I’m fairly certain that most of what we attempt in the way of spiritual formation for children gets in the way of what God is doing in the way of spiritual formation for children. Thank you all for your thoughtful and inspiring comments on this issue. Clearly, there is a need and a longing for the emergent conversation to include the faith of children. It sounds like many of you are finding your way through a combination of experimentation, creativity, and the wonderful Ivy Beckwith.
I think what often gets in the way of good ideas taking hold is that there are still wrong-headed ideas about what faith looks like in children. Part of the reason the one-time conversion model is so distasteful to me is that it suggests that anything that came before it was not of God, that there was no faith, no connection with God before that prayer was said. But I need only to look at my own children to know that’s not the case. They ask questions about God that could only come from a built-in desire to know their Creator. They live out a faith that goes far beyond what I could ever teach them.
When our oldest child was in 1st grade, she came home from school and told us that her principal had helped her set up a donation box for shoes that our church could take to Guatemala. We had no idea what she was talking about. It turned out that–on her own volition–she talked to her principal and asked if she could make an announcement during lunch asking kids to bring in shoes they didn’t wear anymore so that our friends from the Porch who were going to Guatemala could bring the shoes to children who have no shoes. She tracked down a big box, made a sign, and collected a huge pile of shoes that ended up on the feet of Guatemalan children a few weeks later. We didn’t intentionally teach her to care for those children. We didn’t make a point of telling her that this is what good Christians do. No, God created her with a spirit of compassion that told her that her friends were the perfect people to clothe the “naked.” If she had asked me about her shoe drive beforehand, I probably would have discouraged her from doing it. I would have been worried that she’d be teased or that no one would donate anything and she’d end up disappointed. She followed God’s urging instead.
The whole “knowledge-before-faith” ideal falls apart when it comes to children. ( I think it falls apart anyway, but that failure is particularly blatant in the case of children.) So if we aren’t teachers in the general sense, what is our role as parents and members of faith communities? Is it to live in such a way that children pick up on what we’re doing and follow suit? Should we be doing anything that sets us up as the interpreters of the faith? Is the reliance on “age-appropriate” experiences really just a way to justify getting kids out of the way so we can have the sort of church experience we want?