The Importance of Blending Theology and Psychology
Dan Scott
October 17, 2023

Adults often make two incorrect assumptions when communicating with kids and teenagers: that they think like adults do now and that they think like adults did when they were their age. In reality, young people process information differently and are growing up in a vastly different world. Developmental psychology has uncovered insights about how children and teenagers learn and process information, leading to changes in school curriculum and teaching methods. In the context of faith formation, it's important to blend psychology and theology to create developmentally appropriate messaging strategies that help kids and teenagers understand and experience their faith authentically.

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When it comes to communicating with kid and teenagers, adults often assume two things:

First, they assume that kids and teenagers think like we do now.
Second, they assume that kids and teenagers think like we did when we were their age.

Neither of which is true.

The truth is that kids and teenagers don’t process information like we do as adults. Teenagers process information more similarly to adults, but still, there is a vast difference in not only what they can understand but also how they learn. At the same time, this generation is growing up in a vastly different world than we did. Both of which ultimately impact how they experience new information. This is true for how we help kids and teenagers understand reading and mathematics. It’s true for how they learn to play sports and dance. And it’s also true for how they experience relationships with family, friends, and strangers.

Developmental Psychology

How do we know this? We know this because of discoveries made through developmental psychology. The field of developmental psychology has been around for a while. In fact, much of how kids learn in school is based on research that has been around for well over 50 years. While the basic understanding hasn’t changed, more recent discoveries from the field of child development have allowed us a nuanced understanding of how kids and teenagers learn, grow, and process information throughout the significant phases of their lives.

These updated insights include how kids and teenagers use different parts of their brains to:

  • regulate attention
  • concentrate
  • experience trauma
  • connect with arts or sciences
  • learn information for long-term memory

As educators learn from new understanding, they update how school curriculum is taught. They update how teachers are trained in university and what resources for parents at home. Many school districts have entirely changed their programs based on updated research. Everything from the curriculum kids experience to how their schools are organized is tweaked. Information is developed from simple to complex ideas.

What Developmental Psychology Looks Like in the Classroom

In a school classroom, it may look something like:

  • Reading: You learn the alphabet in kindergarten before learning sight words or reading sentences. Eventually, understanding the complexities of William Faulkner in AP Lit.
  • Math: You learn number sense and place value before learning addition, subtraction, or fractions. Doing this lays a foundation for conceptualizing advanced algebra and calculus.
  • Social Studies: You might learn big chunks of history before seeing how the events are connected in a high school history class. The highlights will help you understand the cause and effect of consecutive World Wars on the global economy.

You get the idea.

Yet, although we know this is true for reading, math, and history when it comes to faith formation, we don’t put the same understanding into practice.

But we must remember that this is also true for how kids and teenagers learn theology, experience the Bible’s stories, and understand their part in God’s One Big Story. In faith formation, psychology and theology should be considered together.

Incorporating Developmental Psychology and Theology

Throughout the church’s history, not many have paid attention to what educators have learned from developmental psychologists. Most have yet to consider the impact psychology and theology can have when blended together.

Instead of breaking down information. . .

  • We want our preschoolers to understand substitutionary atonement.
  • Also, we hope our elementary kids can recount the history of the nation of Israel.
  • Or at the very least, we hope our kids know all the Bible stories in order, how they connect to Jesus, and have some idea of the stories’ main plot points and details.

Instead of breaking down information for teenagers . . . 

  • We expect middle schoolers to understand the nuances of different theologies. 
  • We hope high schoolers can unpack the major eschatological theories.
  • And, even if they can understand some of these ideas, we never consider if these are even the questions they are asking or the principles they need to navigate their world. 

This might be what we want, but this also isn’t how kids and teenagers learn best.

For a long time, faith formation and education were treated as separate disciplines that didn’t need to interact with each other. One being focused on math and reading. The other focused on helping kids and teenagers know the content in the Bible.

However, as we allow psychology and theology to intersect, we’ve realized that we have a lot to learn about how best to help kids experience the truth of the Bible.

Orange Curriculum: A Developmentally Appropriate Messaging Strategy 

That’s why at Orange, we create curriculum for kids and teenagers with two things in mind:

First, we hope to be theologically sound for the 8,000+ churches and 80 diverse denominations who partner with us.

But we also strive to be developmentally appropriate for the over 800,000 kids and teenagers who experience curriculum each week.

We want all kids and teenagers to have an authentic, everyday faith in Jesus that transforms how they see God, themselves, and the rest of the world. The best way to help them understand what that means is for them to learn and experience it in a way that connects with how they learn.

For kids, this looks like: 

  • One big idea and theme each month that connects to kid-friendly application points.
  • A single Bible story a week that’s presented in a way each phase of development will understand, yet stays true to the eventual way they will understand that story.
  • One monthly bottom line for preschoolers and one weekly bottom line for elementary students.
  • Complex ideas broken into simple phrases so kids can understand them.
  • Discussion questions attached to activities for younger students.
  • Discussion questions on their own for preteens.

For students, this looks like: 

  • One bottom line for each message that students can remember and apply to their lives. 
  • Phase cues to help small group leaders better understand what is happening in a student’s world and how that connects to what they are learning. 
  • Experience Pieces (XPs) so students can learn through hands-on activities. 
  • A variety of discussion questions curated based on how students process information. 
    • Example: No double-barrelled questions for middle school students. Questions that inspire debate for high school students.

Each story, each bottom line, each definition is a building block to the understanding and faith in Jesus that a person will continue to grow in as an adult.

When it comes to faith formation, this is a long game.

We use the best of what we know now to provide what kids needs to begin their forever relationship with Jesus.

To learn more about Orange Curriculum go to or even try it free today!