January 17

Smooth Stone #1 – Relational Ministry and Bible Memorization (Deuteronomy 11)

Daniel Watts

It was early in my service as a children’s pastor when I visited a family that asked their boy to come out and recite Isaiah 40:1-8, a beautiful passage that was set to music in Handel’s Messiah.

When I asked a question or two it became apparent that he did not know what the passage meant although he had committed it to memory. In fact, he had no idea.

The parents were enormously proud of his accomplishment as it was an impressive feat of memorization. However, it is possible that this passage of Scripture their dear son had committed to memory may have had limited value to him if he didn’t understand and treasure their meaning.

Without those words of God’s truth becoming significant in the child’s real life, to him, they may be just words from an old song in an old book. In my forty years of children’s ministry work around the world, the issue of Bible memorization has been front and center.

Passages such as Deuteronomy 11:18 are cited to support Bible memorization as a valuable activity for children. And so now we turn there in our continuing comparison of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:18-20.

Ironically, Deuteronomy 11:18, is not directed to children but rather to all Israel as they model life with God. This happens in a relationship as we noted last week

However, with so much attention on Bible memorization, we will focus on that aspect of modeling and relational ministry.

The Meaning of Deuteronomy 11:18

The Meaning of Deuteronomy 11

Deuteronomy 11:18 begins with a phrase that urges the Israelites to “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds” (NIV). It is a great case study in Bible study principles.

First, we realize that there are a variety of English translations, and they are not in agreement.

  • Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; (NIV)
  • Therefore, shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, (KJV)
  • You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; (NAS)
  • You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, (NRS)
  • Place these words I'm speaking on your heart and in your very being. (CEB)
  • Place these words on your hearts. Get them deep inside you. (MSG)

When the English translations do not agree, the next step is to examine the Hebrew to see that it is obviously a translation issue, meaning the English equivalent is not exactly clear.

The Hebrew word in question is וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ pronounced nepesh.

The next step is to examine various Hebrew language resources (BDB Lexicon, Archer TWOT, and the Dictionary of OT Theology and Exegesis). There you find the issue.

Nepesh has a range of meanings and has been used over seven hundred times in the Old Testament.

Meanings vary from breath, life, desire, and the inner being. It can refer to the intellect as well as the entire person. It is the desire and inclination of a person.

This is why the NIV translates “mind” with the emphasis on the intellect and the other translations prefer “soul” which accents the inner being and life of a person.

In Deuteronomy 6:4, the commandments of God are to be upon “your hearts.” We learned in earlier blogs that the Hebrew word translated “heart” is the seat of the intellect, will, and intention.

[In Hebrew,] you think in your heart, and your heart shapes your character, choices, and decisions. It is also the center of the human being as a moral agent.

What should we make of this important passage and the choice made by Moses to use the word Nepesh?

Let me suggest that the way forward is found in the context and assumption.

Moses has laid tremendous emphasis on obedience in the life of Israel as a foundation for life-changing ministry with children (11:8-15). This was the focus of last week’s blog.

It would seem likely that his intended meaning is not only an intellectual knowledge of “these words of mine” (11:18) but also the integration of those words into daily life. This is likely why the majority translation is “soul” and not “mind” (NIV).

However, with that said, one cannot integrate God’s Word into life if it is unknown. With the Israelites living in an oral culture, the need to memorize seems assumed, so that the Word of God could be translated and subsequently practiced among the people of God.

However, Moses is certainly not urging the Israelites to adopt a Bible memorization program and would not be in favor of modeling the memorization of Scripture without life integration.

Two Reasons Why Bible Memorization Comes Up So Often In Children's Ministry

Two Reasons Why Bible Memorization Comes Up So Often In Children's Ministry

Why then does Bible memorization come up so often in children’s ministry? The answer is two-fold.

1. The Sunday School Movement Was Linked to a Traditional Schooling Model

First, the modern children’s ministry movement from its beginnings was closely associated with professional educational practices from the mid-1800’s.

The Sunday School movement was by its very name linked to a traditional schooling model. The pioneers were not theologically minded, nor theologically trained, and over the ensuing decades, a great many assumptions were made regarding best practices.

Those assumptions were deemed to be biblical when proof texts were drawn upon to support the philosophy of education. Terms like Sunday School and Christian Education were the common jargon with Directors and Superintendents all allusions to a professional educational model.

Even as the secular educational models evolved, many churches clung to the traditional elements believing them to flow directly from Scripture.

Having been blessed by theological but no professional educational training, it became apparent to me that the passages used as proof texts for the traditional school model were actually teaching something quite different. I have addressed many of these passages in earlier blogs.

In the effort to gather proof texts, the actual intent of several key passages were distorted. These distortions were driven by the need to build biblical support for educational practices, such as memorization.

Many of these passages are considered “sacred” in the children’s ministry world. They have been used to build entire children’s ministry organizations.

Suggesting that they have been misinterpreted does not sit well with many. A discussion is difficult as most are not willing to engage in a meaningful interaction with the actual text, the intent of the author, and the meaning of the verses. 

2. Memorization Has a Place in Children's Ministry

Second, memorization does have a place in children’s ministry. As we noted above it is assumed in oral cultures that material will need to be memorized in order to be transmitted.

The memorization of God’s Word is not an intellectual activity with the end being the accumulation of cognitive information. Memorization is not the centerpiece of transformational children’s ministry.

Life-changing children’s ministry should focus on the biblical principles found in places like Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:18-20, and Proverbs 22:6 where the author intended to communicate children’s ministry principles.

None of these passages identify memorization as an essential element of a children’s ministry. Memorization is how God’s Word is transmitted, all for the purpose of integrating that Word into real life.

Memorization of Bible verses and passages can be associated with the biblical transformational children’s ministry principles we have identified: RelationshipExperienceTruthDiscussion, and Response

Therefore, we build our children’s ministry around the five principles along with other key Bible teaching.

We do not establish a children’s ministry around memorization programs but rather use memorization as a means of reinforcing the life-transformational Bible teaching that should characterize our children’s ministry.

A memory verse activity can be a useful tool, but it is not a biblically mandated strategy.

If and when memorization is encouraged, it should be as a teaching element that is preceded by biblically mandated lesson elements (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:18-20) where children experience, understand, discuss, and respond to that Scripture in their real life. Otherwise, learning the verse has limited value.

Closing Thoughts

Closing Thoughts on Relational Ministry and Bible Memorization

Several years ago, I was able to visit with a Ukrainian pastor who had been persecuted for his faith during the Soviet Union's communist days.

When he was caught leading a secret Easter sunrise service, the KGB shipped him off to Siberia. He languished there for five years, separated from his young wife and children.

Without a Bible, he relied on the passages and verses he had committed to memory. He told me that those recollections strengthened him in his faith and carried him through until he returned home. 

These stories abound among the elderly who suffered during communist persecution. In each case, what strikes me is not the memorization but the deep spiritual life that each of those Christians led. The recollection of Bible passages was not an intellectual exercise.

Rather, those passages represented an ever-present reality in their life with Christ. Spiritual truths, captured in memorized Scripture, had been integrated into their real lives, many from childhood.

Their recollection of memorized passages was a touchstone for the life change they had experienced.

As my friend related “If memorized Bible verses had not been internalized into the fiber of my being, the words of the Bible would not have brought comfort and peace during suffering. The passages bring comfort because I understood and believed the words with all my heart and soul. For me, thinking about Bible passages I have memorized has brought me a lot of comfort when I have had to be in the MRI tunnel, when I am grieving about losses, and when I experience a difficult situation. Those words comfort me because I understand them and believe them.”

This weekend, try to focus your attention on life-changing children’s ministry, especially relational ministry. Keep Bible memorization in its proper place.

Join us next week as we look at transformational children’s ministry and experiential teaching.

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