely loved it. In fact, they were excited about it for a number of days when I announce that this would be happening.
Yet, even though I seem to have averted the problem (at least for this year) it did get me thinking about what is truly appropriate and beneficial to share with our kids. Below, I’d like to offer a few suggestions:
#1: Focus on the Positive Aspects of the Story
The main theme of the Gospel message is LOVE. Regardless of which atonement theory you fall into, nearly all Christians believe that God’s love exemplified through His Son Jesus is what sets our faith apart. The fact that Jesus died for our sins, is important, but the reason He did that is because He wants to be our friends forever. Don’t get stuck on the gruesome details. Today when I shared this story with the kids, I mentioned people making fun of Jesus by placing a crown of sticks on His head. I also mentioned that Peter pretended not to know Jesus and pretended like he wasn’t really friends with Him. I even mentioned that the worst thing that happened to Jesus was that He had to be placed on a large piece of wood (called a Cross). However, I don’t get into all of the violent ins and outs with the kids. I would say less than 5% of time should be devoted to what actually happened on Good Friday. 95% should be focused on themes like redemption, love, reconciliation, and friendship.
As an aside, when I was in seminary, we sang the classic song “In Christ Alone.” There is a line in the original which states “And on the Cross as Jesus died, the WRATH of God was satisfied.” My professor urged us to collectively change the words to “the LOVE of God was magnified.” There is a theological case to be made about God’s wrath, but I would never dream of bringing that side of God out to our kids. Firstly, because I am not sure it’s theologically correct myself, and secondly, because the very thing I don’t want is for kids to be scared. I want them to see God as a kindly Father figure, not as someone who is waiting for them to mess up and wants to punish them. See, WRATH is scary, love is not.
#2: Now Is Not the Time to Get Into Theological Debates
Every denomination has a slightly different understanding of the crucifixion. Now is not the time to talk about “hell” or what happens to those who don’t believe in your particular brand of Christianity. Now is also not the time to get into a Calvinist or Arminian debate about only SOME people being God’s chosen children. If your particular church holds to tenets like this, you will have plenty of time to instil them in your children once they hit adolescence. For now, focus on God’s love as a possibility for EVERYONE. Like the YouTube clip I shared with the kids states “God love me, and He loves you. GOD LOVES EVERYBODY!”
#3: Keep It Simple
I have attended a few churches that do altar calls for children, and if that’s your tradition and style then I see nothing wrong with it. However, the most important thing about sharing the Gospel, is to help the kids to understand it. I did not do an altar call today, and in fact, I didn’t even teach the kid’s the “Sinner’s Prayer.” I simply told them that if they believe the story I shared is true, all they need to do is tell God they love Him and that they want Him to be their friend. As kids get older, their faith will mature and they will begin to understand more about what terms like “sin” and “salvation” truly mean. But for now, if you mention words like that, you’ll lose them. So focus on words that they use in their daily vocabulary and if you are bringing out Christian terms, make sure to explain them in a kid friendly way.
Terms to Avoid and Terms to Use
INSTEAD OF…. SAY:
Sin – We all think have bad stuff in our hearts OR We decided not to be God’s friends
Salvation – Friendship with God
Crucifixion – Explain what happened (in non-violent terms)
Judas’s Betrayal – Judas told people who didn’t like Jesus where He was (explain that Judas felt sad afterwards)
Peter’s Denial – Peter pretended like he didn’t know Jesus/wasn’t Jesus’s friend/didn’t really hang out with Jesus
Beaten, mocked, scorned – Bullied
Resurrected – Came back to life again
Disciples – Friends or best friends
Tomb – I do use this term, but I explain to them that it is like a grave.
Communion – A meal that Jesus had together with His friends (OR eating dinner together)
Evangelize – Tell your friends about who Jesus is
Hell – I would just drop the term entirely. I think it does more damage than good for young children (however, if the kids are older than 10, you might be able to bring in this concept)
Heaven – I do use this term, but I explain that this is where Jesus lives, and that if we are friends with God one day we will go there. I explain to them that heaven is so much better than anything we have here on earth. I present the concept of heaven as something nice and delightful rather than as something scary.
Death – I do use the word death and I also believe that kids are much more prepared to deal with this than we give them credit for (for the most part). However, I do not dwell for very long on that part of the story, except to say that Jesus died, but He promised His friends He wasn’t going to stay dead forever.
Elements in the Easter Story for Kids
#1: The Easter story really begins when God made the earth. God wanted us to be friends with Him forever and to hang out with Him all of the time. But because people, like us (boys and girls, moms and dads, brothers and sisters) had bad stuff in our hearts, we weren’t able to be friends with God.
#2: This made God sad, but God had a plan. At Christmas time, Jesus was born in a manger. Which is kind of like a farm. How many of you have ever been to a farm before? (Kids raise their hands). And in this farm there was hay (I show the kids Easter grass and put it down on the table. I explain to them that Baby Jesus slept on the hay).
#3: Jesus grew up and did many things like we all do. He went to school and He also had a lot of friends. How many of you have friends? All of you do! Well, Jesus had 12 best friends, but He met people who didn’t want to be His friend because He said things they really didn’t like.
#4: One of Jesus’s best friends was named Judas. Judas loved Jesus, but he loved something more than he loved Jesus – money. One day, the people who weren’t friends with Jesus, offered Judas some money if he told them where Jesus was. Judas said yes. Let’s count out how much money they gave Judas (here I have 30 chocolate coins wrapped in aluminium foil – the kids help me count). 30 dollars! How many of you think 30 dollars is a lot of money? (Most of the kids raise their hands). If you had 30 dollars what would you spend it on? (Allow for responses) You’re right, 30 dollars is a lot of money – you could buy a lot of candy and toys with that. But you know what? Judas actually felt really sad that he told them where Jesus was. He actually offered to give back all that money if they didn’t hurt Jesus. But the people said it was too late and they didn’t care. For the rest of Judas’s life, he felt very sad that he did this. [Note: I think it’s important to stress that Judas knew he made a bad decision….however, I would leave out his suicide entirely. It is too much for kids to take in and also too difficult to explain. Also, I always tell the kids that Judas was a friend of Jesus and he did love Jesus, he just made a bad choice. I do not enter into the theological conundrum of whether he was really a follower or not].
#5: But Judas was not the only friend that left Jesus when He needed them the most. Jesus had another friend named Peter. And Peter was one of Jesus’s BEST friends. Peter even said that even if no one else wanted to be friends with Jesus, he still would. But Jesus told Peter, that before (I take out a plush rooster) – what animal is this? (The kids should out – Rooster!) the rooster crows 3 times He was going to pretend like he didn’t know Jesus. What sound does a rooster make (get the kids to make the “cock-a-doodle-doo” sound three times). And the third time that Peter heard “cock-a-doodle-doo” he felt very sad that he pretended like he wasn’t friends with Jesus.
#6: The people who didn’t like Jesus, took Him away and they made a crown for Him. When Jesus was alive, He told people that He was a King, and people wanted to make fun of Him. So they didn’t give Him a tiara or even a Burger King crown, they actually made Him a crown of sticks and wood from the forest (have a dead twig or stick available). (Show them an Easter basket) the crown would have looked something like this (Place Easter basket on top of head).
#7: But that isn’t the worst thing that happened to Jesus. The people were very mean to Him and they even put Him on a Cross (which is kind of like a big piece of wood). And that’s where Jesus died.
#8: Then they placed Him in a tomb, which is like a grave – where dead people go. And they put a stone in front of it that looked kind of like this (use a plastic egg to illustrate). And they had two guards on either side because when Jesus was alive He said He wasn’t going to stay dead forever, but He was going to come back to life. We all know that when someone dies, they don’t come back to life, so the guards were worried that His friends might steal the body and pretend that He was still alive even when He wasn’t.
#9: However, Jesus was always very honest and He never told a single lie in His entire life. And so, three days later, the tomb was empty (open up the plastic Easter egg to show that the tomb was hollow).
#10: Jesus did this because it was the only way to solve the problem of us not being friends with God. Now, because of what Jesus did, we all can be God’s friend and hang out with Him whenever we want to!
#11: When we believe in Jesus, it means that one day we will go to heaven where God lives. And the Bible tells us that heaven is very shiny (show them some foil coloured chocolate eggs). In fact, the Bible even says that the streets are made of gold (show them a gold foiled egg). Life in heaven is much better than you can ever imagine. What are some things you really like? (Kids give suggestions). All of those things are great, but heaven is even better!
#12: Now what’s this (show them a candy bunny)? (The kids yell out: BUNNY!) In the springtime we see little bunnies hopping around everyone. That’s because during winter, everything dies and there’s a lot of snow on the ground (show them the dead twig again), but at springtime everything comes back to life again – just like the Easter story!
#13: If you believe the story I just shared and you want Jesus to be your friend all you need to do is talk to God and tell Him you love Him and want Him to be your friend. We call this prayer, but prayer just means talking to God about what we are thinking about and what’s important to us. We talk to Him the same way we talk to our Moms and Dads, brothers and sisters. And when you become friends with Jesus, He never leaves you. He will be your friend forever! In fact, it’s so cool because the Bible tells us that whenever someone becomes God’s friend there’s a little party happening in heaven just for them. How many of you have been to a birthday party before? Well that’s kind of like what happens when we become God’s friend!
#14: If you already believe in Jesus, there are things you can do to keep learning about Jesus. First, Jesus gave us a special book called the Bible. In this book, He tells us all about how we can be His friend and how much He also wants to be our friend. This book also tells us how to live and treat other people if we love God. Second, we can learn about God by spending time with our friends here at church. Whenever you go to church, Sunday school, or our children’s programs you will learn more about God and how to be His best friend. And then, when you know about God, you get to share this with others. So you can tell your friends at school, your moms and dads, and even people you don’t even know yet about how much God loves them and wants to be their friends.
And that’s the story of Easter!
As the kids exit the Sunday School classroom, have the Easter basket ready for them to pick out a treat our two on their way out!
For additional reading, please see: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistparenting/2017/04/trouble-easter-not-talk-kids-easter/
The idea for the “Sweet Story” first came from this website: http://childrensministry.com/articles/easter-surprises/?utm_source=internal_children%27s_ministry_resource&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=