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In Spiritual Formation: Who’s the Hero

by Teresa Welch

During my 15-year tenure as a children’s minister, I was proud of how much Bible content the children learned. But now I wonder if that was enough.

Whether it was through Sunday school, kids worship, youth groups, or summer programs like church camp and Vacation Bible School, I knew children were learning the Word of God.

However, as I reflected on those years, I saw a problem. Sometimes our efforts to make sure children were learning the Word of God didn’t lead them to learn about God.

Certainly we taught about the number of stones David collected from a stream, the name of Ruth’s mother-in-law, and the location of Paul’s conversion. But our telling of these stories too often left out the primary character of the story: God. I came to see this as a deficiency in children’s education in many churches.

This can even happen in teaching children the stories of Jesus. Too seldom do we mention God’s plan demonstrated through Christ’s presence and teaching.

When we make this mistake, children are left to construct an understanding of God through ancillary comments (“Isn’t God awesome!”), songs that are sung (“Our God Is a Great Big God”), or prayers they hear (“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”). My fear is that children then perceive God as “a really big unknowable person,” “the punisher of bad people,” or “our big pal in the sky.” Though children proclaim a heartfelt love for God, our responsibility as parents and teachers is to help provide better understanding of the God we all want them to serve and follow the rest of their lives.

As a result of these concerns, I have a suggestion for parents and teachers of children. Let’s focus children’s attention on God when we share Bible stories, lead them in worship, and engage them in conversation.

Remind children of God’s activity and attributes found in Bible stories.

When teaching preschool and elementary-age children, we too easily focus on Bible story facts. Teachers feel confident that learning has occurred when children can recall the names of people and places and details about numbers and nations. Rarely will discussion revolve around the question, “What does this story teach us about God?” Even when teaching materials state that the goal of a lesson is to teach children an attribute of God’s nature, God himself is mentioned only in the conclusion, if at all. Children may be able to describe the actions of Abraham, Esther, Peter, and Priscilla, without realizing how each of their stories teaches us more about God.

This becomes most dangerous when we make the biblical character—and not God—the hero or heroine of the story. Though Moses, Mary, Deborah, and Daniel represent attributes that children should possess, do we teach children that these attributes originate in God? We want children to learn about faithfulness, courage, integrity, and love, but do we teach children that God’s power makes it possible to demonstrate these qualities in our own lives? When teaching children the stories of the Bible, we should focus the child’s attention on the role of God in the story and what he or she can learn about God through the story.

To that end, begin each story by telling children what they will learn about God through the story. The story of Noah becomes God’s story of perfection, provision, and promise. The story of Hannah becomes God’s story of love and faithfulness. Ask children to share the characteristics of God they find in the stories or what they learned about God from the story. Though it is important for children to know the contents of the Word of God, it is even more important they know about the God who provided this Word.

Provide spaces for children to worship God.

Beyond knowledge about God, children should also be encouraged in their experiences with God. Children are capable of worshipping God from a very young age. Though they may not fully comprehend the words they hear, speak, or sing, these words can become part of their increasing vocabulary about God’s nature.

For example, begin asking children to complete the sentence, “God you are . . . ” Make it a regular practice. This simple exercise can help children focus their attention on God and enrich their understanding of how difficult it is to fully describe God. Though my initial attempt at this exercise had limited responses, each time we try it again, children more confidently list words and phrases they will spend a lifetime comprehending.

Children can also be led to experience God through prayers of praise and adoration. Guide children to pray not just about things they need, but also to list God’s qualities. Prayers to God can use language from the Psalms or follow the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer in acknowledging God as holy, Lord, creator, protector, forgiver, and deliverer.

A few weeks ago elementary children were asked to pray to God as they were prompted with short phrases to begin their prayers. Children fervently began their prayers by sharing their thoughts about God before they were prompted to share their needs and concerns with God.

Children should also be given opportunities for quiet reflection about God and with God. Children’s lives are so busy and noisy that providing them a chance to be quiet with God is a welcome respite. Just be sure to help them see how to focus during this time. On a weekly basis, children can be guided to spend a few minutes reflecting on one attribute of God through quiet meditation, artistic or written expression, or holding and contemplating an item such as a cross, a heart, or a Bible.

These quiet times can occur naturally with the weekly remembrance of the Lord’s Supper. Whether or not children partake of the emblems, they can learn to commune with God.

Children can know about God, but through worship children can be guided to know God. Knowledge in conjunction with worship experiences will help children better understand the God of the Bible.

Allow children to share their knowledge, feelings, and beliefs about God.

Children should be regularly engaged in conversation about God. Ideally these conversations should occur both inside and outside the classroom. This is important not only to help assess how children are progressing in their understanding about God, but also to give a space for continued education.

One approach is to have children draw a picture that represents their knowledge, feelings, and beliefs about God. After it has been completed, the child should describe the elements of the picture. This provides a starting place for a conversation to occur.

Another approach is to ask children to “describe God” or “describe how they feel when they think about God.”

Also consider opportunities that may arise when Scripture is read. Teachers and parents can ask questions about God suggested by each text.

Most children will not develop the ability to think abstractly until late childhood/early adolescence. Through their conversation children demonstrate concrete thinking to form their understanding about God.

Recently when asked to describe God, one young girl stated, “God is British.” We didn’t know how she got this idea, but her expression of it opened the door to explain that God has no nationality or race. This led to further conversation about the difference between the nature of God and the nature of humanity. Though this second-grader couldn’t fully comprehend something she could not see, the foundation was laid for further development of her knowledge about God.

Pray for wisdom, understanding, and clarity.

None of us will ever fully comprehend the nature, character, and essence of God. But when we keep God at the center of Bible stories, we will help children to know God. Through our conscious efforts, along with prayer for wisdom, understanding, and clarity, we and the children we teach can continue to grow in our knowledge about God and relationship with God.

Teresa Welch is assistant professor of Christian education at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee, and adjunct professor in children’s ministry with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and Milligan College in Tennessee.

This article first appeared at www.christianstandard.com. Used with permission of the publisher.

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