Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Dannah Gresh: Even though her students are preschool children, Jennifer Lyell believes in teaching them important foundational concepts!

Jennifer Lyell: How do you actually understand what happened on the cross if you don’t understand sin and death that lasted forever?

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Lies Women Believe, for January 29, 2020. 

Nancy, this month we are talking about the importance of getting into the Word. I’m wondering, as you look back in your life, who was responsible for first giving you a love for getting into God’s Word?

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Wow, Dannah, I would say that for as far back as I can remember, the Word was a hugely important part of my life! In God’s providence and kindness, I was born into a home with parents who knew Jesus, who honored His Word. We were having the Word read at our mealtimes and in Sunday school and church, and under solid biblical preaching, and then in Christian school. 

Really it was through family devotions, with a children’s Bible storybook that was theologically organized, that I actually came to put my trust in Christ as a four-year-old child—.which is my first memory! So it all goes back to a childhood that was really saturated in Scripture. I could not be more grateful!

I know you have this same sense, because you have a little bit of a similar background. Think of how many things in our lives today—the ways we know God and the ways we are growing in Christ and the ways we are serving Him—how much of that goes back to a childhood where we were exposed to the Word of God.

Dannah: Yes! For me, my mom handed me a devotional book and a Bible when I was eight years old, and didn’t really leave me any choice but to expect that I was supposed to read it and study it and dig into it. So I had this beginning understanding of loving the Word, studying the Word, wanting to put it in my heart, when I was about eight years old.

Now, she had been helping me up to that point; she had been planting it into me. But I was eight when she said, “Now, you start to plant it in yourself!” And that’s what we want to talk about for the next day or so, about how we use God’s Word to plant truth into the next generation.

Nancy: Our guest has a real heart for that. In fact, she’s been a friend of both of ours for a long time. We want to welcome Jennifer Lyell. 

Is this your first time recording with us in the studio?

Jennifer: I think so. It’s definitely not my first time listening in the studio or my first time talking to the two of you.

Nancy: You’ve been around Revive Our Hearts a long time, and we’re so thankful for our listeners to get to know you. You have a very different background than Dannah and I do, but in God’s providence, you came to know the Lord as a young adult (we’ll talk a little bit more about that later).

You have had a heart for years for ministering the Word of God to children. In fact, you have released a book which I’m holding in my hand. It is gorgeous! It is called The Promises of God Storybook Bible: The Story of God’s Unstoppable Love, by Jennifer Lyell, with beautiful illustrations!

We’re going to talk more about what’s in this storybook Bible, but Jennifer, how did you first get interested in teaching the Word to children?

Jennifer: It’s interesting, because it wasn’t a decision that I made. It was after the Lord saved me; I had a thirst for the Word. I knew that I had consumed what the world had to offer, and that it was empty. Now I was a Christian . . . and that meant I needed to read the Bible. I needed to do that as quickly as possible and understand it as deeply as possible.

So in about four months, I had read through the Bible. The church that I was in, as a new believer, said, “Okay, there are some fifteen-year-old girls upstairs who haven’t had a Sunday school teacher, so how about you go teach them!?”

Nancy: Wow!

Jennifer: And so that’s how I started teaching Sunday school!

Dannah: Throw you in the deep end!

Jennifer: Yes! I actually just realized about a month ago that I’ve been a believer for almost twenty years, and I’ve and I’ve never actually been in a Sunday school class. I’ve only taught Sunday school classes! And so I started out teaching teenagers.

Through that was able to see that I did love teaching, and I loved learning and then applying what I learned to different contexts—just throughout life. I went to seminary and then ministered overseas in different contexts. I was not the girl that naturally gravitated towards teaching children. 

There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think, at its core, it’s because I didn’t grow up as a child going to church. I couldn’t relate to children who went to church. It was easier for me to assume that I could relate, for instance, to teaching a Bible study to women who were maybe coming out of a situation of brokenness. 

But, in reality, as I had relationships with friends who had children, that birthed a love in me for children, and I had a desire for them to know God’s Word. That is really where I started recognizing the importance of teaching God’s Word to kids. I expected that just as children can often learn things that we don’t want them to learn (because it’s not age-appropriate, or whatever), that children can learn more of God’s Word than what we often expect they can.

And so I tried out one year: “Hey, I’ll volunteer at church,” and teach with a couple who had been teaching a preschool class. I realized I loved it more than any other class I’d ever taught—more than any age, more than any culture, more than any context.

Nancy: Now, this book is actually designed for approximately four-to-seven-year-old children, but you’re teaching children who are at the young end of that spectrum. I had the joy not too long ago of visiting your church and meeting those little munchkins in your Sunday school class. They’re three years old (they maybe turn four during the year). That is really young. They’re tiny!

Jennifer: They’re tiny!

Nancy: Some churches, I think, probably assume that at that age that’s more babysitting time. But you’re really investing in those kids’ lives during that hour on Sunday morning.

Jennifer: Yes, sometimes the parents look a little stricken when I explain what the transition is from the two-year-old class to the three-year-old class. Two-year-olds, they do have lessons, but it’s more about play and care and that kind of thing—and we certainly do that as well. But I do teach for twenty to twenty-five minutes.

And the parents are always like, “Yeah-h-h . . . that’s not gonna work!” You learn skills, and some classes are harder or easier than others. But at the end of the day, what I know is . . Now, having taught that particular age (this is my seventh year) the same material . . . I teach the Old Testament to three-year-olds, and I love it! 

It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever taught. It’s where I really discovered this thread of the promises of God. It doesn’t matter the child, it doesn’t matter the context of what they’re getting at home, as far as their family discipleship and devotions. Often there is the variance of age. I can have kids who are as much as ten months apart in age. Which, at that age, is a lot of developmental difference! 

You have to get creative with different ways to understand the children and contextualize for them, but there has never been a child that by the end of the year I was not able to praise God and to look back to the beginning of the year and to list off, along with their parents, really specific things that they had learned about God that they didn’t know before!

Nancy: Now, Dannah, I think as we’re starting into this conversation, there are going to be some listeners who are thinking, What in the world does this have to do with me? I’m not a Sunday school teacher. There’s no way I would teach three-year-old Sunday school! or I don’t have little children.

But as you look at Scripture, this is a mandate for every one of us. We need to not only take the Word of God into our own hearts (which we’re emphasizing in this first month of the new year and throughout the year); that we receive God’s Word; that we let it feed us and mature us. But also, we have a responsibility—every one of us—to be passing on the truth of God’s Word to others, including the next generation!

I’m thinking of those verses, Psalm 145:4 and 6, that say, 

One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts . . . They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness.

One generation to the next!

Dannah: Yes, this is really a passion of mine. I share Jennifer’s passion! She loves the three-year-olds; I love the eight- to twelve-year-olds. A lot of people doubt when I say, “I’m doing live online Bible studies with eight- to twelve-year-olds. They’re doing an inductive method of Bible study, and they are really digesting deep spiritual meat!” 

People look at me funny, like, “Really? Are they?” And yet this passage says, “One generation will commend your works to another.” That means I’m not teaching my peers, I’m not teaching somebody just five, ten years younger than me. I am teaching people considerably younger. They’re a generation behind me. That’s what these verses tell us.

And, Jennifer, do you ever get those looks from people, like, “Su-u-u-re you teach the three-year-olds theology . . . r-i-i-ght! Of course, Jennifer.”

Nancy: The Old Testament. 

Dannah: Yeah, “the Old Testament.” What rises up in you, and what would your answer be to those people who doubt that a three-year-old or an eight-year-old or even a fifteen-year-old can really digest theological truth?

Jennifer: I have so many stories that I can tell of children who can! Even more than that I teach than the Old Testament for twenty- to twenty-five minutes is that I explain that at the end of the year, our last two weeks of teaching, is on the Trinity! And when you tell . . .

Nancy: But they’re four by that time! 

Jennifer: Yes, barely four, but yes, they’re four. Here’s what I know, having had the opportunity to be theologically educated, having taught adults, having taught in so many different contexts. There is no age for which the preparation and the execution of the teaching is as necessarily precise, and yet as consistently impactful, as it is with this age.

I think it’s because it really goes back to what Jesus says in Scripture, where He calls us to come to Him as a child. Was Jesus calling us to come to Him with an anemic understanding of God that didn’t understand the Trinity or couldn’t understand the nature and character of God? Of course not! Right?

But what do I see in these kids? What I see in them is that when you explain to them the concrete, absolute truth of God, of His Word, of His promises, of His plan, they will believe it! 

And when you say, “You know what? That’s a mystery! God hasn’t exactly told us or given us the minds to understand that exactly the way that He understands it.” They accept that, too. 

Nancy: There’s faith there. 

Jennifer: There’s faith. They can hold the mystery and yet they can have the conviction at the same time. That possibility, to me, has built more faith in me. My understanding of faith has really been formed by more three-year-olds than adults, without a doubt!

Dannah: Yes, so what you’re saying is that Jesus wasn’t lowering the bar or the expectations when He asked us to come as children. What would be the benefit of teaching theology to a three-year-old or an eight-year-old? Are there any benefits? Why would Jesus say that?

Jennifer: Well, I think first and foremost is to recognize the necessity of a foundation of the lens through which you see the world. At the earliest possible opportunity, for a child to understand that that child is known, that child was created by God in God’s image, for that child to understand who that God is, that that God is in control, that that God is good, that that God has plans, that that God has chosen a people, that that God has redeemed a people, and that they are sinners. 

The thing that children always accept very quickly is that their siblings are sinners! And it’s a little bit disconcerting, they’ll accept that I’m a sinner. But when it comes to accepting that Mom and Dad are sinners, that depends on the kid. 

But accepting that he or she is a sinner? “No! No way!” Their big brother is, their little sister is, but that child isn’t! Well, you know what? We’re consistent, right? And so, they still come as sinners. They do not come as the cute little munchkins that they look like; they come as sinners. They come as sinners without deeply entrenched sin patterns that are a stumbling block to the cross. 

And they come, particularly at the age I teach (part of what I love about this age), is that developmentally, they are concrete-thinkers. And so, the concept of absolute truth is something that’s very consistent with how their minds are developing at that stage.

So it’s crucial for the preschool years, in particular, that in our churches we have our strongest teachers, our most theologically astute teachers. They must love children. You cannot teach anyone until you have developed a relationship with them, and they know that they are seen and loved by you. 

Because of their ability and willingness to understand and accept concrete truth and the reality that that is the God that we serve—He is a God who is absolute and is defined—then that becomes the foundation for the whole rest of their life and everything else they’re taught, Dannah, when they get to your Bible study at eight.

What if they come to your Bible study at eight and they understand the concept of a triune God?

And how does that, then, help them to be able to exercise faith and demonstrate faith? Ultimately, what I pray at the end of every class for the kids is that God will use what they have heard and what they’ve been taught as a means by which His Word softens their heart and draws them into repentance and faith and understanding and trust in Christ!

Nancy: Now, lest anybody gets scared about what you just said—that the best teachers for these preschoolers are those who are theologically astute—a lot of people just said, “Well, that’s not me!” Jennifer, I love that you’ve developed this really beautiful resource.

Whether it’s for parents or grandparents, or aunts or uncles, or older friends or Sunday school teachers, we all have children in our lives. I have families who come to my house who have young children, and they sometimes run right over to the book section. 

I’m just so happy to have this book in my house that sometimes we can sit down and read about these promises of God, the story of God’s unstoppable love. That’s the thread that you take through the Old Testament and through the New Testament, to see the whole span of this amazing story of God’s promise and His unstoppable love!

One of the stories about two-thirds of the way through the book is about the resurrection. You’ve actually recorded this story audibly, and I’d love for us to take a listen to how you might read it to a young child. 

Jennifer:  

Many, many, many, many, m-a-a-ny years before Jesus was born, lived, and died, there lived a man named Job. Job loved God very much! And God loved Job very much! Job had many wonderful things: a wife, ten children, many animals, and lots of servants!

Satan, the one who’d been that snake in the Garden, well . . . he told God that Job only loved God because Job had so many happy things. God knew that wasn’t true, so He allowed Satan to take nearly all those things away from Job to show that Job would still love God. And that’s what happened!

Job suffered, but in the end Job praised God, and he said that he could praise Him because he knew that his Redeemer lives, and one day He would stand upon the earth! 

Well, Job didn’t live on the earth at the same time Jesus lived on the earth, but Job was right!

"Redeemer" is a word that describes someone who fixes something that has been broken. Job knew that this world was broken by the sin Adam and Eve started in the Garden. They made it so our hearts are hard toward God and so that we can’t love, hear, and obey Him like we are supposed to. Our hard hearts make us sin by not obeying Him.

So for years and years, God’s people had to make sacrifices of animals to try to redeem themselves, but it never worked forever. It only helped for a little while. God had promised a way for the problem of our sin and separation from God to be fixed forever . . . and ever . . . and ever! Job knew that way would one day be the Redeemer who would live on the earth!

Well, that Redeemer was Jesus! But, remember how we talked about Him dying on the cross and being buried in a tomb? That definitely happened! Jesus was dead, and He stayed dead for a couple of days, but on the third day, something amazing happened! His heart started beating! His eyes opened!

He moved his arms and His legs; He tore off the strips of cloth they had wrapped Him . . . and Jesus, the Redeemer, the Son of God who had been dead, walked out of that tomb completely alive! 

Nancy: That’s Jennifer Lyell as she would share that story with the three-year-olds in her Sunday school class that she teaches week after week. And, Jennifer, at the top of each of these stories (and by the way, what our listeners can’t see) are the beautiful paintings that are on every page of this book. They’re just spectacular.

At the beginning of each of these stories, there’s a promise, because this whole book is built around the promises of God. And the promise in this story is that God will crush the head of the snake and defeat death. Now, you’ve already talked to the children about the snake. 

Jennifer: Oh, yes! We talk about the snake every single week, and we demonstrate crushing the head of the snake every single week. 

Nancy: I bet those boys love that!

Jennifer: Oh, they love it a lot! 

Dannah: So many people are afraid of the scary stuff in the Scriptures . . . and a snake is scary! Crushing its head, that sounds scary and a little bit violent. So what would be the purpose of sharing that with these three-year-olds? How is that beneficial or helpful?

Jennifer: Because these three-year-olds are living in a world where there is a battle that is happening in their homes and in their communities and in their hearts. And that snake wants their hearts. They need to know that as soon as they can know it! So I don’t skip any of the hard things in what I teach in my class.

And honestly, one of the distinctions of this book I would say is some of the stories that are included and some of the stories that are not included. For instance, in most children’s storybook Bibles, you’ll have Jonah or you might have Daniel in the lion’s den. And these stories that we have traditionally interpreted as child-friendly. (Often that’s just kind of because they involve an animal, rather than because it’s a concept that a child at a particular age needs to know in order to develop their understanding of God.)

So, for instance, in the portion that was just played of me reading, it talks about the animal sacrifices. The story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac is a story I teach in my class. It’s a story in the book, and it’s the story in which the concept of the necessity for a blood sacrifice is introduced. Which, yeah, sounds crazy. Like, “Seriously? How would you teach that? And I can’t teach that! You’ve said you had a seminary degree, so you can only do that!”

“No!” There are other teachers at my church who teach this as well, who don’t have that training but have the same heart for children to understand God’s Word. How do you actually understand what happened on the cross if you don’t understand sin? If you don’t understand the snake? If you don’t understand the necessity for a sacrificial system that only lasted for a moment . . . and sin and death that lasted forever!

Dannah: I’m thinking about how many teenagers today, college students, adults, believe that Satan is just a figurative fictional character—just representing evil—when, in fact, he’s not! So what that makes me believe, Jennifer, is that this book isn’t just important for the three-year-olds that hear it, but for the parents and the grandparents who are reading it —because they’re learning truth, they’re learning theology, too.

Nancy: You think about how in the Scripture parents taught truth and faith in God and faith in the coming of Christ to their children by means of words and pictures. You have these children growing up in Jewish homes, where every Passover they’re offering up a lamb that they have brought into their home.

And kids, they get attached to these animals. Then they have to kill that animal and eat the flesh of that lamb and put its blood up on the doorposts. There were children in those homes where this was happening. God was intending not only for those parents who needed to know these stories for themselves, but they were teaching their children at the same time, who would in turn teach their children, that sin requires the sacrifice of an innocent life, so that we can be spared from the wrath and the judgment of God! 

And so, Jennifer, you’re teaching these concepts to three-year-olds week after week, but you’ve written a book here that’s designed for, roughly, four- to seven-year-old kids: a little younger, a little older, depending on where they are in their learning ability.

I think it’s going to be a great boost to the faith of all of us who need greater confidence in the promises of God, the story of God’s unstoppable love! You wrestled with what the subtitle should be for a long time, and I love what you ended up with. This is the story of God’s unstoppable love! This is a resource that’s going to encourage our faith as adults, that the promises of God can be trusted!

The book is called The Promises of God Storybook Bible. We’ve posted, at ReviveOurHearts.com, some photos of this book and some of the paintings in it. In fact, I’m just looking at the photo of The Passover Promise. There’s a dad with his little boy watching around the corner, a dad putting that blood of the slain lamb around the doorpost of the house. And what a powerful moment and powerful lesson that was! 

The promise for that story, as you’ve written in, is that God will save His people through the blood of a spotless lamb. We need to know these promises; your children need to know these promises. The children in your neighborhood need to know these promises!

This is going to be a resource you want to have in your home, in your church library, so you can share the promises of God—not only with your own heart—but with children. 

We’d love to make a copy of this beautiful and powerful book, The Promises of God Storybook Bible, available to you when you make a donation of any amount to the ministry of Revive Our Hearts.

When you make that gift, you’re helping us to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love to every generation . . . and generations to come.

Dannah: We’ll be glad to send you a copy of the book when you make your donation by calling us at 1–800–569–5959. You can also make your donation by going to ReviveOurHearts.com, and be sure to ask for your copy of The Promises of God Storybook Bible by Jennifer Lyell.

Today we’ve talked about the fact that it is important for one generation to teach the truth of God’s Word to the next generation. Tomorrow (maybe you’re feeling intimidated) make sure you’re back, because we’re going to talk about how to do that! Be sure and join us for Revive Our Hearts.

Calling women of all ages to freedom, fullness, and fruitfulness in Christ. Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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