Did the story of Christianity end with the lives of the twelve apostles? Parents might just give that impression to their kids if they don’t teach them the continuing story of the Christian faith from the death of the last of the original apostles all the way to the present time. My wife and I wanted our kids (who are all grown now) to know the true stories of great heroes of the faith (and quite a few villains), and why these courageous men and women fought for “the faith once for all delivered for the saints” (Jude 3).
If you are serious about your child’s religious faith, here are some reasons and resources for you to teach your kids about Church history:
1. Kids learn their faith is based in something solid.
The Bible is not “The Chronicles of Narnia,” nor is it “The Lord of the Rings.” There is no Middle Earth. But virtually all the geographical sites and names of famous secular rulers (Hittites, Assyrians, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar Augustus, Herod, Caiaphas) and empires are confirmed by actual history. (There is a reason why there are maps in the back of most Bibles.)
The story of Christianity begins during the days of Caesar Augustus, but does not end with the death of the Apostle John. Nor does it begin in 1517 with Martin Luther or in 1611 with the King James Version of the Bible.
The story of Christianity is filled with heroes by the names of Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian. Do your kids know these names as well as the names of Paul, Timothy, and Silas? You want your kids to know that they are in a long train of believers stretching all the way back to the time of Jesus and the apostles.
2. Kids get “innoculated” against false teaching.
When Jehovah’s Witnesses come to your door, do your teens know that they are espousing a form of Arianism? (Do you know how to biblically counter that heresy?) When your teens are erroneously taught that the Council of Nicea “invented” the Trinity, have you already taught them the truth behind that important council in A.D. 325?
Do they know about other erroneous teachings that Christians debated and fought against in the first five centuries (such as Gnosticism and Pelagianism, which continue to make comebacks down through the centuries)?
If they know accurate Church history, they will be able later in life to “nuke” the popular fairy tales that pass off as history (usually taught by ignorant and uninformed teachers or professors).
3. Your kids will learn how Christianity shaped world history.
Hospitals, orphanages, universities, the elimination of slavery, and free schools for the public are all directly from a biblical faith and not from paganism, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism.
Children need to know the massive influence of the Christian faith upon art (Christianity dominated western paintings, sculpture, and architecture in Europe from about the fifth century until the seventeenth century). How can you study Byzantine art or Giotto di Bondone or Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn without understanding the enveloping influence of the Christian faith?
The same can be said about music and literature. Sure, there were popular tunes and stories that were not about Jesus and the apostles, but you really cannot understand “Beowulf” or “The Decameron” or “Don Quixote” without a good understanding of the development of the Christian faith at those various stages in history.
We enjoy such things as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the separation of political powers within the context of a constitutional republic. How did this come about? Because of atheism or Islam or Buddhism? Not at all.
These political ideas developed within the context of “Christian” Europe. Teens especially should know how the ideas of Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin or Samuel Rutherford influenced political discussion in Europe (and later America).
Yes, all the political ideas we treasure were slowly and very painfully developing over the centuries, and our current civilization has certainly been influenced in some degree by pagan Greece, Rome, and barbarian tribes of Europe. However the freedoms we enjoy today can be traced in large part directly to a Judeo-Christian worldview.
4. Kids learn about heroes and villains.
Children need to know the stories of Christian martyrs who peacefully sacrificed their lives for the faith. Kids should know that some things are indeed worth dying for.
Do your kids know the story of William Tyndale or Thomas Cranmer? How about Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley? My kids would hang on every word when I told them the story of how Ridley and Latimer were tied to the stake — but never renounced their faith. Then, as the flames licked their bodies, Latimer cried out to Ridley: “Play the man, Master Ridley. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Wow! He was making a play on words as he was burning to death! My kids have never forgotten such courage.
Our kids also learned that professing Christians certainly have not behaved in a Christlike way down through the centuries. Not all is rosy, and we have told them the sordid tales of how Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians have all treated one another (and people of other religions) with unbelievable brutality. We face head-on the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, and later justifications for slavery.
Teach your kids the story of worldwide evangelism through the stories of St. Patrick or St. Bonaventure. Do they know about Raymond Lull or William Carey or Lottie Moon? Are they familiar with Amy Carmichael, Gladys Aylward or Elisabeth Eliot?
What are you waiting for? Kids are thrilled to hear these stories of courageous men and women who were armed only with their faith, faced down hostile tribes, and won entire nations to faith in Christ.
I remember when I was a high school teacher in a Christian school I read the book “Peace Child” by Don Richardson to my ninth grade Bible class. It tells the true story of how a young American couple won an entire tribe of head-hunting cannibals to faith in Christ. Man, those kids listened breathlessly every day when I would read a few pages at the beginning of class. Teach this stuff, constantly. Your kids will never forget it and will thank you for it.
I promised both reasons and reasources for teaching church history. Here are some children’s books: Sinclair Ferguson has written some beautifully illustrated books on the early church fathers: “Irenaeus of Lyons,” “Polycarp of Smyrna,” and “Ignatius of Antioch.” Younger children (about age eight to ten) would enjoy reading these (or listen to you read them out loud!).
Stephen Nichols has written the magnificent book “The Church History ABCs: Augustine and 25 Other Heroes of the Faith.” This book will NOT bore your kids! Read this one out loud before bedtime. They will thrill to the story of St. Patrick being captured by pirates but later converting the Irish. Or maybe they would like to hear about William Wilberforce and his fight against slavery? It’s all in there!
Simonetta Car has written probably the most beautifully illustrated set of books on this subject. Just get a load of the artwork in these books. Each one is a treasure. And she tells very well the stories of Lady Jane Grey, Anselm of Canterbury, John Knox, Martin Luther, and a whole bunch more.
Lastly, I highly recommend all of the following movies. I have watched them all, and my kids learned volumes from watching good quality family-oriented films. The movie “Luther” (2003) is just so colorful and so well done.
Do you know the story of Gladys Aylward, the English maid who became a missionary to China? Well, Ingrid Bergman (surprisingly) made a pretty decent and somewhat accurate movie about how she miraculously saved the lives of hundreds of Chinese children during World War II. It is called “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958).
The movie “Amazing Grace” (2006) starring Ioan Gruffudd and Benedict Cumberbatch was a joy to watch. It tells the story of William Wilberforce and the fight to end slavery throughout the British Empire. It might be over the heads of younger kids, but the ones about 10 and up would understand it very well.
I recommend “The Hiding Place” (1976) by Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures. I saw this film about Corrie ten Boom when it first came out. I was in the eighth grade and the message of the film was just imprinted on my soul. Since this movie is about a Christian family hiding Jews from Nazis, it would probably be too intense for the little kids. However, those in junior high and up would certainly be able to handle it. Get this film. (Have your kids read the book too … it’s even better!)
Finally, for your teens who just cannot get enough history (yes, those kids do exist) show them the YouTube videos from Dr. Ryan Reeves on Church history. He is a fascinating teacher, and his videos use good illustrations and humor. He covers everything from the early Church in pagan Rome to the great theologians and issues of the Medieval World to modern American evangelicalism. Here’s a sample of his stuff:
Teach kids the fascinating and thrilling story of the Christian faith. You won’t regret it!