Passing on the Faith
Growth Spurts and Faith Formation
Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
Growth spurts remind us that maturity is not a steady process. Every few years in childhood a rapid increase in height, weight, or skill occurs. Growth spurts happen in faith formation, too. Far-sighted family ministries creatively anticipate periods of achy questioning and restlessness in children.
Provide access points for parents of preschoolers.
Children often begin asking questions about God and death at age four, which prompts many parents to seek help. Recently, I heard a mother say that her daughter's fear of the dark prompted her return to faith and church. She had left the church in college and her only connection was to attend a morning parent-and-child playgroup that used the neighborhood church's space. When her assurances to her frightened child did not assuage her fears, she remembered trusting Jesus as a small child and was surprised to find how her early experiences in church formed her ability to trust and have faith in God's goodness. She turned for help to the church that had welcomed her playgroup. Soon she came on a Sunday morning and since she and her child were familiar with the facility and a few faces, they felt comfortable.
In the classroom, that child saw a teacher light a candle and recite John 8:12: "Jesus said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.'" The child excitedly recited this to her mother and said, "Jesus is the light and is with me at night!" They began a light ritual and prayer before bedtime. Mother and child found a community of faith and support at an important growth spurt for them both. What access points does your church have to welcome parents and children when they began to ask faith-related questions but do not attend services?
Pair older children as mentors for younger children.
Older middle school children often begin to resist church activities that only recently brought them joy. I don't like crafts! These games are dumb. In this disequilibrium period, parents can need a break from the tug-of-war. Even before these children are old enough to babysit or care for younger children alone, they can become older-buddies and role models. When my children approached the fifth grade, they looked forward to being paired as "reading buddies" with a kindergarten student. Once a week they met for fifteen minutes before school to read a book to their buddy. A local church used a similar strategy to pair fifth graders as "champions" with the new first graders as "runners" and had the older children greet the children when they arrived, read a book together, then escort the child from the gathering area to the classroom. Champions could also take a "parent's helper" course offered through the church to be ready to help out pre-screened families who wanted help at home or at a park when the parents were still nearby. This helped the children gain skills, be useful, and build relationship with families outside of their own homes. How might you release that restless pre-adolescent energy in your middle schoolers and build relationships across age groups?
Release young teens to serve.
By the age of fourteen, most youth are ready to serve in responsible ways. Many churches have summer youth mission trips, but fewer have easy pathways identified for young teenagers to serve using their extensive talents in weekly ways. Youth who have a meaningful place of responsibility in the ministry of a local church, tend to stay engaged at a time when many opt out of youth group. As a pastor in a large church, I was happily surprised that each year some students eagerly volunteered to usher on Sunday mornings, work in the church's media and sound ministry, and attend committee meetings to plan and prepare the educational ministries of the church. When I checked in a few years later with some of the former youth, these highly involved students remained much more engaged with a faith community in their early adult years than did some of those who participated in the youth group activities. They had learned they had essential gifts to offer. What pathways to regular service are built into your ministry with youth?
Ministry is a lifelong call. Disequilibrium and restlessness are often seen as negative characteristics in children, but they can be seen differently as natural signals that children are ready for a growth spurt in faith and responsibility.
Rebecca Laird is Associate Professor of Christian Ministry and Practice at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She collaborated with Michael Christensen on Spiritual Direction, Spiritual Formation and Discernment, a trilogy of posthumous books from the unpublished writings of Henri Nouwen, all published by HarperOne.