The challenge of teaching the Reformation

When it comes to teaching our children about the Reformation, especially our young children, we have to admit the challenge of it. Perhaps, the most obvious challenge is that the official date for recognizing the Reformation is Oct. 31, 1517. There is a part of me that wishes that Martin Luther would have had some foresight with his choosing of a date! Didn’t he know that this would become Halloween and that children would be hopelessly distracted? I am thinking that it probably isn’t enough to dress up your children as Martin Luther to help them understand the joy of the Reformation.

In addition, the Reformation isn’t just competing with Halloween. It’s also competing with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. My daughter, Tayley, came home from public school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day impacted in ways that I rarely see, trying to tell me the story of the civil rights movement. In fact, she is having the hardest time accepting that Martin Luther King Jr. was named after another Martin Luther that was greater than he.

With that said, perhaps the greatest challenger in teaching our children about the Reformation are the truths themselves. Most of the key ideas are framed by Latin slogans or “solas.” Whoever decided to frame the Reformation in this way didn’t have children in mind. What is more, if someone challenged us Lutherans to put the Reformation itself into a single sentence, we might say, “The Reformation was all about the Bible’s teaching that we are justified by grace through faith by Christ alone.” Try teaching that to your six-year-old!

The ideas of the Reformation are saving and powerful, but they are also abstract. Somewhere along the line, I remember learning that kids under a certain age simply cannot grasp abstract concepts. For parents wanting to teach their children about the Reformation, these are the challenges.

I’ll tell you what I am going to do with my kids to meet the challenge. I am going to teach my kids about the Reformation during the entire month of October. Really, whenever it comes up in daily life, we are going to talk about it. I am going to buy a children’s book from Northwestern Publishing House. There’s one called Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed The World that looks especially good, but I’ll look into other possibilities as well. We will talk about the different “Martins” and why October 31 is special to us for better reasons than candy.

But what about the truths of the Reformation? How can we share abstract truths with them in meaningful ways? We will let Luther guide us with Scripture. His first thesis, which guided the other 94 theses, stated, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This is where everything started. He was wanting the world to know that the life of a believer has two parts 1) contrition or sorrow over sin and 2) faith in the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s actually a pretty simple concept to understand. That’s what I intend to teach my girls.

I am going to teach them to apologize to each other and to their God. I am going to hold his law in front them and show them their sin. Then, I will show them their Savior who died for them. I will speak to them of Jesus’ love and grace and about how forgiven and washed and loved they really are. I probably won’t even call it repentance. They will learn that word later, but they will learn about Jesus. That’s really my number one goal.

Even if they never do come to know with great clarity the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr., I want them to know Jesus. That after all is what the Reformation was all about.

Timothy Bourman is a pastor at Sure Foundation in New York City and co-host of the podcast Project 1517. He and his wife, Amanda, have three young daughters.

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