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Talking With children about Jesus’ Death

When I was about six I heard the story of Jesus’ death for the first time. My family did not attend church at that time, so I did not hear the Gospel stories until I was in school. I loved the stories of Jesus, but when heard about the crucifixion I was devastated. In fact I remember going home and crying. Jesus was dead and I didn’t know about the resurrection. To this day I do not recall being told the Easter story. Logic dictates that my teacher must have told that story to us. Surely you wouldn’t stop at the crucifixion? Still it is my response to the story of Jesus’ death that sticks in my memory.

As a Christian Educator I have struggled to find the best way to explore Jesus’ death with children. This story is central to our faith and yet it is definitely not a suitable subject for younger ones. How can we retell this story for them without dwelling on the violence? How do we stay faithful to the scriptures and present the story in age appropriate ways? How do we even begin to explain its significance?

My suggested approach is to include the story of Jesus’ death as part of the bigger narrative of Holy Week. This allows us to emphasize those stories that are age appropriate, such as Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, the last supper, and even Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Then as part of that story we simply explain that Jesus was led out of the city and killed on a cross. There is no need for further details; the fact that Jesus was killed is sufficient. Don’t stop at Jesus’ death though! We cannot assume that the children in our churches have heard the whole story, so give them a hint of what is to come. Let them know that it isn’t the end and something wonderful is about to happen. To quote Tony Campolo, “It was Friday and my Jesus was dead on the cross, but that’s because it was Friday. Sunday’s Coming!”

When we speak with the children about the crucifixion, I’m not sure it is necessary to explain why Jesus died. However, if a child asks the question it is important to emphasize that Jesus was killed by his enemies and not by God. I don’t want to get into a theological discussion here, but many churches explain Good Friday by stating that, “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” Perhaps youth and adults can struggle through the theological implications of this, but think about the ways in which that statement depicts God to concrete thinkers. Do we really want to present God as a harsh and rule bound judge? Do we want the children to think that their small mistakes are so heinous that they caused Jesus’ death? Perhaps a better approach is to explain that Jesus loved people more than the rules. The people who enforced the rules became angry and afraid, so they killed Jesus to try and stop him. Then move onto Easter and the assurance that, whatever we may face, we do not face it alone and that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love.

How do you talk about Jesus’ death with the children in your church? Do you have any special activities or wisdom to share?

Sharon Harding

About Sharon Harding

I was born in England and immigrated to Canada almost 30 years ago. A graduate of Gloucestershire University (B.Ed.), I have been involved in children’s ministry since I was 16. Over the past 12 years I have written for a variety of Christian Education curriculum resources. I also write a blog at rediscoveredfamilies.com encouraging parents to build strong connections with their children. When I am not working I enjoy painting, reading, and pottering around the Internet.
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5 Responses to Talking With children about Jesus’ Death

  1. One of the most moving Holy Weeks I have ever experienced as an adult was the year a mom and her daughter, who was 5, came to all the Holy Weeks services (in that church, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Day).

    Emma shouted HOSANNA! and waved her palms high in the air as we marched around the church.  She came up to had her feet washed. As the altar was stripped she whispered in the dark just loudly enough for me to hear, “Jesus is all alone now.” She walked the stations of the cross and, like many of the adults, cried when Jesus died and was buried.  And as the Easter fire was kindled, whispered to her mom, “I know why we’re lighting the fire; Jesus is coming back!” And as the lights in that church came on to reveal the Easter decorations in all their splendour (thank you to Altar Guilds everywhere!), she rang her bell with amazing gusto, wanted to be sprinkled with the baptismal water “again,” giggling, and truly shouted her ALLELUIA! on Easter morning.

    Kids will get it. We have to trust that, and it will happen.

    (Yes, I’m sure that mom was intentional all the way along about telling Emma what to expect at each step, and she certainly knew of the resurrection ahead of experiencing all this. But the experiencing, rather than the telling, is what made the impact.)

    • Heather McCance, thank you so much for sharing this with me. You reminded me how as children or how I was as a child I believe I was closer to God as a child. You reminded me of that feeling of having pure faith…shareimg your story was truly amazing how you described her moments during that time so vividly and with such love that mut come from a heart as beautiful as yours. Thank you again for reminding me of me…

  2. That’s amazing, Heather.

  3. God had everything to do with it,read Isaiah  53 .Salvation means we are saved from the wrath of God  by God.It is a hard concept to get across to the children but we shouldn’t be lying to them.It is important to get the gospel right no mater what age .My daughter was three or four when I told her this story and she seemed to understand as far as a three or four year old can understand.

  4. Sharon Harding

    Heather thank you so much you for sharing that wonderful story. I agree that experiencing the story of holy Week works very well for adults and children alike. I love that this experience occurred during the services with the whole congregation. I wish that more children had the opportunity to do so.

    Tony thank you for joining the discussion. The apostles creed states that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”  I think that is as far as we need to go with young children. It just lays the groundwork for later discussion about passages like Isaiah 53.

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