Do we focus on engaging children’s minds at the expense of their hearts? Their imagination to the detriment of their actions? Their fun-loving nature over time for contemplation? Robin Barfield challenges us to encourage them to enjoy God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength
As children’s leaders and ministers, we long for the children in our care to “delight in him”; to genuinely enjoy the God who made them, saved them and walks with them. And yet too often this ends up last on our list, almost like an afterthought we’ll get around to if we have time, like tidying out our resources cupboards!
“The Lord makes firm the steps of those who delight in him” Psalm 37:23
Can children enjoy God?
A vast array of studies has been conducted into the spirituality of children over the last 40 years, and they all come to the conclusion that it is quite normal and natural for a child to speak of their enjoyment of God as creator. So, Robert Coles’ The Spiritual Life of Children includes a number of children speaking of their awareness of a divine being. If we trust Psalm 19 that “the heavens declare the glory of God”, we should expect children to be just as capable of listening and seeing God in creation as adults.
Yet, we need children to be aware of God as redeemer and sustainer as well as creator, and therefore it is significant that in 1 Samuel 3 we see the young Samuel engage with the revealed word of God. While Samuel needed instruction as to how to engage with God speaking to him, this is clearly the beginning of a relationship in which Samuel trusts the Lord. Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, puts Samuel’s age at the time of this event at 11.
There is also good evidence from Church history that very young children can respond to God’s initiative in genuine ways. New England pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards, speaks of a girl as young as 4, but more generally he saw many 9 and 10-year-olds respond during the 18th Century revival.
How can we encourage children to enjoy God?
If children are to genuinely enjoy God, it will involve enjoying him with their whole being: heart, mind, soul and strength (Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). It will, therefore, require a complete shaping of our children’s programmes, curriculums and individual sessions to fulfil the possibility of this. While some of us will be very good at feeding our children’s minds (think of the traditional model of children’s ministry), others are very good at encouraging an emotional or wondering response (consider the charismatic and Godly Play models), and others still an activist response, which encourages Christian service and a more physical application. But each of these approaches may be in danger of focusing on one aspect to the detriment of another possible response.
Loving God with all their heart
David F White, a professor of Christian education, refers to this as ortho-pathos (right feeling): “an aim of listening...to cultivate feelings appropriate to our situations”. This means we need to encourage our children to shape their hearts to respond rightly to the truth of the gospel; to love and delight in Jesus.
Often in our times with children, we feel the need to have an element of bounce and fun in order to engage our groups so they will listen. Yet if, for example, we are looking at a passage like Nehemiah 9, where the Israelites confess their sin, it would be better to carefully and sensitively shape the session so that our children feel the passage as well as hear it. Similarly, if we are exploring a Bible story that speaks of joy and celebration, it would be unhelpful to insist that children quiet themselves before they enter the room. This may mean changing the normal structure we use in order to help our groups listen to the sense of scripture. If the feel of the session reflects the passage, God is doing the shaping of their hearts rather than any manipulation or quashing of emotions.
The book of Psalms, of course, is excellent for this. On one church weekend away, we slowly worked through Psalm 3 together, encouraging the children to feel and understand what David felt. This brought up big issues of fear, worry and danger, and they wrote prayers around the psalm to help inform their feelings. One boy who was struggling to sleep learnt verse 5 by heart: “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.” This became a banner over his bed for those moments, and it helped him immensely.
“Involving children in the wider life of the church helps them understand how to love God with all their strength”
It will also mean working hard to engage the motivations of our group. What makes them want to do what they do? What excites and encourages them, and why? What scares them and makes them anxious, and what’s the underlying reason for this? This involves knowing our children well and listening to them, as well as being genuinely and consistently involved in their lives.
Loving God with all their mind
Canadian philosopher James KA Smith describes human beings as being “at root, lovers”. While I have concerns with much of Smith’s approach, I am inclined to agree with this. We may often think that we make rational arguments for Jesus and then fall in love with him, yet Smith would argue that it’s the other way around. When I met my wife I did not have a rational, tick-box approach to finding a partner, and I don’t think she would have appreciated that either! Instead, our logic often follows our desires. Once children have heard the gospel and love God with all their hearts, they will find it easier to love God with all their minds. This will, in turn, increase their love for God as they get to know him better.
This has to involve more than just a data-dump approach to ministry. Part of the role of children’s leaders is to allow a child to genuinely engage with scripture: to question and respond; to express doubt and trust; to chew it over during the week as they live it out in their lives. We must not just allow questions, but actively look for and ask them, sensing when might be a good time to stop and think together.
One of my sons is a question machine! He recently asked me: “Dad, how do you wake up moles?” This inherent inquisitiveness can be a real gift to children’s ministry.
I was once asked to teach the book of Job to 5 to 7-year-olds at a large convention; not just the beginning and the end, but the whole shebang. My feeling was that Job was all about questions, and questions that were not necessarily answered. So we set out a question box for the children, and each day we would read them out and think about them together. One of the stewards, who normally works with students, later remarked that the questions the children asked were at the same level as those from his student lunch bars. The desire to engage with the big questions of life starts early.
Loving God with all their soul
David F White sees this primarily as remembering and dreaming: a soul that longs to see God and dream of more than this world. So often the debated parts of scripture are those that speak of what it was like to be sinless, or what it means to be sinless (Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22). I wonder if this is due, in part, to our sinful natures making it so hard for us to fathom what this was and will be like. All we can do is imperfectly dream of the new creation and begin to imagine it. One morning, my family ended up having a discussion about what it might be like not to have to battle sin in our lives. This led to all sorts of questions about the nature of the new creation and what life there will be like.
Yet our world often seems to work against developing an imagination muscle in our children. Screens (TV, films and computer games) work against the imagination as the visual is provided. Oral stories and good literature allow the mind to open to other worlds. CS Lewis understood this perfectly, and reading children passages from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Last Battle is a joy.
“The desire to engage with the big questions of life starts early”
We should be providing parents with good imaginative literature to read with their children. This may mean finding a book that pairs with whatever you’re teaching that term. For example, if you’re working through Genesis, The Magician’s Nephew would be ideal. Similarly, the more contemporary novels of GP Taylor provide great examples of sacrifice and other Christian themes. Recommending audio books for car journeys can develop a similar love, or you could set children the challenge of finding as many examples of your key themes from whatever books they are reading, for example sacrifice or transformation.
Even the toys children play with often fail to encourage the imaginative muscle. Recently, one of my sons asked for a Ninja Turtle remote-controlled van for his birthday. Feeling slightly dubious, we tried to encourage other possibilities, which we knew he would enjoy more. He was adamant, so we relented. He enjoyed playing with it for all of about ten minutes, then went back to his Lego. For our son, Lego provides endless possibilities of engaging his imagination in building and forming another world, which a remote control van could never do.
Loving God with all their strength
James KA Smith argues that what we do shapes what we love; that the liturgy of our lives feeds our passions. While I think he overplays this, encouraging our children to love God with their actions is vital. This will involve us joining them in the doing. One of the best examples I know of this is a friend who takes his young son with him when visiting some of the older saints in our church family.
Alternatively, this could mean writing letters to our persecuted brothers and sisters, or our partner missionaries. Statistics show that most missionaries made their decision to serve between the ages of 6 and 14. This means shaping children’s actions now with involvement in the lives of the worldwide Church.
Children have a natural sense of justice, and we should encourage this and help them learn how to fight for it in the right way. We regularly include an opportunity for our children to give. This means being clear with them about biblical motives for giving, but also gives them a wider vision of the work of the gospel in the world.
It also means getting children involved in the work of the church family: welcoming, serving, praying and sometimes reading. I often give our older children roles in serving the younger children in the group, learning selfless patience as they do so. Sometimes I ask them to offer cups of tea to the rest of the church family after the service. These are small things, but they involve the children in the wider life of the church and help them understand how to love God with all their strength.
This will also mean helping our children to work out how the passage of scripture you are reflecting on together impacts their whole lives. Again, this means knowing them and their lives, and reflecting deeply on what it looks like to love God with all their strength at school, in their homes and when they are playing.
It is likely that we naturally focus on one of these areas at the expense of the others. I’m oversimplifying here, but while, those following a more traditional Sunday School model make good use of the mind, they are often less good with a full emotional response of the heart, which charismatics can be very good at. The Godly Play model is very good at dreaming, but may not leave the child knowing what to do with it. Meanwhile, an activist response is in danger of stopping at “read your Bible, pray every day” and going no further. To fully help our children enjoy God, we must be aware of the aspects we are underemphasising, be honest with where we are failing our groups, and change to better reflect the comprehensive nature of Jesus’ command.