A Conversation with Sarah Mae, Author of The Complicated Heart
Andy Whisenant | Sep 17th
What led you to write Cornerstones and the parent guide?
Cornerstones began several years ago as a way for my wife and me to teach our children the core doctrines of the faith. When I was in seminary, I was struck by how the early church used structured questions and answers to teach children and new converts about what it meant to follow Christ. I knew I wanted to teach my children using this method, but I couldn’t find an existing resource that worked well for children. Most didn’t use kid-friendly language, covered areas from a particular theological lens, or skipped over some of the essentials for kids. So I wrote my own collection of questions and answers—about 100 or so back then—and began using them with our son, Joshua, and then our daughter, Hannah, and youngest son, Caleb, when they were born.
Back then I was serving in local church ministry and wanted to make the resource I had developed available for other parents where I served. But I also recognized that many parents might not have a good grasp of the doctrines included, which, of course, would be a problem as they sought to fulfill their role of discipling their children. So I added a couple of sentences of explanation to each question as a way to equip the equippers. I hoped it would be a way to make doctrine accessible and transferable for parents.
When I came to LifeWay in 2014, my lens widened and as I interacted with ministry leaders from across the country. I recognized that a resource like this could help many more parents. We took what I had developed as a starting point, added, refined, and eliminated questions, and categorized them more effectively. The result was 200 questions and answers that we believe really give a solid overview of the Christian faith. I was also thrilled when B&H had the vision to provide more extensive explanations for parents, which became the parent guide. I see that book as a systematic theology for parents.
How can parents use Cornerstones to help their children learn truth and understand basic Christian doctrine?
One of the biggest challenges for parents discipling their kids is many don’t know where to start. They don’t know what to talk about, and even if they have an idea, they feel unqualified. Most parents know they are their kids’ primary disciplers, and they want to be; they just don’t know how.
This is where Cornerstones can be so helpful. It provides a framework for parents to teach their kids the important foundations of the faith, and gives them confidence they aren’t missing any core doctrines. With 200 questions and answers, there is enough content for parents to develop a long-term discipleship strategy in the home, but each question is bite-sized, hopefully meaning no one will be overwhelmed. The goal is for kids to understand each question and answer, not just memorize them. But memorizing is helpful because it can lead to understanding. So parents will want to cover the questions many times as that repetition fuels memorization, which again, leads to understanding.
And that really gets to the sweet spot of Cornerstones. Going over the questions and answers in a systematic way as a family is only part of the equation. What parents will want to look for is “off script” moments when they can talk about God with their kids. These are the moments when we can weave doctrine into everyday life; when we can show our kids that what we believe about God impacts everything else that we believe and everything that we do. So for example, if your kid is working on a project about the solar system, you have the opportunity to speak into God the Creator. How he placed the earth exactly where it needed to be. How our sun is huge, but it is actually a tiny star showing the scope of creation. How all of creation points to how great God is. That is weaving doctrine into daily life, and that is what will help our kids love God. That is why the parent guide excites me—I hope it gives parents the confidence to go “off script” and talk with their kids more about the gospel in organic ways.
Why is this method of questions and answers helpful for families and their children’s early development? What role has this method of learning played in Christian history?
One of the great things about kids is that they are curious by nature. Anyone who has had a three-year-old knows this. They ask “why?” all the time. But it doesn’t stop there. Most kids aren’t timid to ask questions—they have not been jaded by adulthood where we tend to avoid asking questions because we don’t want to admit what we don’t know. That is why using questions and answers to teach doctrine can be so helpful. It takes advantage of this nature in our kids.
But questions and answers do something else: they provide an easy logical structure for our kids to grasp. They reveal immediate cause and effect. Every question and answer tells a short story which kids can wrap their minds and hearts around. When we think of the big bucket doctrinal categories—God, creation, sin, Jesus, salvation, the Bible, discipleship, and the church—we have to admit they can be quite intimidating. If you have ever read a chapter on say Jesus in a systematic theology text, you have experienced this. There is quite a bit of information to learn and keep straight. It can be overwhelming and confusing. But this is where the individual questions and answers help so much. They give us bite size chunks to absorb and they help us keep our ideas together.
This is why the church has used structured questions and answers to teach children and new believers the essentials of the faith for centuries. It is one of the easier ways to understand and organize our thinking about the rich, deep truths of our Christian faith.
Have you used these questions with your children? Why does it seem to resonate so well?
We use the question and answer approach with our kids about two to three times a week, usually during dinner or dessert when we are all sitting together at our dining table. My wife or I will select a question—either randomly or working through a category—and then choose one of our kids to answer. Because our kids range in age, we try to choose the easier questions for our youngest, and the harder questions for our oldest. At times, our two older kids will ask the questions. That usually becomes more of a light-hearted family devotion night—we are OK with that, we want these times to be enjoyable for our kids. They extend little grace in how we phrase the answers—they have to be exact.
But here’s an important point—we don’t stick to the “script.” We want our kids to ask follow-up questions. We want them to be curious, to want to understand God and His ways better. These unscripted conversations about God are how we measure a win during our family devotions. My wife and I also look for opportunities to initiate these conversations, sometimes merely by asking, “Does that make sense?” or, “Why do you think that is?”
The key is that our kids don’t feel like they are being taught during these times. They are used to being taught by an adult talking to them. But these family devotions are us talking with them. They are an active part of the conversation. They feel part of what is going on. Then you add in the value of learning by repetition, our off script conversations, and fun, and it is a formula for meaningful family discipleship.
How do you hope families grow and are strengthened as a result of using Cornerstones?
I love the potential of this resource to help kids learn the key doctrines of our faith. It excites me to think that in God’s kindness, He might use this resource, in part, to establish a foundation of faith in the minds and hearts of kids that will last for a lifetime.
But I am just as excited, and in some ways even more excited, to think about how Cornerstones can impact parents. I am an advocate of parents being the primary disciplers of their kids, but I also know that the church has to come alongside them and motivate and equip them for this calling. I hope Cornerstones can play a role in that process by being a resource churches can lean on and share with parents to help them be the disciplers God calls them to be and that they want to be. I see the Cornerstones Parent Guide as an accessible, but detailed, systematic theology resource for parents. I hope that reading it will give parents the confidence they need to talk with their kids about our faith.
And that is the other win I hope Cornerstones can be part of. We often think of family discipleship in terms of more formal, organized times of worship. And that is part of it, of course. But when we read Deuteronomy 6, we see that God has more of the organic, day-to-day discussions about Him in mind. I hope that the more formal times of working through and reading Cornerstones will help families weave talking about God in daily life. I hope that by talking and thinking about God more as a family, families will see how central God is to our lives. That we don’t have to force God into our conversations throughout the day, because He saturates all we experience.
A Conversation with Sarah Mae, Author of The Complicated Heart
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