Captain Memory Verse recently visited the Sunday morning service that I attend with my family. Despite the cape, mask and British accent he bore an uncanny resemblance to our children’s minister. And because of his terrible memory the children were constantly required to help him get the Bible verse right and keep him on track. It was a joy to hear the whole congregation laughing together as young voices corrected him again and again.
Memory verses are a staple element in many of our children’s ministries. It is a great thing to be planting God’s word in the hearts of our children.
Here are three suggestions for making the most of memory verses:
Think about the right thing
In his fascinating book, Why don’t students like school?¹ cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham explores why students remember some things better than others and what teachers can do to help them. Unsurprisingly, his findings reflect what many children’s ministers have learned from experience: that children remember what they understand.
To put it another way, we need to be teaching children to understand not just recite the memory verse. We need to help them really think about it, letting the ideas roll around in their head a while. It is possible to have children remembering a verse within a few minutes, even as you gradually remove the words on the screen. But a week later, they might not be so good. Getting the verse in their short-term memory is good, but long-term is what we are aiming for. If we want the God’s word to dwell richly in those young hearts, we need to do the harder work of captivating their minds with the meaning of the verse. We need to help them think about the verse.
Teaching a memory verse is like a mini Bible study
If your children’s ministry is anything like mine, memory verses usually become one segment in our teaching times. Five or 10 minutes each week is dedicated to revisiting the verse and hopefully stimulating the memory of the children.
During this time there is a great opportunity for adding depth to our understanding of the verse each week. It can work like a mini Bible study; where one week is explaining where the verse fits in the Bible, which book and what the author is talking about; another week can focus on one key word, explore the usage and meaning, and so on.
Context is also particularly important as it adds so much to how we understand a verse. For example, “Stop! Help!” means something very different in the mouth of a grandmother who has just been knocked over in a supermarket than it does coming from a four-year-old being tickled by his father. Memory verses also need to be taught in context. Teaching a memory verse provides an excellent opportunity to model good Bible reading habits. Show the children why it is important to look at context, from genre, to where this verse fits in salvation history, to the immediate context of the Bible book and chapter.
One part of our mini Bible study deserves extra attention as it is so easily forgotten: application, or ‘So what?’.
The Psalmist writes,
“Teach me, LORD, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law, and obey it with all my heart.” - Psalm 119:33-34.
By understanding God’s word we have a purpose. We want to see children growing in knowledge and obedience, they go together. Just like any other part of Bible study, we need to help them connect the dots and see how the memory verse impacts their daily life. Does the memory verse help us to think about God better? Or does it give voice to our desire to praise him? Does it direct our actions in response to his grace?
To take another step towards more concrete applications, here are some more questions to consider:
In what kinds of situations would this verse be helpful to remember?
There are often many you can share with kids.
What would be a wrong application?
Sometimes discussing the incorrect application can be just as helpful as the right ones.
What kinds of conversations could this verse be used in?
It might explain a key gospel truth, aspect of God’s character or remind us of a promise that brings comfort and reassurance.
These might not be things you can easily discuss in a big group but imagine sending children back to the pews to discuss these questions with others. Also, a big part of applying the memory verse is praying about it. Model praying the verse and give children the opportunity to pray too.
Here are a few final ideas and tips for how you might put these suggestions into practice that you can adapt to your ministry context:
Ask children to draw a picture of a time when they will apply the verse, obeying or remembering in a specific context. Send it home to be stuck on the fridge as a reminder.
Put pictures or photos on the screen with an empty speech bubble to stimulate discussion about how the verse could be used in different conversations.
Encourage children to write a prayer that includes the verse. It could be a ‘picture prayer’ or a written prayer or something they talk about at home over the week with parents and siblings.
Use cards with words or phrases alongside symbols or pictures. Besides taking word cards away to prompt the memory, cards can be shuffled and put back in the right order or ‘wrong’ cards can be found and excluded.
Use drama or skits to help children visualise how a memory verse could be used in conversation or in action. This provides ‘active practice’.
Don’t be afraid to choose memory verses that include metaphors and imagery. These might help children remember a longer selection of verses because it involves a story (like Psalm 23).
And of course, using music can be a whole-body way to keep people thinking and remembering verses.
I still remember learning memory verses when I was a kid. Every time I hear a certain verse from the Psalms it takes me back to the first time I learnt it, in a camp hall in mid-winter among beloved friends. It is a precious memory. What memories are you shaping this week with memory verses?
¹ Willingham D.T. 2009, Why don’t students like school?, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.