Chore charts, report cards, standardized tests, recitals, and athletic banquets … the overwhelming message to kids is that what they do determines who they are. Kids grow up thinking, “I am what I am because of what I do or because of what I’ve failed to do.” But this message of performance is different from the Bible’s message of redemption. In 1 Corinthians 15:10a, Paul writes, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
I learned about God’s grace while sitting with my dad in his Dodge pick-up truck after school. I was in ninth grade, and things that seem silly now—schoolwork, acne, girls—overwhelmed me. My dad said a few simple words that I pray I’ll never forget: “What God says about you is more important than what others say.”
The message of grace is that what we do or what we look like does not determine who we are as Christians. What God determined for us through the work of His Son Jesus makes us who we are. We are loved even when our performance doesn’t stack up. After all, Jesus came to save sinners—not those who get everything right.
Kids need grace to make them silly with joy in God and strong in their budding faith. I love teaching it to them, because I need grace too. My own shortcomings as a parent can leave me drowning in the shame of not getting it right or of not living up to expectations. When I’m drowning, I need to drink deeply of the truth about God’s grace again.
In the Spring of 2011, Daniel Montgomery, our lead pastor at Sojourn Church, sat on the front porch of our church building with a group of men after an elder meeting. He began to outline for us a creative vision for a sermon series on grace from the book of Ephesians The series would be entitled PROOF, which is an acrostic to teach five key doctrines about God’s grace.
I sat with Daniel, took some notes, and began to think about how to teach these truths to our kids. A few weeks later, I left with extended family on a trip to Disney World. On the “Pirates of the Caribbean” boat ride the wax pirates are depicted in all of their buccaneer glory—drunk, burning villages, killing one another, stealing, and carrying off women. It’s not exactly the vision of manhood a family pastor wants to put before his children. My young girls were a bit terrified, but there were young boys the same age dressed like pirates. They celebrated these evil rum-guzzling scallywags. You can judge them (and Disney) if you want, but I saw something beautiful in it. In that moment, God took me back to those conversations with my dad. I sensed God say, “That’s how I’ve accepted you.” I made a connection to grace—enough to save a scallywag like me.
On the day after our boat ride at the Magic Kingdom, I got up early—before my young children at Disney World—and grabbed my journal. I started doodling pictures and ideas for teaching about grace for pirates. When I got back home, our children’s ministry leaders took those ideas and ran with them. By that September sermon series, we’d hung a Jolly Roger in the children’s hallway and begun our grace treasure hunt. Here’s a little window into what the children’s ministry team developed.
Ephesians 1:4-5a tells us, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us …” Before God made the heavens and earth, He mapped out salvation for His people. When teaching this deep truth to kids, we use a treasure map. We ask each child to map out the most significant events in his/her life. Then we search their story for evidence of where God has been at work—evidence of His grace.
The Bible says that we cannot follow God without His help. We are like dead skeletons. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:4-5). Dead skeletons have no muscles, no brain, and no heart. They have no power to move on their own. But God makes people dead in their sins to live again. God can make dead men and women and boys and girls walk in obedience to Him.
Ephesians also teaches us that in Christ we have redemption (Ephesians 1:7). To redeem something means to buy it back—to pay a price so you can have it back. God paid the price for our sins by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Jesus gives us the riches of God’s grace. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We teach the richness of Jesus’ free gift by taking kids on a treasure hunt where the cross marks the spot.
God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. He changes our pirate flag of rebellion into a white flag of complete surrender (Ephesians 2:8-10). God gives us His Spirit to overcome our sin and make us His masterpiece.
We use an anchor to teach about how God’s grace keeps Christians safe. Even though life is sometimes like sailing on a stormy sea, God is with us, and He protects us. He brings us back to Himself like a boat guided safely to shore. Ephesians 1:13-14 says, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance.” Because of the Holy Spirit, God’s people are marked as His children forever. God always finishes the work He begins in us. He protects His children so they can never be lost.
Biblical scholars tell us the ancient city of Ephesus was a hub for all kinds of idolatry and sin. It was even a hideout for pirates, but God knew what the city’s people needed to hear. Paul began his letter, “Grace to you.” It’s the message scallywags, insecure kids, and frazzled parents need to hear most. Let’s never forget that God’s love overcomes rebellion and circumstances. It is not our performance, but grace, that makes us right with God.