Helping Kids Talk About God: A Conversation with Jonathan Puddle
I’m very excited to share with you this interview with Jonathan Puddle—a talented writer, children’s pastor, and podcast host—whose wise words about how Christian parents can help their kids talk about God will resonate with many of you. Check out his website to find out more about him and his work, including links to his writings and his podcast (“The Puddcast”).
In your work as a children’s pastor, how do you help kids talk about God? What language have you found to be particularly helpful to teach?
I think the most important thing to get right in your mind and your heart, regarding teaching anyone about God (whether kids or adults), is that God looks like Jesus. Throughout the journey of Scripture the picture of what God is like is constantly improving. Details are filled in, questions are answered, until finally Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, comes to earth and shows us once and for all what God is like. And the focal point of that demonstration is God climbing onto the cross to be killed by the very people he is willing to die for. So that’s where I start with kids too.
I ask them if any of them can see their souls. They all laugh and say no. I ask them if I wanted to know what their soul was like, what should I do? They say to look at their bodies and watch what they say and do. So then I ask if they can see God? They think a bit harder now, and we eventually get to the same question: what should we look at if we want to know what God is like?
The answer is Jesus, God’s body. So we talk a lot about Jesus, we help them see the spirit of Christ active throughout Scripture and in their own lives, and we teach kids the same way Jesus did, through stories, parables and lived example.
We then go on to talk about God also as a loving father. Even better than the best kind of dad they can imagine. The kind of dad who would give you everything he owns, and then when you waste it and ruin his reputation, he still sits on his front porch for years waiting eagerly to see you come down the street. And when you do come back down his street, he runs to you and hugs you and kisses you and isn’t ashamed or embarrassed of you. The kind of daddy God who celebrates you and puts you up on his shoulders, prancing around saying “This is my son! This is my daughter!”
Ultimately, it’s my belief that God is really really good, and that God can be experienced right now. I want the kids we teach, and my own kids, to experience God for themselves, because no one can deny the reality of their own experience. We can teach them principles till we’re blue in the face—and there is a place for principles—but when we have a short amount of time on a Sunday morning, in the midst of a busy week, when they’re probably going to forget most of what we say, they won’t forget what they experience for themselves.
So we try and use language that conveys the goodness and the experience-ableness of God, and then we invite the kids to experience him themselves.
What are some ways in which religion seems to help children develop their spirituality? Have you found that religion can hinder spiritual growth in any way?
To answer this, it might be helpful to start with some clarity in terms. To the general population, religion often just means belief in God. To some Christians, especially more liturgical or sacramental traditions like Catholics and Anglicans, it means much the same: our belief in God, and the lifestyle and actions we build around that belief.
For many evangelicals (I use this term loosely, since it carries baggage for a lot of people) however, religion means everything that Jesus died to set us free from. The holy rules and holy robes and special ceremonies and religious job descriptions and complicated dogma that many would say typifies the Old Covenant and the Law of Moses. Christianity is about relationship not religion, these people would say.
I like the way pastor and author Bruxy Cavey puts it: “Jesus is God with us, come to show us God’s love, save us from sin, set up God’s kingdom, and shut down religion, so we can share in God’s life.”
I think religion that is dogmatic and rules-based can be very damaging to spirituality, which is fluid and dynamic and living and relational. Spirituality can’t be quantified or catalogued, it must be lived and wrestled with and tasted and lost and found again. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there is a place for liturgical or sacramental Christianity though, far from it. I have had extremely powerful spiritual experiences in a Catholic mass or an Eastern Orthodox paschal celebration (Easter), just as I have developed private spiritual practices.
Ultimately, the invitation is for each of us to live spiritually at all times. Kids seem to operate this way intrinsically, I think it’s adults who live in a dualistic fashion. My goal then is to not ruin things for them, and really just help them invite God into their every day.
As a parent, what does church mean to you? How has your understanding of church changed or evolved since becoming a parent?
I grew up going to church on Sundays, and by the time I was a young adult I had become really bored of it all. I never abandoned God, but I stopped attending church for close to 10 years, because I knew there had to be something more to the Christian life than sitting in a chair for 2 hours on a Sunday. It took God meeting me out in the wilderness for me to really fall in love with his son Jesus, and that changed everything. Jesus drew my wife and I into meaningful Christian community, and eventually drew us back into a Sunday church setting.
As a parent, I think being involved in a church community is very important. The fact is, your children are unlikely to see very much of your private spirituality, but if you attend church and worship God there, and pray and so on, those are things they will actually see. And they will have lasting impact. The statistics are fairly unanimous, if you are not attending church, your children are very unlikely to do so when they grow up, and there’s close to a zero-percent probably that their children (your grandchildren) will either.
I certainly didn’t appreciate that before we had kids, and even for some years as a parent I fought with it. The Christian life is so much more than Sundays, but if you’re not involved in something that your children can see and experience, then the likelihood is they won’t come to know God at all.
In your pastoral role, what are some of the most interesting questions that children bring to you? How do you answer these questions?
Questions around sickness and death are always tricky, of course. If God is so good, why do bad things happen? The temptation for most of us, I think, is to have a ready answer to this question since we feel like our reputation is on the line. Or worse, God’s reputation is on the line, and we have to defend him! Unless we don’t have to defend him. It comes back to experience, in my mind.
If kids’ experience of God is limited to what I tell them about him, what experience is that? In that situation, I have to have all the answers. But I don’t even have all the answers for my own questions, let alone theirs! If they are experiencing God for themselves however, then they get the chance to ask him their own questions, and to wrestle with him themselves.
I hope that doesn’t sound like a cop-out of an answer. Ultimately, if I can answer their questions and can point them to Jesus at the same time, then that’s what I’ll do. But I don’t need to have all the answers myself, and I try to encourage the kids to dialogue with God themselves.
Why do people die? Because Adam and Eve chose independence from God instead of dependence upon God, and so now we have a system of death in the world that God never intended. Why doesn’t God just change it? Because God is love, and if love can’t be denied, then it’s not love at all, it’s control. Love has to be able to lose. If God stepped in and just fixed everything, then we would have no choice.
As long as we are free to reject God, we are also free to choose God. And God’s loving self-sacrifice is what motivates all of our hearts to choose him. His heart breaks even more than yours does when people get sick and die. The important thing to remember, is that God is always with us, and we are never alone.
And so on and so forth, pointing kids back to God himself.
What advice would you give to parents raising children in this particular cultural and political climate? What are some important things to keep in mind as we try to teach our kids to be empathic, compassionate, and kind?
I think open and honest, truth-based dialogue with our children is really important. Culture has moved past the days of absolutes and certainties, and is already moving past the days of relative truth and everything being specific to your point of view. What we’re coming into now is a time where it’s all about your preferences and your comfort, at the expense of everything else, including logic and reason.
Can you imagine fake news in the 90s? Journalistic integrity was everything! But not anymore. Now if it’s the news you like to hear, it’s good enough, whether or not it’s actually true. Whatever viewpoint makes you comfortable, you can find support for it. This is a recipe for disaster. Growing to real maturity requires discomfort and pain, and the world our children are growing up in seems to be rejecting discomfort above all else.
So we have to teach them honesty and clarity at the same time as compassion. We have to teach them to find out the truth for themselves—to be inquiring, rather than to believe everything that is being to fed to them. We have to teach them that life includes really difficult things, as well as really amazing things, and they can get to choose how they respond to life, but that some ways of responding will bear better fruit than others.
All of that means understanding the world your kids live in, being exposed to what they’re exposed to, and not having your head in the sand. It might mean putting rules in place about how soon they can use Instagram, or have their own phone—rules that might make them unpopular with their friends.
I think parents need to be present and engaged more than ever before. There was a time when the moral framework of society, and the tightknitted-ness of communities, would positively contribute to the raising of kids into adulthood. But thanks to the disconnected, busy way we live today, with little value for rational thought and dialogue and true neighbourly love, those days are gone.
What you don’t teach your children now, society will do a terrible job of teaching later. So be present and be proactive and get to know your kids better than your parents ever knew you. We can and must come alongside them and respond to the things going on their lives naturally, because we’re adults with more wisdom than them. But if we’re not engaged, we won’t even know what’s going on until they commit suicide because the nudes they sent to someone on the internet got shared publicly.
I don’t mean to sound scare-mongery, but the fact is the darkness has gotten both darker and more easily accessible. But we get to carry light and hope into our kids world, and more than that, we get to teach them how to maintain light and hope for themselves.
Jonathan is passionate about seeing people walk in the fullness of the love and freedom that God designed for us. A writer and podcast host, Jonathan and his wife are also the Children’s Pastors of a thriving community church in Kitchener, Canada. Having spent many years in non-profit administration, Jonathan is equally as comfortable crafting strategic plans as he is mentoring people one-on-one or in small groups. Raised by missionary parents, living in five countries and being exposed to a broad range of faith traditions, Jonathan teaches from a rich and inclusive Christian framework. A father of three, Jonathan loves books, music, movies, dark beer, good food, and long walks on the beach.