Children are drawn to stories. They learn to create and imagine and reason and live through the stories they learn. They long to hear them, again, and again, and again, the story never growing old. Children feed upon the joy in the nuances as the story is retold; they rest in the rhythm of the repetitive, celebrate in the overcoming of the conflict, and delight in the “happily ever after.” It is as if children were made for story, and story made just for them. How we teach them the story, and how to live it, has a significant impact on the spiritual development of the Young Emerging Believer.
There are four predominant models, as identified in Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation (Carlson, G., Ellis, T., Graves, T., May, S., 2006) in terms of the methodology church leadership employ in the retelling of the biblical narrative for the spiritual instruction of the Young Emerging Believer:
- Contemplative-Reflective: This model focuses on “…periods of quiet reflection, introspective prayer, and storytelling… Prayer is the primary outcome of this expression of spirituality. These individuals feel deeply about spiritual events in their life” (p. 36).
- Instructional-Analytical: This model has “…a high regard for cognitive thought processing. These individuals grow and nurture their spiritual formation through a consistent and systematic study of God’s Word” (p. 38).
- Pragmatic-Participatory: This model has “a propensity toward choreographed singing, dramatic presentations of Bible stories, numerous activities in a teaching hour, and a mild integration of instructional technology. ‘Learning in a context of activity and fun’ might be the mantra…” (p. 39).
- Media-Driven Active-Engagement: This model is “high-energy, heavily vested in instructional technology, with children always in motion” (p. 41). There is a strong emphasis on “creative expression, guided imagery, music, drama, and activities” (p. 41).
While these models often provide helpful teaching tools and curriculum, they come with their own set of limitations. Generally, a children’s ministry will adopt one of these models in exclusivity. Unfortunately, while each model has its benefits, it also has its weaknesses. Thus, those who minister to children often find greater success in facilitating formation in children when partnering with those who have complementary and/or opposite talents and skillsets from themselves. This interconnectedness increases the natural talents and strengths within the group and compensates for the weaknesses of individuals as well. Collectively, they are stronger. Likewise, these four perspectives on children’s ministry benefit from a merging of pedagogical protocol. When we pull from the strengths of each of these methods we provide greater educational benefit to the Young Emerging Believer.
Yet, for all of the well-laid lesson plans, the education provided through participation in a children’s ministry is merely that: education. We primarily continue to move in a Greek-fashioned model of learning, relegating faith at its earliest stages to a cerebral process.
This heady introduction to Christianity lays a foundation for the child in which faith is to be approached with the mind, and likens faith development to the amount of knowledge one can memorize and appropriately apply. While equipping our children with information can be of benefit, it does not teach them how to relationally interact with the Trinitarian God about whom they are learning.
Though it has its part to play in the formation of childhood spiritual development, the church cannot be our children’s sole teachers. “One does not become a Christian by sitting in a room in a church hearing a Bible story. This is certainly part of it, yes, but one becomes a Christian by being immersed in God’s story everywhere it is told” (Beckwith, 2010, p. 19), including (and possibly most importantly) in the home. Each of us as parents and caregivers must develop a personal and vibrant relationship with our Three-In-One God, one which will see us through the ordinary experiences which define everyday living, that we can model and pass on to the next generation.
Parents are the first custodians of faith to the Young Emerging Believer… it is in conjunction with the parent’s daily nurturing of the child’s spiritual development that reinforces the values, rituals, and mysteries which in turn enables the Young Emerging Believer to thrive (Keisler, 2019, p. 33).
Did you have fun? I often hear parents asking their children this close-ended question as we collect our kids at the close of the Sunday morning experience. How do we as parents compete with this kind of teaching environment – where our children go to one place and we go another? Where there are activities with supplies I do not have at home and (possibly) snacks I do not feed my family? Where there is a surreal atmosphere of fun that does not transcend to the marvellous madness that is everyday family life? There is absolutely a place for fun in childhood faith formation, but is “fun” the primary element we want our children to take away from their faith forming experience?
As a parent, my primary role as a caregiver is not to establish fun. Safety, nurturing, love, values, nutrition, self-care, healthy relationships, healthy self-esteem, education, and strong faith in and love for God and His goodness, beauty, and truth are all elements that I hope to offer my children to support and prepare them to live out their personal narratives in the greater story of humanity. While I hope we have fun on the journey… it is not my primary objective.
However, as parents, we do not always know what questions to ask because we ourselves are not sure what we are supposed to be getting out of our faith forming experiences. Sometimes a Scripture reading, meditation, podcast, formal teaching or simply a lesson from a page of my own life can leave me feeling uncomfortable, frustrated, confused; oftentimes I feel personally challenged and certainly, at times this experience of personal transformation is not fun. So why endure this painful process, and why subject my children to it?
As I began to examine my own faith journey, I developed three questions that remind me of the direction I am taking in my own story as I relate to God and His story, and as I lead my children in theirs:
How did you grow in relationship with God?
How did you grow in relationship with others?
How did you grow in relationship with yourself?
As I read or tell the stories of the biblical narrative again and again to and with my children, I frame these questions in a way in which we can wrestle with them together. Moving beyond the simple yes or no, the how and why become powerful catalysts for authentic Christian formation, helping our children to engage in the process rather than be entertained by it. It takes the focus off our personal gratification and moves us towards love. Love is not always fun, but it is beautiful, good, and true. Helping our children to better understand both the joy and the pain of loving God, ourselves, and others will better prepare them for the conflicts they will encounter and (hopefully overcome) as the protagonists of their own stories. If our focus is on fun then when the many trials of life, which Jesus said would inevitably befall us (John 16:33), indeed come, our children will disengage from the story. But if we give our children a vision for an epic – fraught with conflict, courage, commitment, and a love which overcomes – then we equip our Young Emerging Believers to live well within their own narratives as they participate in the biblical narrative, and the continuing story of humanity.
Beckwith, I. (2010). Formational Children’s Ministry: Shaping Children Using Story, Ritual, and Relationship
Anthony, M. J. (2006). Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation: Four Views
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