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Children receive first Bibles — and lifelong lessons

If you attended church as a child, you may have received your first Bible from your church family. How old were you? Do you still have that Bible? The tradition of United Methodist churches presenting Bibles to children continues, often accompanied by meaningful activities.

While many United Methodist churches give Bibles to new third graders, Melanie C. Gordon, former director of ministry with children at Discipleship Ministries, says there are other appropriate times to give Bibles to youngsters. She suggests giving youngsters "a Bible at baptism and when families become members of a new church.

"I also think offering them a Bible when they begin kindergarten helps children see that the church is supporting them — something which speaks to our Wesleyan heritage of supporting children's education."

A year of learning

At Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., third-graders receive their Bibles in September and then spend the year learning about them.

Myers Park hosts a Bible banquet a week before the children receive their Bibles. A rehearsal for the Bible presentation precedes a sit-down dinner for the children and their families, says Sarah C. Sumner, director of children's ministries. (Asked for tips about the banquet, Sumner quipped, "Don't serve spaghetti!")

On Bible Sunday, the children, usually more than 80, are divided into groups — one group for each service — and the church presents the Bibles. "Presenting all of the Bibles at one service is too long," Sumner says. "Also, by presenting Bibles at all services, the day truly becomes Bible Sunday for all who attend."

The third-graders then spend the entire Sunday school year using a curriculum titled Learning to Use My Bible (Abingdon Press). "We focus on becoming familiar with the books of the Bible, where the stories are found and so forth." Sumner says. "We also go away for an overnight Bible retreat where we spend time playing and enjoying being together as well as exploring our new Bibles."

Bible Buddies for a lifetime of faith

Each September, staff at Faith United Methodist Church in Goshen, Ind., post pictures of third-graders on a bulletin board. Church members, called Bible Buddies, select a child to sponsor. Each of the sponsors — ranging from youth and young adults to senior adults — donates $30 to cover the cost of a Bible.

The Bible Buddies are encouraged to send cards to their children throughout the year — birthday, Christmas and so forth — and to pray for them," says the Rev. Melissa Zimmerman, associate pastor, She cites several benefits of the relationship.

"First, children coming from homes with little connection to a church have another person in their life caring specifically for them and encouraging them in their faith," she says.

The children also begin connecting with youth and adults beyond their Sunday school teachers, parents and pastors.

The Bible Buddies ministry also supports Faith Church's focus "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by uniting church and home by helping people define, strengthen and celebrate spiritual milestones in their growing relationship with Christ."

The yearlong program concludes at the beginning of fourth grade when each child receives a Bible in front of the congregation.

Creative learning

Staff at Assurance United Methodist Church in Huntersville, N.C., started the nine-month-long Bible Boosters class to help third-graders see that the Bible they receive is more than just a book; it is The Book, says Tina Springs, director of children's discipleship. "We thought we would not be doing our due diligence for those young, budding disciples if we did not help them to discover all of the wonder that can be found between the front and the back cover of their brand-new Bibles."

"Bible Boosters reflects our overall programming approach for children using multisensory experiences to make the lessons teaching how to use their new Bibles come to life," says Springs. "We may use Scripture scavenger hunts, art activities and even cooking lessons incorporating Scripture or reinforcing the lesson of the day/week. The children love the variety of games that have them moving, building relationships with each other and growing a stronger relationship with Jesus."

Bibles throughout the ages

While many churches present first Bibles to third-graders, churches such as St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, follow Gordon's encouragement to present Bibles to younger children.

"We feel it's important to equip families to be the primary formers of their children's faith," says the Rev. Allison Warren, minister of discipleship for children and their families, "so we give 4-year-olds a Bible to take home and use as a family. We want families to understand that different kinds of Bibles — various translations, story Bibles, study Bibles and so forth — fit different purposes or life stages. The children get a Spark Story Bible at age 4, a Common English kids' Bible in third grade and a Wesley Study Bible at high school graduation."

To offset the cost involved with giving three Bibles per child during their childhood and youth, individuals sponsor a particular age. "Inviting individuals to sponsor each age level was a lot easier than anticipated," Warren says. "People love to support putting Bibles into the hands of children and youth."

Bible 101 for children and adults

First United Methodist Church in New Braunfels, Texas, assists both children and parents to become more familiar and comfortable with using their Bibles. Called Bible 101, the two-week class during the Sunday school hour explains Bible structure, components and attributes and how to locate verses and topics. The director of elementary education, Kristi Lindsay, created the class after realizing an inability to use the Bible can intimidate both children and adults.

Lindsay recalls a child who began to cry when asked to find a Bible verse during Sunday school. "All of the other students found it with ease, but this child sat in his seat and sobbed," she says. The child didn't know how to find the verse and was embarrassed that the other students could find it easily. "Shortly after that," Lindsay says, "a friend who was participating in an adult Bible study admitted to me that she was humiliated because she had to use the table of contents to find books in the Bible." It concerned Lindsay that adults as well as children felt lost when trying to use the Bible.

Tips to help kids (and adults) use the bible

Melanie C. Gordon, former director of ministry with children at Discipleship Ministries, offers these tips for church leaders, parents and teachers:

  • Keep a variety of Bible translations accessible for children in the church library, classrooms and so forth.
  • Choose developmentally appropriate Bible translations. Babies and toddlers need Bibles they can handle, with authentic illustrations and simple language. Emerging readers need easy-to-read translations.
  • Children need Bible translations they can comprehend. Scripture is where children encounter and engage with God's word. We want them to hear that word without being encumbered by language.
  • Read the Bible and Bible stories to children just as you would a nighttime story. What better stories for our children to experience than the story given to us by God?
  • Let children see you reading and studying the Bible.
  • Talk with children about the stories you read together and connect those stories to real-life experiences.

For Bible Presentation Sunday, invite members to bring a special Bible to church. Encourage the preacher to talk about her/his special Bible. Take pictures to post on your webpage and in publications.

Sarah Sumner, Myers Park UMC, Charlotte, North Carolina

When starting any new program, congregational buy-in is very important. Decide the goal of the program. Be certain the program works toward the goal.

The Rev. Melissa Zimmerman, Faith UMC, Goshen, Indiana

Compare several versions when considering which Bible to present to your children. Learn the features and components of the one you choose, and develop a course based on the functions and outcomes you want your children to learn.

Kristi Lindsay, First UMC, New Braunfels, Texas

While presenting Bibles to third-graders, Fairlington United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Va., also gives diverse/inclusive Bibles to younger children that reflect their families' traditions. Two favorites are My First Message Bible (NavPress) and God's Story for Me Bible Storybook (Regal Books).

For a list of children's Bibles and books, visit, a website of the children's ministry unit of Discipleship Ministries.

Now, once a year, Bible 101 is offered to children in third through fifth grade. The two classes are held after Bibles are presented to the third-graders. Parents are encouraged to attend so they can help their children understand how to use their Bibles. "We make a huge presentation of the Bibles to the children and their parents," says Lindsay "and then we encourage them to become familiar with and use them daily. But first, we show them how!"

Locking in to a Bible-filled faith

A lock-in at First United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn., helps children learn to use their new Bibles. "Our third-grade lock-in," says Carrie Altman, director of children's ministry, "is a wonderful chance for children to get to know their Bible while enjoying fellowship and bonding with their classmates."

The overnight adventure includes decorating canvas tote bags that students use to bring their Bibles to and from church each week, an "archaeological dig" to learn about the history of the Bible, and a scavenger hunt around the church to familiarize the children with the buildings and all that happens in them each week. Each student also receives a copy of Finding Your Way Through Your Bible, which they begin to explore and are encouraged to use throughout the year. The self-instruction guide is available to use with the Common English Bible or New Revised Standard Version.

"After the lock-in, the third-grade Sunday school teachers follow up with the children on a weekly basis," says Altman. "The children are constantly looking up Bible verses and using their Bibles as reference tools as well as guides for their lives."

The lock-in at Arapaho United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas, follows a midwinter presentation of Bibles. Beginning with a fun discussion of Bible basics, the group turns to the Godly Play version of creation to spur "a fabulous conversation about the beginning of humanity and the use of metaphor," says Kay Ash, director of children's ministries.

During the 16-hour event, the children write their names in English, Hebrew and Greek on wooden treasure boxes and make beaded Bible bookmarks. They look up verses and try to guess the ingredients to be used during a brownie-baking session, Ash explains. During a flashlight treasure hunt, kids use clues hidden in Bibles to know where to go next. At some stops, they pick up reminders of their journey from the Old Testament into the New Testament and the life of Jesus.

"Third-graders love details," Ash says, "I rapid fire Bible questions to them all night long."

Cindy Solomon is a marketing consultant and freelance writer living in Franklin, Tenn.

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