The Spiritual Lives of Children (Carla)

The Spiritual Lives of Children (Carla) January 3, 2009

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?

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  • Carla,
    I’m not sure if I should bring this up here or back on your older post (I just read that too). I think it’s important that people are asking about children in the Emergent framework, but I’m really struggling with what teenage outreach looks like. I’m invested in the lives of several teenagers but their families have very little if any Christian influence. I do my best to be an example and positive influence in their lives, but I’m realizing that may not be enough. Just like adults, teens need some sort of community, if not more so. It’s how they learn about the world at that age. I think, somewhere in the conversation about the spiritual formation and lives of children we need to start discussing the large percentage of children that aren’t brought up in a Christian home.

  • The whole church thing is hard. When I was a children’s pastor I tried to create experiential learning times for the kids that connected faith to their real life. It was to an extent about knowledge – learning the stories – but connected it to history, and art, and books, and life. I had 12 year olds who had grown up in the church who had no idea how the bible stories fit in with the history they learned in school or girls the same age who asked why there weren’t any women in the Bible. The standard pedagogy of literacy based kids church really misses the stuff kids love to get into. Knowledge can be good if the kids can connect to it.
    But at the same time my setting prevented the kids from interacting with adults. The church even had a rule about limiting such contact. So in giving kids what they needed, they missed the community of church. Same thing in the church I am in now. Although it is very emerging and discussion based, kids under age six are separate from us adults. While part of me wishes I could participate in the community with them, I do selfishly like getting to do church in a way that benefits me. Sunday morning is the one time each week I get out of the house and interact with adults. To spend that time hovering in the hallway with my hyperactive kids just isn’t worth the effort no matter what it models. So at this point church isn’t where spiritual formation happens in our family.

  • Bryan

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Robert Coles’ book The Spiritual Life of Children, which is an excellent work!