Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Status of Children before God Part 2

Back in March, I outlined six possible views of the status of children before God. I ended with this:
I will outline a seventh possible answer, and the one which governs my vision, my mission, my role to educate parents and fellow kids team workers, makes sense, encourages me and motivates me to be both evangelistic and nurturing towards children. I will set this view in the context of Westerhoff's stages of faith development. Come back soon!

Answer 7: All children begin with God, but will drift from that position unless an effective nurturing or evangelistic influence operates in their lives.

Key to this is that the child’s belongingness to God may become rebellion. There is no assumption that the belonging WILL become rebellion. This answer takes account of humanity’s rebellion against God and the child’s potential to be part of that. But it holds that potential in tension with Jesus’ own teaching about children and the Kingdom. Taking that teaching seriously, it holds that all children begin with God, but that they will drift from that safe position unless the drift is halted and reversed. So we need to have a VISION to cater for this; both within the Christian family and amongst the children's team.

The answer also makes sense of the fact that the faith of many adults began with Christian nurture in the home and grew into mature Christian discipleship. Some adult Christians have never doubted that they belong to God. They have been nurtured in that sense of belonging; they have agreed with it; they have grown in it.
They have never consciously said “no” to Jesus………

I sometimes feel that we inadvertantly devalue the testimonies of people who grew up knowing Jesus, unable to put an exact time and date on when they were converted to Christ. In guest services and in evangelistic events we favour the dramatic and sudden turnaround conversion stories. I must stress that these are great stories to hear and real faith-builders! But I have now come to a point where I celebrate amongst the children I work with the fact that they love Jesus. They cite their earliest memories of being "Jesus' friend". I encourage them to continue on in that, encouraging them to "keep saying yes to Jesus".

This makes sense of Westerhoff's theory of faith development. A child begins their faith journey on an experiential basis - if they experience the love of God from kind and caring adults who nurture them, then they will accept Jesus at that level. (so put your best child care workers in the creche!) The next stage; the affiliative stage is where a child will take on their faith because of who they are affiliated to i.e. who are their friends and what do they believe in? This leads to the searching faith period - where a child/young adult asks questions; tests us to see if what we talk about is true in our own lives; wrestles with big issues perhaps; looks for reality in what they see in the church around them. As an aside, many adults have not left this stage! The final stage is owned faith - where the individual makes their faith their own; to the point of being willing to lay themselves down for their faith.

And so I hold that children are on a journey that starts with God but may not end with him. They are part of fallen humanity and will revert to that default position - hellbound and lost without God - without a twin strategy of nurture and evangelism. Incidentally - and for another post I throw this controversial comment out - many church-going parents may not be fulfilling their God given role of nurturing their children in their faith (see Barna's important research on this topic in the USA; where the USA go, we usually follow......)


  1. Glad you did this post. Makes sense to me. Agree so much about testimonies in church. Can I calrify. It seems to me that we often in our Sunday Groups etc are seeking to evangelise children - are you suggesting that we should rather nurture the faith that is there instead of always telling them that they need to get a faith?

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  3. Thanks for your encouraging comment, Stuart.

    It is actually in educational psychology that I learned the phrase "ascertain what a child knows and teach him/her accordingly" i.e. we should not treat children as little heathens outside the kingdom as Jesus certainly didn't. They DO know things about God: often they can't describe how they know what they know, but they do have that ability. E.g. how come my 5 year old two years ago drew the throneroom of heaven right down to the correct number of wings on the creatures around the throne? (I had to dig out Revelation to check) How come a 5 year old who has NEVER attended church asked her mum for a Bible; asked her why Jesus died? (mum came to me in the playground and said "help!") She also hadn't had any RE lessons as this was in the first week of Primary 1?

    Children possess an innate spirituality - many academics and researchers (theologians aren't the only ones!) agree on this - people who don't have a Christian faith (see Hay and Nye as mentioned in the What I'm Reading section) - so it is up to us as Christians to nurture what is already there. If we don't, then this spirituality is damaged and/or eventually lost.

    Altar calls with children?? - I have certainly on only one or two occasions offered this but I now use phrasing such as "would you like to say yes to God; i.e. to be obedient to whatever he is telling you to do" and the child then interprets that at a level that is significant to themselves.
    I believe firmly that children should be given opportunities to make responses to God so that they grow up to be adults who will do the same. And this is not to do with the nature of the place I worship; it is widely suggested in children's theology literature that children should have frequent opportunities to respond so that they continue to make steps on that faith journey I have briefly described.

    And so the training I do always starts with training on faith development. I do feel as if I sometimes have to undo a little of the traditional beliefs towards children in our denomination.

  4. Hi Lynn,
    Great! I'm so glad you did this post; it's very helpful. I think we desperately need to re-examine what it is we are doing in our Sunday School classes (or whatever we call them). In the survey I am currently conducting it seems that very few (if any) churches have any idea of the purpose of their work with children. Most of the time spent with children is focussed on intructing them ('telling them they need to get a faith' is Stuart's phrase) and very little time is given to prayer or worship. But surely prayer and worship is exactly what's needed to nurture their faith?

    Thanks again.

  5. Marcus, thanks for posting and for writing a comment that encourages me. Sometimes I feel a bit alone in this vision; not amongst the teams I lead, but when I hear about other churches and what you said about the method and mode of teaching children is very, very common. It's as if we can't break free of the old Sunday School model, which existed to be just that - a place to teach head knowledge, reading and writing skills! It frustrates me, as I am at heart an educator and teacher (you can never leave the old career behind!) and I would love to get what I feel I am learning and experiencing out there. Maybe one day I will write a book (which no-one would buy LOL)

    I came to this pastoral job very experienced in the world's eyes but completely a novice in spiritual eyes and without exaggerating I have had to be an open book before God; for him to lead me, teach me, for me to say "Help, I can't do this. Help, I don't know what to do next etc etc".

    And I have been very blessed by individuals paying for my study so that I get a framework on which to hang my assorted beliefs - and bring me into line ::::smile:::: Can't recommend children's ministry at highly enough.

  6. Anonymous3:58 PM

    It certainly goes some way to explain why children are interested in spirituality. I read something recently in the course of my work (can't remember what or where right now) that was talking about young people being very interested in spiritual things ie spiritual things of all kinds. What an opportunity churches have and so often churches miss it! It's a big wake up call to adults in church though.....time to live what we claim we believe! Margaret

  7. Anonymous9:32 PM

    Thanks for this considered & well-expressed post. As a parent, I found it really encouraging.

  8. Indeed Margaret. In the school group I run for 10 and 11 year olds, we are just about to spill out of the room and will have to ask for a bigger place to meet. Its not right to do trad. Sunday School in a school lunch break (45 mins; you have to be kind and approachable, be normal, show interest and concern for the things that bother children; allow for question after question, demonstrate what you believe in what you do as well as what you say.

    I don't care for MAKING children believe what I tell them, but I do want them to consider carefully the kinds of things that Jesus said to transform society and to give us HELP to live a better way!

  9. I know this is way back on the blog timeline but I was backtracking your blogs on children and theology! I'm looking forward to studying children and their spiritual development and I think Stuart has sa vaild point about nuturing their exisiting faith as opposed to telling them to get one. I know several children who became Christians between the ages of 5 and 7 and I don't doubt for a second that they knew exactly what they were doing accepting Jesus, even at such an age.

  10. (Apologies for poor spelling - bad habit of late night blogging!)

  11. Hi again Amie!
    How apt that you should post on this today! I was teaching 40 or so 8s to 11s about salvation today and I explained again the faith journey they were on; about how they started with God but that they could either walk with him and keep on walking with him or how they could veer away from him. Yes, I led a "sinner's prayer" on one occasion today but more fruitful was small group discussion with excellent leaders on what repentance was; the children relayed when they had last said sorry for something that they needed to turn away from and used today (we watched a short excerpt from the Jesus film) as a fresh reminder that they wanted to keep saying "yes" to Jesus.

    I am flattered by the way, that you trackback my posts!! Thanks :::blush:::::


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