Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
For the past few months, I’ve been sharing in this blog space what I’ve discovered from Dr. Lisa Miller’s scientific research on spirituality. In February I talked about how a solid spiritual foundation, nurtured from childhood, can impact one’s mental health as an adult in positive ways. Last month, I used this research data to envision a transformed congregation that nurtures the spirituality of all ages together on a regular, intentional basis.
Now I’d like to focus on how we can specifically nurture that spirituality from a young age such that a child may grow into a spiritually and mentally healthy adult who can navigate life’s pressures and struggles with confidence. According to Dr. Miller, this process is most effective during a child’s first ten years of life, beginning as early as infancy. In the church, one of the ways we do this is to offer children’s messages during worship to promote such spiritual development. Stay with me here, and we will come back to this thought at the end of the blog.
When I think of how a congregation typically raises a child in the life of its faith community, I see a focus on programs where children are segregated into age groups, and most of the nurturing in the faith happens through “educating” or placing a focus on head knowledge. We then wait until they are teenagers to invite them into full corporate worship as well as engaging them in more theological discussions. I don’t think we should be surprised that they find it difficult to make this transition and most often leave the church altogether. Our programs and age segregation may have filled their heads with ideas and Bible stories, but it does not prepare them for living a spiritually and theologically based life on Christian discipleship and practice.
Children are born spiritual beings. While they may not have the ability to think abstractly until the early teen years, they do have the capacity to engage in mystery. They enjoy fairy tales and fantastical adventures in their play and in their storytelling. Their sense of wonder is open to the concept of miracles and the workings of God. They understand that things have meaning such as caring, sharing, trust, and praise. Jesus understood this side of children when he welcomed them and said, “Truly I tell, you unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 18:3]
Let us then ensure that we take advantage of every conversation we have with children when they are with us in church, and help their parents to continue these conversations at home as well. Let us focus on the mystery and wonder of the miracles in the Bible and engage them in wondering about how God is working through the events in these stories, as well as how God is moving through their own lives.
Let us place less emphasis on asking factual questions to test their Bible knowledge, and focus more on inviting them to share their understanding of who Jesus is and how they see God’s love at work in the world. Let us listen intently for the wisdom that comes through a child’s eyes — the wisdom that Jerome Berryman describes as thoughts that are missing some words, which when adults speak and write this way, is called poetry.
Given this focus on the nurture of a child’s spirituality, are children’s messages really a good idea? My answer is yes!...if...
Yes, if care is taken to welcome the images and concepts that the children have of God working in the world and through Creation.
Yes, if children are invited to wonder aloud with you about a Bible story.
Yes, if we can help children engage in spiritual practices, such as prayer, in ways that they won’t need to unlearn as adults.
Yes, if we don’t shy away from the language of the church and our faith as we converse with them.
And yes, especially when we remind them and show them that not only are they valued members of our congregations - they are each a Beloved Child of God.
Let us welcome our children as Jesus did, by recognizing, acknowledging, nurturing, and learning from their gifts of spirituality.
Debbie Gline Allen
Debbie Gline Allen serves as a Minister of Faith Formation on the Conference’s Faith Formation Ministry Team. She also serves as the administrator of the SNEUCC Faith Formation Leadership Program. Her passion for ministry is with children and family...