The magnificent, new covenant story of humanity’s hope in a never-ending, ever-pursuing God of love begins with a child. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, came not as a fully grown man but through conception, cradled in the womb of a woman. The long-awaited Messiah came as a baby.
In the formative season of his childhood, Jesus’ relationship with God grew, as did his relationship with others, laying the foundation for his ministry and kingdom to come. In this same pattern, as we develop in our spiritual lives we grow in our awareness of God, ourselves, and others, deepening and expanding our experience as Christian believers. Yet our faith journeys do not spontaneously begin in adulthood or even when we make a conscious, outward commitment to follow Jesus. Our faith journeys are crafted through our personal histories, emerging over time.
Our paths as spiritual beings are launched the moment our personal narratives begin. Childhood is the landscape of our lives in which we develop emotionally, physically, and cognitively, yet it is also the season of rich and formative spiritual development. Through loving interactions with their children, parents and caregivers have the immense privilege and responsibility to cultivate the spiritual lives of the Young Emerging Believers entrusted to our care.
Childhood is inherently bespoke with wonder, imagination, and faith. With my background in early childhood education and four of my own children, I have often observed in awe the spiritual acumen of the Young Emerging Believer. Still unfettered by societal, economic, relational, and other such demands and restrictions, the child’s heart is open, vulnerable, curious, and trusting – essential traits for Christian formation.
Before we can begin rushing into “developmentally appropriate methods” and/or a particular pedagogical approach to the child’s Christian education, we must first acknowledge and honor the Young Emerging Believer as a human who is on a spiritual journey.
Childhood is a time of life through which every person must pass through on the path of faith formation. It is in this marvelous season of human development where children move through faith stages one and two as defined by theologian James Fowler. In his book, Stages of Faith (see Tonya’s blog, Finding Yourself in this Human Journey that describes this in more detail). Fowler states that in stage one, Intuitive-Projective Faith, imagination is born, while in stage two, Mythic-Literal Faith, story emerges as a dominant player (1981, pp.121, 134, 135, 149). Both imagination and narrative construction are necessary for healthy faith development. In addition, “as children are progressing through their own stages of spiritual development, they are also undergoing development in all other areas of human growth” (Keisler, 2019, p. 29).
Through their primary care-givers, children develop an attachment style. Loving appropriate touch, gentle tones of voice, the comforting answer to cries of hunger, pain, or fear: all of these attachment building responses communicate to an infant that, though the world is uncertain and frightening at times, there is one who cares and is over all these things. Here, secure attachment is formed. The tiny, Young Emerging Believer can rest in the faith and trust of his/her caregiver, who is modelling the care of our Heavenly Father in this critical developmental process of secure attachment (or through earned secure attachment for older children who developed with less healthy human attachments). Every action, response, and invitation from a parent, caregiver, and participating adult sends a message to the child about his/her intrinsic value, both as a human being as well as a fellow Sojourner.
As a man, Jesus valued the presence and participation of children. His message and ministry were for all people. Jesus welcomed the boy with his fishes and loaves to become the epicenter of the miraculous multiplication for the feeding of thousands. Despite the cultural practice of excluding children, Jesus invited little children to be brought to him to be blessed. Surely among the multitudes to hear him speak were children, some of whom may have had “ears to hear.” Jesus did not wait for the right song and game, the developmentally appropriate curriculum, or the “appropriate” timing to deliver his parabolic wisdom. Jesus recognized that every moment was brimming with the kingdom, and every breath was an invitation to discover it. Spiritual engagement and development were not contingent upon conceptual mastery: “God has never required our understanding – and certainly not education or intellect, rationality or composure – in order to commune with us. Our birth’s and rebirths as children of God and our consequent state of need precipitate His giving of every good and perfect gift – including that of himself as a human child” (Mosher, J. H., 2012, p. 117).
Jesus honored children and childhood through his actions as an adult, but also through His very incarnation. The biblical metanarrative tells us that Jesus came to earth as a human baby. He had to learn, just as we do, what it meant to crawl, to speak, to know God, and to rediscover the lost garden vision of what it meant to be human. He chose daily to submit Himself to the Father in every aspect of life, and in doing so He redeemed each life phase with dignity, grace, and love in obedience to God the Father through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. In this way, through his life, Jesus redeemed every life stage of humanity.
This view of atonement is called Recapitulation and was first conceived by early Church father, Irenaeus: “If we delve into the implications of this patristic teaching then we discover a rich inheritance in terms of the religious life of a Christian child” (Keisler, 2019, pp. 28-29). In this view, Jesus redeemed childhood so that children, Young Emerging Believers, could come to experience Trinitarian fellowship even in this season of their lives. Recapitulation gives credence that childhood serves as a significant period of development in our journeys of faith.
In conclusion, the faith formation of the Young Emerging Believer develops through both the biblical narrative and his/her personal narrative. While the institutional church plays a part in this development, ultimately it is the parent or caregiver who will set the tone during this spiritually formative season of childhood, both of which we will explore in the next article.
Reflection: Remembering Your Story
In this article, we have spent time exploring the foundations of Christian formation for Young Emerging Believers. However, even as adults, we can tap into the power of our childhood faith formation by reflecting on those moments which held spiritual significance. Take a few moments to intentionally revisit these milestones of your own spiritual journey.
Begin by finding a comfortable position. Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor and your back supported by a towel or pillow; you may also find sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position or lying down will better accommodate you during this time. Close your eyes and pay attention to breathing deeply in and out through the nose. After several breaths, direct your thoughts toward memories of your childhood.
Invite Holy Spirit to direct your thoughts to those memories where He was drawing you into relational intimacy with God, even as a child. Some memories will be pleasant, others painful. Some will come in a rush and others will feel like you are digging to find them. Try to queue your memories, giving each one a few moments of your full attention. What was it about this moment that shaped you and your walk with the Triune God of the biblical narrative?
Honor the memory which holds importance in your faith formation, thanking God for remembering this milestone in your spiritual journey. Let your thoughts move to the next memory and repeat the reflection until you feel you have come to the end. Close your time with a prayer such as:
Thank you Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You have always been with me in my story.
When you feel comfortable with this activity for yourself, invite your child to join you. You may need to give examples of memories to help stimulate your child’s. You may even take turns (when appropriate) as you share your memories with your child, allowing your formative experience to shape your child, and your child’s to shape you.
Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning
Keisler, N. R. (2019). Helping Third Culture Kids Navigate Transitional Instability Through Formational Christian Practices. (Unpublished Master’s Capstone). University of the Nations, Cape Town, South Africa.
Mosher, J. H. (2012). Irenaeus’ Stages of Faith: Childlike Belief and the Divine Pedagogy. In Lawson, K. E. (Ed.), Understanding Children’s Spirituality: Theology, Research, and Practice