Avoiding the Self-focused Gospel
Oprah Winfrey recently delivered a commencement speech at the USC school of journalism, inspiring graduates with this message: “Your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being. That’s why you’re here.”1 Oprah’s message exemplifies the self-focused culture in which we live. Our children are growing up in a society that tells them to find self-defined happiness through self-expression and self-made success (see 2 Timothy 3:2).
Meanwhile, many of our well meaning kids’ ministries focus their curriculum around godly character traits such as integrity, generosity, self-control, and honesty. Weekly Bible classes include lessons about “being brave like David, wise like Solomon, or forgiving like Jesus.” Whether intended or not, the self-focused message our children hear is that the Bible tells us how to be happy, successful people.
But happiness and success, whether empowered by secular self-expression or biblical lessons in self-improvement, aren’t the reason we’re here. We are here to worship and reflect the triune God, who saved us from the very self we idolize (see Psalm 86:9). Thankfully, we’ve seen a welcome return to a gospel focus in many churches—we’re talking about Jesus more! Many children’s ministries are reading Bible stories in a way that points to Jesus instead of merely promoting improved moral character.
Yet in our excitement to teach kids about Jesus, we must remember that kids can still become self-focused in their understanding of the gospel. Living in our self-centric culture, it’s easy for children to hear the gospel in a way that makes salvation all about “me”: I am special because God saved me, God helps me on my spiritual journey, God has plans for me.
It’s easy for children, just as it is adults, to see God as an important character in their story, rather than discovering their place in His story. It’s easy for their eyes to stay on their own faces, instead of beholding the face of the eternal, infinite, omnipotent, I AM (see Psalm 27:8).
So how do we avoid teaching the self-focused gospel?
We need to point our children away from the worldly focus on self to the character of God.
It’s important to teach kids the great things God has done but also who He is, because in the person and character of God lie all the answers to our life and purpose—to know, love, worship, and reflect the God in whose image we are made. Worshiping and glorifying God starts by understanding how He is completely unlike us in His self-sufficient eternal omniscience. Living out the greatest two commandments—to love God and others (Matthew 22:36–40)—starts by knowing Whom it is we love and by what example we love others.
John Milton famously said that the end of all learning is to know God, and out of that knowledge to love and imitate Him. So let’s teach our kids who God is!
Three practical steps to avoid the self-focused gospel:
- Teach kids who God is—study His attributes. What do our kids think when they hear the word “God”? A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” It’s important to teach children what God is like. They are curious, and we should answer their curiosity with deep truths about God’s character, which is revealed in the Bible. How is God different than us? (He is omniscient, eternal, infinite). (We can exhibit mercy, truthfulness, faithfulness). Children’s hearts are soft soil; their small souls are craving to know the God who made them.
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3, ESV).
- Encourage kids to read the Bible, looking for “clues” about who God is. Help kids understand that the Bible not only teaches us how to live, but through His Word, both written and incarnate, God tells us about Himself! Once, they’ve learned the attributes of God, help them look for those attributes in each story or lesson. God has revealed to us some of who He is, and we have the privilege of with His Spirit to guide us.
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13, ESV)
- Teach kids to praise God when they pray. So often children learn to pray by asking God for what they want and then thanking God for what He gives. Praise and adoration is easy to leave out, perhaps in part because our kids haven’t yet experienced or understood the multi-faceted nature of who it is they are praying to. When kids learn the character of God, they can learn to thank God for more than just His gifts; they have reason to praise Him for who He is!
“Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 113:1, ESV)
The important role we have as children and youth ministries workers:
Holocaust activist and survivor Corrie Ten Boom famously said, “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God you’ll be at rest.” Children and youth ministry workers are uniquely positioned to point the hearts of children away from the world, beyond themselves, to the soul filling gospel and character of God.
Lydia is the author of The Attributes of God. The Attributes of God for kids is a devotional or curriculum resource for kids ages 4-11. With 64 full color pages, this bright, engaging book walks through 10 unique and 11 moral attributes of God’s character. http://attributesofgodforkids.com/