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From the mouths of babes

Pete Gardner explores how Church can be more than just a babysitting service for under-4s

In his brief interaction with the disciples in Luke 18:15-16, Jesus calls “babies” or “little children” to come to him. His followers seem to make the same mistake we often do of thinking that spiritual moments with Jesus are only for older people. Jesus corrects this very directly, which implies that 0 to 4s need to meet him personally, that spiritual interactions are non-negotiable and that the kingdom of heaven also belongs to this age group.

What if I told you...

...that you are born with no intrinsic sense of ‘self’?

By ‘self’ I mean your view of yourself, God and the world around you. This is huge, as it means children begin as a blank canvas to which the world (including us) can add colour.

But we can also put kids under pressure to learn things they’re not ready to learn. My children are both under 3, which means they’re in an imprint period. They’re not really forming their own thoughts cognitively; rather, whatever we tell them is imprinted on them. At this age it’s about showing them core values of how God loves us and how we can connect with him on a daily basis.

...that by the time you’re 10 that sense of self is fully formed?

To oversimplify, this involves the development of the two parts of our thinking: our conscious and subconscious thoughts. The subconscious part of our brains has a limited timeframe to develop before the age of 10, but a critical unfiltered part of this development happens between 0 to 4. We have a short but vital window of opportunity to help children find who they are and personally connect with Jesus.

We must ensure that we’re building values and beliefs in our children; not just encouraging them to attend church and get involved with activities, but saying: “You have a relationship with Jesus for yourself; you can read your Bible; you can work out what your spiritual gifts are; you can communicate with God and hear his voice.”

Children’s ability to learn for themselves is engrained in the way we do ministry at Life Church. We encourage a worship experience even for the youngest children, and exploring the Bible for themselves is part of that. We also have life groups right from our children’s groups.

We obviously need to ensure that we do these things in a way that is healthy for a child’s holistic development. We shouldn’t put pressure on them or create a spiritually abusive environment. My history is in health and social care, so I’m very cautious about how we do this, but we want them to have that experience and relationship with God from an early age.

Establishing an environment in which kids want to know more about faith and connect with Jesus personally is a greater goal than simply transferring information

Caregivers: the power of love

Two major factors make up our subconscious thoughts: our values and our beliefs. These are created by our caregivers and our surrounding environment or culture.

During challenging life situations, a key factor in enabling children to overcome adversity is the presence of at least one nurturing relationship. We can be that person as a parent, youth or children’s worker, auntie or granddad. We can change the direction of kids’ lives even when everything else is stacked against them.

You are growing roots, not always fruits, in this season

Children thrive in warm, positive relationships. A genuine and proactive love will bring so much positive influence, no matter our methodology. Some vital elements for healthy child development are: listening and identifying with kids; recognising and praising them; mentoring and discipling them; and inviting them to gradually become partners and leaders with adults.

Basic programming

First impressions count. They shape our view of things, and this could not be more relevant for under-4s.

Professor Morris Massey suggests we go through four major periods in the creation of our values and personality. The period from 0 to 4 is known as ‘basic programming’. Here we soak up everything, largely without any filters as we may not have the ability to determine the difference between useful and useless information. Many first interactions create fresh tracks in kids’ minds that are either healthy or unhealthy. These can be corrected, but it’s much easier to get it right in the first place. It’s vital that we create great first experiences of church.

We need a kids’ programme of diverse activities incorporating different learning styles. This needs to combine biblical content and opportunities to experience God. We also need to ensure there is a healthy environment and parental involvement.

We recently used 2 Corinthians 4:6 to show children that God wants to put the love of Jesus in our hearts. Our leaders used heart-shaped lights to respond to this. They prayed: “Father God, please light up my heart with the love of Jesus, amen” then switched the lights on. We then invited children to do the same if they wanted to. We made it fun, quick and relaxed, allowing children to leave or stay as they wish, and we roll with the usual random and unexpected insights you get from under-4s. We also offer to pray with each child.

At specific times in the year we do something called Parent Power. This is a great opportunity to work in partnership with parents. During these sessions we specifically tailor the content of our Sundays to be delivered by parents to their own kids. We cover things like the choice to follow Jesus or a guided prayer to hear what the Holy Spirit says.

Creating culture

Great culture – a combination of environment and people – is at the heart of healthy development. Children’s workers are often concerned that their children are not learning enough. Can I please release you from that pressure?

Establishing an environment in which kids want to know more about faith and connect with Jesus personally is a greater goal than simply transferring information. Play is a prime context for development, and teaching biblical truths through child-led activities such as role play is a great alternative to stories or teaching.

Conversation is another place in which children learn how to process thoughts and emotions. Even though the linguistic ability of kids below 4 is limited, it is still really important. At this age children are mostly talked at using commands, instructions and directions. So for children to have the opportunity to express themselves – for you and them to ask questions and for kids to tell you how they feel – is key. Even one-word conversations can have a positive impact on their development. We don’t just give kids information; we facilitate revelation.

One of the greatest opportunities in parenting and pastoring, after loving, is to engage kids in spiritually stretching activities. We need to offer opportunities for young children to experience things we often only associate with adult Christians or the spiritually mature. It is amazing how kids can engage with God in ways we wouldn’t think possible.

Psychologically, kids lack the inhibitions, baggage and lack of trust many adults struggle with. They often just simply hear and do, which sums up Matthew 18:3 and the call for all to have a “childlike faith”.

One of my children is nearly 3 and I love spending time with him, exploring how he’s able to connect and relate to God. He calls church “awesome”, regularly asking, “Can we go to awesome today?”

Why awesome? Because there are heaps of people there who love him, and the environment is fun and full of life, just like him. That’s the perfect mix for healthy values and beliefs to be shaped. He also loves worshipping Jesus and can sing (albeit with major lyrical discrepancies) five full adult worship songs, which make up his favourite playlist. There are obviously plenty of things he doesn’t love yet in terms of relating to God, but that’s OK because there’s no pressure. It’s about building relationship.

In kids’ church we pray for kids to receive the fruits of the Spirit. This is a heap of fun. We begin by asking if they want to, and of course it’s fine if they say no. There’s no persuasion or manipulation, as it has to be their will to desire it. When it’s a yes we lay hands on children and pray, then we ask them if anything is different. We get some amazing insights into how the Holy Spirit has related to them. Obviously the vocabulary needed to describe their experience is lacking, but they explain it in such a personal way it is heartwarming. Beyond words, you can tell by a child’s body language and behaviour that they have clearly received joy, peace or another manifestation of the Spirit.

We don’t just give kids information; we facilitate revelation

Worship is another thing our under-4s love. As well as the fun songs, we use worship songs that don’t involve actions. It’s amazing to sense the presence of God in those times and see genuine interactions with him through worship. Many of our under-4s have a great understanding of what worship is. One child recently said: “It’s the way I live for Jesus... and singing.”

Kids and the kingdom of heaven

Take some risks and have fun! You don’t have to get it right all the time as long as it’s done from a place of love, with the children’s best interests and desire to participate at heart. If those things are in place, why not experiment? Be led by the Holy Spirit and not the intended outcome.

Be consistent in caring for children within this age group. Stick with it, because development happens over time. You are growing roots, not always fruits, in this season. Those roots are really important and will determine the health, size and strength of the adult to come, so there is no greater investment.

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