“The foundation of the war for people’s souls, minds and hearts is waged against our children. If they can be persuaded when they are young, then it is incredibly difficult to change their allegiance as they age. And you, as a parent or spiritual leader, bear the primary responsibility for how that battle turns out” (Barna, 57).
What a wake–up call! The thought of being “primarily responsible” for children’s souls carries profound weight. Yet, rather than allowing a burden of anxiety, those working in children’s ministries have understood and accepted the responsibility instinctively and long to be better equipped.
There are many popular methods by which we gain children’s interest in spiritual things. We teach at a level they comprehend and we help them learn prayer and Bible reading in hopes that the practices “stick.” These methods can help children toward greater intimacy with Christ … but ponder this:
What if children can experience more spiritual intimacy than we ever thought?
The term, “Spiritual Formation” is one we associate with mature adult spirituality, intentional practice and “disciplines.” We don’t expect children to be able to grow in Christ with the same capacity that adults possess. But consider the thoughts of John Rosemond: “All people are created with a longing to know and love God.” That longing does not just appear when we are older. During our whole life, the longing is either cultivated to experience a deepening relationship with God, or it is discouraged, redirected, or ignored.
There is a saying about education: “Everyone gets an education from one place or another … it’s just a matter of which one you get.” Our spiritual formation component is likewise something that is already being fed in one way or another, resulting in either good or poor spiritual health” (Rosemond). Think about this scenario: It would be insufficient to give a growing child only bread, withholding meat and vegetables until he is 18 years old. He would be severely malnourished. In the same way, children are born with both a spiritual longing and the capacity to digest the meat and vegetables of healthy spiritual formation.
“Learn to see with your heart the things your eyes cannot” (Olson).
Ruth Haley Barton describes spiritual formation as a verb, “the process by which we are conformed to the image of Christ.” Dallas Willard offers this beautiful description: “… taking on the character of Christ in a process of discipleship to Him under the direction of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God” (4).
We do a great job of leading children to Christ (hallelujah!), teaching the stories of Jesus and the principles of living a God–honoring life. But how do we know if children have simply learned “behavior modification” or whether they are truly taking on the character of Christ?
How can we capture their hearts for Christ?
Being “conformed to the image of Christ” cannot be instructed. It can only be accomplished through an active, intimate experience with Christ in the life of a person, even a little person. Children need the opportunity to practice the same spiritual disciplines that have been recognized by the church for centuries as catalysts to true discipleship. One example can help us envision the possibilities.
Wheaton College Graduate School “studied how young children … would respond to symbols, liturgy and reflection. (Fifteen preschoolers participated (May, 9). Graduate students started by “adjusting space, pace and volume” in the classroom. They moved toys behind a screen. Stations were created, including a child–sized altar, a praise corner with children’s praise music on a headset and a private prayer corner (May, 9). Materials were placed around the room each week for reflective response to the story. Shoes were removed outside the door to communicate that this space was special. Leaders moved and spoke more slowly than children were used to, and they helped children do the same. They did not rush from activity to activity. Instead of trying to cover lots of content, they went deep, using “The Good Shepherd” as the theme nine weeks in a row. Each week focused on a different quality, so children could get to know the Shepherd well (May, 9).
At first, “children responded in typical fashion—bursts of energy, lots of questions and occasional noisy interactions. But it wasn’t long before the environment changed and the children perceived church differently. Children learned to speak softly because someone near them ‘might be listening to God.’ One day a new child said, ‘This is like Sunday school.’ Another child responded, ‘No it’s not. This is God’s class’” (May, 9).
In the weeks that followed, a “marked change” was noticed in attitudes and actions. They appeared more reflective and developed a sense of calm and order within themselves. We sensed awe and wonder from them and eagerness to engage in prayer and communion with their Shepherd. Parents began commenting about the changes they saw in their children at home” (May, 10).
Remarkably, the outcome of this study is supported by advancements in brain research, which help to explain why “children appear to thrive in slow, quiet and uncluttered spaces. The cognitive area of the brain can be trained to function faster and faster. But the brain’s emotional center is not able to speed up. This slower part of the brain is where emotional reactions to decisions and relationships take place. It is also the center for compassion and emotional behaviors. This may explain why thoughtful reflection is central to so many spiritual disciplines, and why a reflective space may be more conducive for children to ‘fall in love’ with God” (May, 10).
What a hopeful encouragement and insight for us to grasp as ministers to children. May we not only create regular opportunities for children to encounter God; may we be spurred on to seek Him ourselves with the heart and passion of a little child.
May, Scottie 2015. Spiritual Formation for Kids, Children’s Ministry Training Materials. www.http//buildingchurchleaders.com: Christianity Today.
Rosemond, John 2006. The New Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children. Kansas City, KS: Andrews McMeel Publishing LLC.
Barna, George (2003). Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions. Gospel Light Publications.
Olson, Greg (2012). The Dandilion. Artwork
Willard, Dallas, interview Agnieszka Tennant (2015). Spiritual Formation for Kids, Children’s Ministry Training Materials. www.http//buildingchurchleaders.com: Christianity Today.