By Anna Sargeant
The word “gospel-centered” has become increasingly common over the last decade. But what does it really mean? Does it mean always focusing on the message of salvation? Does it mean making sure to tie everything in the story to Jesus? Sometimes it simply feels like a buzz word for the latest and greatest Christian content!
I was part of a children’s ministry for eight years in Austin, Texas. We had tons of conversations about gospel-centeredness because we wanted the children to see that the Bible is not about us. It’s one big story, which is all about Jesus! We wanted to shift our focus from behavior modification to heart transformation, doing whatever we could to not make little Pharisees, but true disciples of Jesus. Above all, we desperately wanted the kids to trust in the gospel alone for everything.
“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. . .because by works of the law no one will be justified. . .I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:16-17, 21)
A gospel-centered children’s ministry aims to help kids trust in Christ alone. We do not want kids saying the sinner’s prayer and then spending the rest of their lives trying to prove themselves to God. We want them walking in the freedom that comes with their justification in Jesus. Therefore, as children’s ministers, gospel-centeredness ought to permeate everything we do. We want to cultivate a gospel-centered mindset.
Practically, this plays itself out through gospel-centered teaching, gospel-centered interactions, and gospel-centered values. This blog will be a two-part series, with this first part focusing on gospel-centered teaching.
When I say gospel-centered teaching, I’m not only talking about gospel-centered curricula, which are designed to reveal the redemptive arc, or the metanarrative, of the Bible. The approach is rooted in Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” In other words, the entire canon of Scripture is about God’s plan to save us through Jesus. This is exciting stuff, and The Gospel Project for Kids does this excellently. But the truth is, no matter what curriculum you use, you can implement gospel-centered teaching, if you have the following:
- Redemption-focused lessons.
- Curriculum-prepared volunteers.
- Prayer-dependent teams.
These kinds of lessons:
1. Highlight God’s character.
2. Expose the human condition.
3. Reveal the plan for redemption.
While it’s not morally wrong or incorrect to say, “Have faith like David,” or “Obey God like Noah,” a redemption-focused lesson trains kids to see what’s happening in the individual story AND to see the bigger story God is weaving throughout Scripture.
So, in teaching the story about Noah and the ark, you would highlight that humans are sinners, and God deals seriously with sin. Hence, He sent the flood. But you’d also point out that God is a loving God who offers rescue to sinners who put their faith in Him. In this case, He did so through Noah’s ark. Thousands of years later, He would do so through Jesus, the cross, and the tomb.
God’s character. The human condition. The plan for redemption. This is a gospel-centered way of telling the story.
When developing your own gospel-centered lessons, ask the following questions:
- Highlight God’s character.
- Ask “What does this story reveal about God’s character? How does God interact with humans? How does this story show that God is different?”
- Expose the human condition.
- Ask, “What does this show us about humans? About our limitations? About our rebellion? About our connection (or lack thereof) to God?”
- Reveal the plan for redemption.
- Ask, “Did anyone need to be rescued in this story? Who did the rescuing? What happened after that?”
- Point out that an even greater salvation was coming one day, through Jesus!
I once heard it said, “The only good curriculum is a prepared curriculum.” All curricula have their pros and cons, but even an excellent gospel-centered curriculum is poor in the hands of an unprepared teacher. The heart of preparation is rooted in our understanding of the gospel. A prepared volunteer has said, “Lord, I bring nothing to the table. I am dependent on you and need your help.” Again, this dependence on Christ alone defines a gospel-centered mindset.
Another axiom that’s applicable here is, “You cannot teach what you do not know.” When it comes to the inerrant Scriptures and this glorious gospel, we don’t want our volunteers teaching what they have not wrestled through themselves.
Several years into my time in church staff, our team realized that it wasn’t enough to ask the volunteers to just read through the material before Sunday. True preparation meant taking ownership of the material. So we came up with some prompts to put on the first page of every lesson:
Study [Colossians 1:15-2:3].
After you study, ask yourself:
- Did God reveal anything new to me in this passage?
- What did I learn about God (or myself) that was hard to hear?
- What am I excited to teach from this passage?
The main point this week is: [Paul said Jesus is most important.] Ask yourself, Why does this main point matter for the kids?
Using these simple prompts, leaders were more prepared to teach than if they had only skimmed the activities and crafts, or even if they’d read the Bible story but didn’t take time to wrestle through it themselves.
One final way to encourage your volunteers to come prepared is to pose challenging questions in a group setting, such as:
- What was hard about this lesson for you?
- Does anyone want to share how this lesson convicted them?
- Does anyone want to share how it caused them to think differently about God?
The more you talk through these kinds of questions as a team, the more your volunteers will start showing up with answers—and the more prepared they will actually be to teach!
Cultivating prayer-dependent teams is the final element of gospel-centered teaching because apart from our own dependence on the gospel, we have nothing to offer the kids. Luke 5:15-16 says, “However, the report went around concerning [Jesus] all the more; and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by Him of their infirmities. So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.” (NKJV)
Because more ministry was needed, Jesus went more often to pray.
Is your team prayer-dependent?
- How often do your service teams pray together? Once a month? Every Sunday? Outside of Sunday?
- Does your children’s ministry have a prayer team that’s separate from the classroom volunteers? If so, what are they praying for? If not, what could that look like?
- Do your volunteers pray for your children by name?
Toward the end of my time in children’s ministry, we focused on this last one, saying, “We’ll show the kids how important prayer is—and how important each child is to us—by praying for them by name.” Not only did this model that Christians pray as a way of life, it reminded the volunteers of their role in ministry—to give the kids over to Jesus. This is a gospel-centered mindset.
So what does “gospel-centered ministry” mean? It means a lot of things, and it plays itself out in many ways, but at its root, it’s a mindset about what ministry is. It’s not about ending the lesson in a certain way every time. It’s not about training young, competent theologians. It’s about intentionally creating a space where children can encounter Jesus, the One who loves us and redeems us, the One who hears our prayers, the One on which we depend for life, breath, and everything.
Anna served on the children’s ministry team at The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas from 2009-2017, first as a volunteer, then as full-time staff. She also wrote for six years for The Gospel Project for Kids curriculum. Anna currently works as an acquisitions editor for B&H Kids in Nashville. When she’s not writing or editing, you can find her reading a book, sipping tea, chatting with loved ones, attempting to record a podcast, or walking in the woods.