Picture Books in Ministry

We all learn through making connections. This very human strategy never ends. Ideas have to have something to attach to and the more attachments we can muster, the stronger the learning will be. Likewise, the more varied a concept’s attachments, the broader our understanding will be and the more likely we will be able to generalize our learning to new situations. Repetition of ideas leads to deeper learning. Strong, broad, and deep learning occurs when concepts are easily and quickly accessed in a variety of situations even after a lengthy period of time. This kind of learning is the objective of all educators, including those who preach and teach sacred topics. 

We want theological and spiritual teachings to be understood though often we have to grow into them. We want these teachings to be recalled in all sorts of contexts, and we hope they will last a lifetime. We hope for strong, broad, and deep learning when we offer a holy story or scripture so we devise ways to build & expand on or revisit central ideas through a game, a craft, a discussion, or a sermon. In this blog, I am encouraging you to reconsider the treasures of classic picture books that you remember, as well as the many gems of the newest modern children’s literature. Between these two chronological extremes are the countless forgotten books that deserve your attention because of the rich potential they offer you as you plan to teach theological concepts.

Picture books, especially secular ones, offer an infinite number of possibilities for theological instruction. Connections can easily be made between picture books (their concepts, plots, and characterizations) and the sacred ideas presented in settings as varied as churches, retreats, parochial & home schools, therapy, and a family’s devotional time before bed. 

In school, children are taught to find meaning in literature by making connections with the story and what they already know. When a picture book is presented to reinforce the understanding of a theological idea, we are in a sense offering an additional set of connectors for the theological concepts that are being taught. Usually these connections are made easily because of the familiarity of the concepts in picture books. Sometimes they are made in novel ways, thereby offering more breadth for better theological learning. Contexts for these concepts are then broadened to different situations, concrete examples are easily accessed because of the content of picture books, and when lucky, prior experience with a story already deeply ingrained into memory allows for even more meaningful learning.

When thinking of much-loved picture books, the books we recall are often brimming with emotions. Underneath the emotions between the lines of those books, there is sometimes a personal connection with the story or a character. Because of the picture book, we learn a thing or two about being a more hopeful, more loving, more fully-human, and more godly person. In broad terms, isn’t that what growing theologically is all about?

Too often the activities we offer for building sacred learning are predictable, shallow, safe, unimaginative or beyond our reach. Applications as simple as a paper craft (for children) or a rewording of the text (for adults) don’t encourage finding personal meaning and certainly not creative application when we are puzzled or stressed about what to do next in real life. Life lessons are not learned in superficial contexts! There must be surprise, empathy, passion, and even some soul-searching, struggle, and relearning. All of these processes can encourage fresh understanding as multiple connections are made between the Sacred, theological concepts, and the ideas and contexts found in well-chosen picture books.