Teaching Kids the Gospel: A Conversation with J.D. Greear
Here is a ten-minute conversation with J.D. Greear about kids’ curriculum, morality, and how gospel-centrality must fuel our passion to be about God’s mission. Best line by far: “When kids are young, you just need to put stuff in them so that when you shake them, they just throw up Bible.”
Trevin Wax: J.D., one of the things I remember reading from your blog… you talked about your frustration with kids’ curriculum.
J.D. Greear: A lot of the children’s curriculum that I was looking at, some of what our church was investigating, seemed to be really heavy on… lessons on sharing, lessons about kindness, and lessons about integrity. All those things are very important. But I felt like what most of the lessons left with and what I’d hear my kids come back and talk about was a to-do list. How we need to do this better. We need to do that better.
But really, what you want them to see in the Scriptures is that there’s one story going from start to finish, that it’s filled with characters they need to know about, but that shows them that they should hope, not in their ability to emulate the example, but should hope in the Savior who came for them. And so it’s been a struggle to find curriculum that is robust in its biblical doctrine and knowledge.
When kids are young, you just need to put stuff in them so that when you shake them, they just throw up Bible. That’s probably not a great image, but you know what I mean! You cut them, they bleed God’s Word. You want them understanding from the very beginning that this is about worship and about grace and that what they do for God is a response to what He has done for them.
That’s been tough to find. I’m not trying to put an indictment on all kids’ curriculum by any means, but finding one that captures everything is difficult.
Trevin Wax: I’ve found that too. And as a dad, I’m thinking about my kids in Sunday School learning Bible stories. I want them to know the Bible stories and I want them to know the details, but first and foremost, when we come to a Bible passage, one of the things we’re trying to do with The Gospel Project is we want our writers to first of all ask what does the story tell us about God—who God is, what He is like—and then how does the story point us forward to Jesus Christ. Because here’s what I see is the danger… If all of the stories in the Old Testament especially are all little morality tales where we’re able to have a small application for kids—be nice, be good, share, things like that—we can thoroughly condition our kids by the time they’re sixth graders, going into middle school, that the Bible’s all about them. That’s what they’ve heard week after week after week. Is that why you see that God-centered nature of explaining Bible stories as being important in curriculum?
J.D. Greear: Absolutely. Again, I don’t want to overreact to it. I think David, I think Moses, in some ways, was a great leader. First Corinthians very clearly says that these things were given to us as examples. So there are things that we can learn from them. You know, there are places in the Bible, Ezekiel says, you know, commends three of God’s servants for their steadfastness in the midst of temptation.
So I don’t want to overplay and say there’s nothing we can learn from them, but I also know that Moses wasn’t allowed to go into the promise land. He had a problem with his temper. He had a problem trusting God.
David—we know his issues that he has. You know, David’s life kind of ends with this big question mark. Is this the king that we’ve been searching for?
Nehemiah, as great a leader as he was… the last chapter of Nehemiah ends with him just going Jack Bauer on everybody. It says he’s ripping out their beards and off their clothes. And he just loses it. I’m not sure I want my kids emulating Nehemiah, every part of him. So what I want to try to show is that Nehemiah, yes, is worthy of emulation. But Nehemiah actually is there to point us to the ultimate wall builder who would build a city whose foundations could never be touched, which is Jesus.
Trevin Wax: I like how you do this. You’re saying we can learn things from moral tales. We can learn courage from David. We can learn faithfulness from Noah (before the scene where he gets drunk, obviously).
J.D. Greear: Right.
Trevin Wax: We can learn certain things from all these Old Testament characters, but at the same time, we know that they’re supposed to be pointing us forward to Jesus.
J.D. Greear: Absolutely.
Trevin Wax: Do you see us overreacting at times as we kind of want to go against the morality tale approach—to not want to bring out morals?
J.D. Greear: A lot of times you’ve got a very justified reaction to moralistic things that probably over speaks a little bit. Hopefully what will happen is that we can settle out in the way that the Bible talks about it. You know, I think the hero of every one of our sermons, every one of our lessons ought to be the Hero of the Bible, which is not you for what you do. It is God for what He’s done.
I will continue to learn from various biblical examples. One of the things I tell some of our teachers is—”Don’t try to be more gospel-centered than the Bible.” And don’t play the gospel-centered card on Jesus. You know, He had it down. He knew what it was like to be gospel-centered. You can follow His lead.
Trevin Wax: We’re seeing a movement in the churches of back to the basics, back to what the gospel is, making it explicit and up front in our preaching and teaching. I’m sure some people are watching this thinking, I’m gospel-centered. I give a gospel presentation at the end of every message. What’s the difference in the way we think of that term versus the Plan of Salvation at the end of a message?
J.D. Greear: Charles Spurgeon had a famous statement where he used to say at the end of every sermon, “I plow a trough back to the gospel.” And I always heard that used to explain why no matter what text or what subject the pastor was preaching on, he would tack the Romans Road onto the end of it. That if you would just, you know, receive Jesus into your heart, then you’d be saved. And so he’d be preaching about finances, and he’d be like—but if you need to be saved, this is how you do it.
The more I’ve read and gotten to know Charles Spurgeon, through his writings, I realize that what he was meaning there was no matter what subject he was talking about—generosity, holiness, being a good husband, a good father—the power for that flowed from the cross. I mean, that’s the image of the trough there. You think of a trough as something that water runs through.
So no matter what he’s talking about, the only way to become generous, the only way to be a faithful husband, the only way to stay faithful in the Bible or in your witness is in the glorious good news of what God has done for you. So when some people say, “Yeah, I’m gospel-centered,” all they think that means is that the gospel is important to them. And I’m sure the gospel is important to them. I don’t want to lose the gospel. Gospel-centered means that the gospel is not just the entry rite for you into Christianity. It’s not just the diving board off of which you jump into the pool of Christianity. You see that the gospel is the pool itself. The gospel is not just how you begin, it’s how you grow.
Trevin Wax: At your church, what are you guys doing to promote gospel-centered application in all the different areas of your church?
J.D. Greear: I’d like to think that begins with how it’s modeled from the pastors who occupy our pulpit. Our teaching team works very hard to be able to impact… it is one of the things we question each other on—What is this pointing me to? Is this pointing me back to the cross or is this pointing me to this?
Our small groups team, you know, has this as a major theme, and they’re writing studies a lot of times that come alongside and they will explore the gospel more thoroughly. Our children’s pastors and student ministers are doing the same thing where they’ll be taking curriculum and weaving more of the richness of the gospel into it.
One other thing I’ll mention is just the role of worship itself. Worship is not the 30-minute warm up to the sermon. Worship essentially is… it’s Word-centered and it’s gospel-rich so that people are coming face-to-face with the rhythms of the gospel as they are seeing the depth and the beauty of it in song and as their hearts are open to the gospel. We’ve done it now where the sermon is always right in the middle of worship because they need to go into that worshiping the cross. I’m in the middle telling them how it all relates. And then they come out of that again worshiping the cross. So I think worship is a key part there too.
Trevin Wax: What role does worship play in connection to mission? You want to see your people motivated to be on mission for God’s kingdom, to be proclaiming the gospel, to be demonstrating the truth of the gospel through the love we have for each other as Christians and then the love we have for the lost people around us, the love we have for our neighbors. How do you connect that worship component with getting people out on mission?
J.D. Greear: John Piper famously said that worship is the goal of missions—is that our desire to see other people worship God and know Him the way we do is the reason we do missions.
Another dimension of that, though, is that worship is not just a goal of missions. Worship is the fuel of missions. Because the only way that I’ll ever be zealous enough to leave father and mother and things that are comfortable to go into the world is when I see how great a treasure Jesus is, that He’s worth more than those things. When I see how much He’s given up to save me, when I see how great His glory is and how much He deserves to be worshiped in the world, that ends up becoming the fuel for mission.
He is the treasure worth leaving the entire field for, Matthew, you know, 13:44. He’s the One, 2 Corinthians 8:9, who became poor for my sake, become rich. You show me somebody that’s worshiping God around the gospel and I’ll show you somebody you don’t need to preach a mission series on in order to motivate into mission. It just comes naturally because they see God is the missionary God that came for them.
Trevin Wax: And that’s what we want. We don’t ultimately want people on mission out of obligation only. We want people on mission because it’s their passion, their heart.
J.D. Greear: Yes.