The Bible describes many instances of God's love. Helping children to understand how God loves shows them the value they have inside, and how to love others the way God loves us. Allow children to give input on their own honest feelings concerning compassion to others. Sometimes it's hard for children to understand why anyone should be nice to someone who's not nice back, and yet loving the unlovable is exactly the way God's love is shown to us.
Pre-school, Ages Two to Four
Before the lesson, cut out enough paper hearts for each child to have two. Print scriptures from 1 John 4:8-19 or other scriptures of your choice that talk about how God loves us. Glue the verses to half of the hearts. Hide these hearts around the classroom. Leave the other half blank and let children decorate them as they come into class.
For the lesson, talk about getting love letters, either for Valentine's Day or on other special occasions. You could read a love poem. Hold up a Bible and talk about how it is God's love letter to us. Tell the children you have hidden some of God's love letters around the room. While the group sings a song, have two or three children at a time search for the hidden hearts. Read them out loud. When you come across the word "God," have children point up to the sky. When you read the word "love," have children point to the Bible. Once all the hearts have been found and read, children can paste them to the back of the hearts they decorated. Now they have their own love letter from God.
School-age, Ages Five to Eight
Getting children to accept Jesus' lesson in Matthew 5:38-48 about loving our enemies is hard. Understandably, loving someone who is mean to you is difficult at best, and Jesus' instruction to turn the other cheek seems near impossible. Discuss these issues and feelings with children. Let them honestly say how they feel about people who are unkind. Once they've had their say, read the scripture and ask them for their thoughts.
Next, set out a list with pictures, if possible, called, "The Bible's Biggest Losers." Include such people as Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit, Jacob the con-artist, David the schemer, Peter the big mouth, and any others you can come up with. All these people messed up, and yet God saw something good in them and used them in mighty ways. Encourage children to seek out the good in the enemies they face and to find things these people are good at. It might take a lot of thought and maybe even prayer. Encourage them to think over the next week and come up with at least three good things. These three qualities can be the things the child prays for.
Pre-teen, Ages Nine to 12
Study Paul's explanation of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Start by discussing the different love relationships people have: parent/child, brother/sister, relatives, husband/wife and friends. Allow children to talk about how they feel about parents, siblings or a relative they greatly admire. Divide the group in half before reading the scripture. Ask one group to explain what they learn about God's love from the reading. The other half is to listen to what Paul says you are like if you do not have love. On a poster board or white board, write out the list that the children give you. Ask, "What are you like if you don't have love?" and "What are examples of showing God's love?" To finish the lesson, either have children come up and demonstrate by acting out some of the characteristics of love as Paul described or see who can recite the most love qualities. Give a prize to the one who lists the most.
In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus was asked what a person must do to inherit eternal life. The answer was, "Love God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself." Then, Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbour?" With teens, discuss who exactly is our neighbour and how, like the story of the good Samaritan, we can love those neighbours.
Ask if they've ever seen someone being picked on at school. What did they do? Why did they act or not act on that person's behalf? Reread the parable, explaining how the Samaritan wasn't considered acceptable to the people Jesus spoke with. Yet, this is the person Jesus used as an example of how to love. Take the lesson a step further. Discuss the cost of standing up for those who are bullied, or standing up for anyone who is considered an "outsider" or "unacceptable." Come up with ways teens can do community service. Consider helping out at a women's shelter, or raising money for organisations such as Samaritan's Purse or Compassion International. Encouraging teens to participate in a project offers hands-on opportunities to really love their neighbours.