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 the Lord”; 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 supply closets!
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 programs, curricula and individual sessions to fulfill 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.
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.