Spirit-led Children's Ministry
Does the Holy Spirit have a lower-age limit? Lynn Alexander draws on scripture, history and personal experience to say a resolute ‘no’, and gives
some practical guidelines for implementing a spirit-led children’s ministry.
The subject of children and the gifts of the Holy Spirit is fraught with tension for many of us. We may feel that it’s simpler to leave the whole thing out and concentrate on the well-known stories of the Bible and the familiar themes of God’s love and forgiveness. Take any UK - published curriculum and audit it, as I have done in the past, to see what is given to teach or facilitate discussion and experience on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and you will find there is very little.
Why is this the case? Perhaps we are tempted to wait until the young person is under the care of a youth specialist who will teach them in this area. However, if we are to take seriously the solid research by David Kinnaman of the Barna Organisation (You lost me), it’s clear that, without intentional discipleship and shared experiences, the slide from faith can begin before a young person hits their teenage years.
What is more, there is broad agreement among many tribes and streams within the Christian Church that we need to talk less and allow children to experience more. Pure information transfer discipleship is not enough. As Ivy Beckwith writes: ‘Generation Y is experience-oriented. These kids find meaning and value in immediacy and in living in the moment. Their mantra for life and learning is “I want to try it”. Only then will they decide if they like the experience or not...They want to use all their senses as they learn, and they want their learning environments to provide experiences, not just facts and formulas. They want to do in order to learn. And when it comes to experiencing a spiritual life – and they are spiritual people – they want to experience God, not just learn about God. They don’t just want to be entertained.’ For this generation, more than ever before, the Holy Spirit has a key role to play in the formation of faith. With this in mind, and to settle the minds of the uncertain or unsure, I’d like to explore three different areas in which we see the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of children: in scripture, throughout Church history, and through personal testimony today.
The Holy Spirit in scripture
We often teach children theology built on a narrow collection of Bible stories repeated every two to four years. There is such richness in scripture, in understanding who we are, what we’ve been saved from and what we’ve been saved into. Where children – or any new believer – risks being damaged is where they are taught about God without the safety net of a loving community of faith with accountability in relationships. It’s here I want to spend some time, for the place of deep community was the place where 1st century Christians of all ages learned and grew in God. This immediately minimizes risks of one person taking over and forcing children into certain practices without solid Bible teaching. I am sure this has happened in the UK but I have to reiterate that I am more aware of caution and fear being demonstrated within many of our congregations than spiritual abuse and heresy.
Consider the book of Acts. Christians of all ages weren’t singing hymns and listening passively to sermons in buildings with closed doors. The Holy Spirit came upon believers bringing about a radical lifestyle reorientation, and supernatural power was evident. Where were children in this? One thing we know for sure – they were not separate, nor do we read anything in scripture that expressly forbids them from doing the same kinds of things that Jesus did. Professor Joel Green, a New Testament academic, has written extensively about community-nested practices; a rejection of a separatist model of children and adults. He states that Acts forces us to reflect on the need to practise community, with all ages together.
What about the exercise of spiritual gifts? Francis Bridger, in his book Children finding faith, claims that Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts was for adults only, because Paul does not raise the question of how children should exercise them. I find this argument fundamentally flawed as it applies a ‘separatist lens’ to scripture. We know from Old Testament studies that the people of God were a ‘team’ or a ‘company’ where instruction and remembrance happened corporately; children were not seen in isolation but were part of the ‘team’. In Greco-Roman culture, children were part of the ‘oikos’, the extended household, and again, would have been part of the communal worship practices. Acts 21 contains an example of this, saying: ‘All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.’ The children in the early Church are not excluded from the prayer and communal practice of the disciples.
We need to talk less and allow children to experience more
The Holy Spirit in history
In addition to scripture, there are specific instances in history of children encountering the Holy Spirit. During George Whitefield’s visits to Scotland, from 1741 to 1743, children under 12 years-old heard the preaching to repent and showed great manifestations of sorrow and subsequent signs of being overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit. This quote from a Church of Scotland minister, James Robe, in 1734,
is a striking example:
‘I had a room full of little ones yesternight making a pleasant noise and outcry for Christ, and two of the youngest, one of them but ten years of age, fainting and so distressed they could scarcely go home. I cannot write to you of the wonder I saw; one of eleven years of age crying out that she was sick of sin, and crying out with hands uplifted to heaven…’
In 1800, at the Cane Ridge camp meeting in Kentucky, USA, around 25,000 people of all ages and backgrounds stayed for days and weeks to receive ‘the mighty power of God…with heavenly fire spreading in all directions…’ Whole families came and camped out to partake in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at that time. Whenever periods of effusion (outpouring of the Holy Spirit) have come upon the Church, children have been present. Evidence like this substantiates the conclusion that children are not excluded from receiving the promised Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit today
I interviewed a seasoned children’s worker, Lesley Hamilton, from East Kilbride in Scotland, and this is what she had to say:
‘I have worked with children for around 25 years in a variety of ministry settings and over that time I have become convinced that we have as much responsibility to train and equip children to become active members of the body as we do adults. I believe that it is essential for us to give children the same opportunities which we give to adults to experience and encounter the Holy Spirit. It is for that reason I am committed to providing a variety of creative and age appropriate ways for children to experience the presence of God. They need to see and participate in the moving of the Holy Spirit, they need to have a sense of destiny and to feel part of what is happening in the body of Christ.
I am challenged by the instruction in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” I believe that this verse holds a key which is relevant to the issue of so many children leaving our churches. If children are to successfully navigate their way through their teens into adulthood and to continue to walk with the Lord, we simply must wake up to the fact that even though they may be young, they, as much as we, need God’s Holy Spirit working in them and through them to equip them to engage in spiritual warfare and to be actively involved in building the kingdom’.
If we are honest, sometimes our own beliefs about the person and work of the Holy Spirit influence what we are comfortable with teaching and leading children into. My experience, and that of many others, is that children can and do receive from the Holy Spirit, and that the pressure is off us when we make space for children to demonstrate their trust in a good God with a natural ease. I personally get less hung up on what gifts are exclusively ‘theirs’ but press in to help children love and get to know the person of the Holy Spirit as part of the Godhead. How can they experience more of someone they don’t know? I want children to know the Holy Spirit so that from the overflow of the love he has poured into their hearts (Romans 5:5) they will love and serve other people as Jesus did. There is no Junior Holy Spirit! He is God and if we believe that our children can know God, then it follows that they can know the Holy Spirit. Our faith is not meant to be dull and one-dimensional, but to be experienced and practised. I also trust God; that he is good; that his Holy Spirit is good; that his word can be trusted – which means I fundamentally disagree that children can be damaged by being taught about and experiencing the Holy Spirit and his gifts and his role in the world today. What he leads them into or to experience will surely be good.
We do need to be aware of what is being taught and how it is being taught by adults in positions of trust and responsibility. There is never any need to force anything. Here are some practical pointers, to ensure that the correct safeguards are in place in your children’s work:
You don’t need to have a theology degree, but volunteers should know the Bible and be open to being taught and trained themselves about:
• Children’s ability to connect with God (children’s spirituality)
• The person and work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the community
Content and curriculum
It’s really important that teaching on the Holy Spirit is combined with teaching on mission, love, prayer…(I could go on!) i.e. not as the sole focus for ever and a day, but becomes a natural part of family worship, children’s worship, prayer, teaching and so on.
Communicating with parents
This is one of my big passions as again it builds the sense of team – the fact that we’re all in this together - it eliminates misunderstandings and it allows for spiritual growth and development within the family.
What are their views on things of the spirit and children? Maybe discussing the historical and theological points in this article might provide a helpful starting point for you together to further develop teaching on pneumatology (the Holy Spirit) within your volunteer team and children’s groups. Pushing on further than your vicar or leader is comfortable with can only end in trouble or at the very least misunderstanding and suspicion, so why not just start with a conversation?