Spiritual Development - Children Are "Smarter" Than We Think


Debbie Gline Allen

9/18/2018

I had the wonderful opportunity over the summer to sit down with a long-time Sunday School teacher who has spent her career as a Clinical Nurse Specialist working with children. Not only did we exchange thoughts and understandings about the spiritual development of children, but interspersed between these ideas were stories of children we had worked with and ministered to. Every story lifted up the fact that children are capable of understanding way more about God than we tend to give them credit for.

Current psychological research is supporting what the Church has known for millennia: that every baby is born with the capacity for spiritual involvement. All that we have to do then is nurture it.

One of my pet peeves in worship is the belief that we are nurturing that spiritual development by offering a Children’s Message. (You can read more about my views on Children’s Messages here.) I believe that we waste our time telling children what to believe or how to behave during these moments. This time would be better spent fostering their innate sense of the spiritual by helping them to articulate it. Dr. Jerome Berryman, the creator of the Godly Play method of passing on faith to children, encourages “wondering.” This is a process that creates a space for the child’s imagination to ponder a subject and then articulate many more possibilities around it than a right or wrong answer.

“I wonder where we can see God today…” is an example of such an invitation.

Preschoolers are our most vulnerable church-goers. Yes, they are energetic and impulsive and apt to put themselves in harm’s way unintentionally, but I’m referring to how vulnerable their spiritual growth is during this phase of their lives. Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development outlines the possible outcomes of their developmental experiences as either autonomy or shame & doubt, either initiative or guilt, and either industry or inferiority. Of course we want our little ones to come out on the side of healthy autonomy, initiative, and industry. Thus, we need to be aware of the language we use with them, the curriculum materials we offer them, and the ways we welcome or discourage them in the church. We need to be intentional about our investment in their potential for spiritual growth in order that they may grow up confident in their inborn understanding of God and the spiritual. And it follows that this understanding will allow them to articulate, age-appropriately, their awareness of God’s place in their lives.

“I wonder how we know that God is with us…”

The following characteristics of children give them great potential for truly experiencing our Sunday services of worship. In what ways can we enhance worship and our sanctuaries to capitalize on these characteristics?

  • Children are filled with wonder and awe.
  • Beauty evokes reverence and wonder in children.
  • Children absorb the environment around them like sponges, thus the environment will be more important than words.
  • Children love stories.
“I wonder what we can be thankful for today…”

Many thanks to Wendy Parker, APRN, member of the Congregational Church in Littleton, for her invaluable inspiration and input for this blogpost.



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