A year ago, as we headed into weeks and months of pandemic lockdown, children’s ministry leaders were in survival mode, scrambling for ideas on how to equip their teams to minister to children from a distance. As we saw the end of pandemic restrictions on the horizon, many lifted their gaze and began to explore reopening plans. Now those same ministry leaders are in the midst of implementing those plans, teaching volunteers new sanitizing protocols and welcoming families back into teaching environments with new social distancing requirements.
COVID-19 has changed a lot of things about children’s ministry, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that most children’s ministers spend more time each week thinking about getting ready for Sunday than they do thinking about the philosophy and methodology that has shaped the way they do ministry. Children’s ministers work in the ministry but on a week-to-week basis, most don’t give as much thought to what it would look like to work on the ministry.
Children’s ministry as an academic discipline
That’s where a book like Bridging Theory and Practice in Children’s Spirituality: New Directions for Education, Ministry, and Discipleship (Zondervan, 2020) can be a big help. The book is edited by Mimi L. Larson, children’s ministry catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries in the Christian Reformed Church-North America, and Robert J. Keeley, professor of education at Calvin College. It grew out of presentations made at the 2018 Children’s Spirituality Summit, an ecumenical gathering of children’s ministry scholars and practitioners hosted by the Society for Children’s Spirituality at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The book includes chapters from a diverse range of thinkers and practitioners that includes Erik Carter, professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University, Kevin E. Lawson, professor of Educational Studies at Biola University, Adam Harwood, professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Karen F. Williams, a book publishing and education consultant based in Nashville, and Henry Zonio, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Kentucky, and others. These authors and more explore children’s ministry as an academic discipline. While the book is aimed at ministry practitioners, it invites them into deeper reflection on what might be described in an academic seminar as the issues and theory that shapes our practice of children’s discipleship.
Children’s Spirituality begins with foundational matters, exploring the philosophical emphases, theological assumptions, and cultural history that shape contemporary children’s ministry curriculum and programming (chapters 1–4). Next, the book explores the environments that shape a child’s faith—church culture and programming, the changing shape of today’s families, and the experience of trauma and grief (chapters 5–8). The book’s final sections explore various methods for children’s ministry. An emphasis is placed on telling Bible stories (chapters 9–11) but the book also addresses the shape of contemporary curriculum (chapters 12–13), spiritual direction with children (chapter 14), and the importance of play (chapter 15).
Among the book’s highlights were Lawson and Harwood’s chapter that outlined the similarities and differences in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist theologies of children (chapter 2); Karen Williams’s very practical chapter on cultivating children’s ministry environments that foster racial diversity (chapter 3); Erik Carter’s taxonomy of approaches that churches take to welcoming children with special needs (chapter 4); and Zonio’s sociological study of racial representation in the images and language used in published children’s ministry curriculum (chapter 13). If you are a family pastor or children’s minister, each of these chapters is worth your time and careful consideration.
Ministry to, for, and with children
The contributors to Children’s Spirituality represent a diversity of perspectives from a broad range of Christian traditions. As I read, my desire was to engage the book with openness and thoughtfulness about the assumptions I bring to children’s ministry as a committed Baptist.
The book’s first chapter, written by Scottie May, professor emerita of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College, helped me to put my theological and cultural assumptions into a historical perspective. May sees American children’s ministry as developing in three phases (24–35):
The conservative evangelical movement in America began with a theologically sound emphasis on the Bible as the authority for discipleship (2 Tim. 3:16–17). May points out that as a result of our confidence in the Bible, many evangelical churches from 1940–1965 gravitated toward content-focused discipleship strategies and viewed children as sponges or empty vessels into which the teacher—the authority in the classroom—was responsible to impart knowledge. She calls this ministry to children.
With the advent of children’s television and the widespread acceptance of developmental theory, children’s ministries from 1965–1990 become more student-centered. The attractional children’s ministry models of this era saw children as participants, explorers, or even consumers, and the teachers were given the role of engaging children in active learning. “Sometimes the learning was so active,” May lamented, “that the teacher would feel it was a three-ring circus” (27). She calls this ministry for children.
The newest models of children’s ministry—and the ones that are most prominently highlighted in Children’s Spirituality—are process-centered and emphasize spiritual formation as a journey (Gal. 4:19). The new models are rooted in the contemplative theological stream and highlight new findings in neurobiology that have challenged many people’s developmental assumptions about when learning begins (26). May calls this ministry with children.
Some benefits of a process-centered approach
May’s three-phase overview demonstrates how children’s ministry scholarship as a whole has swung from what I might describe as a Classical education model across the bow to something that looks more and more like a Montessori-style model of Christian education—one that emphasizes imagination and wonder, asking open-ended questions about Bible stories, allowing kids to discover their own readings or interpretations of the text, giving children more choices, and learning through play.
We now know that learning happens before birth and that all children have a sense of awe from a very early age; they are aware of spiritual things. With this knowledge, many children’s ministry scholars (and a growing number of practitioners) have begun to view teachers as co-learners with children; they’re embracing a reciprocal learning relationship with children and even finding ways to empower children to lead. “This rather revolutionary thought recognizes that children can indeed teach adults something, including and perhaps especially spiritual insights, if the adults only have ears to hear and eyes to see” (27–28).
The contributors to Children’s Spirituality have helped me to see at least three helpful correctives that a process-centered approach offers:
- A process-centered approach finds freedom to engage the Bible’s more difficult stories without having all the answers. Often evangelical children’s ministries have used Bible stories merely as a way to teach moral lessons to children. With this approach, Bible people are seen either as heroes or villains, and it’s no wonder that many stories (like the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 and 12) or details in stories (like Noah’s drunken nakedness after the flood) are left out of children’s ministry curriculum.
Even with a more God- or gospel-centered approach that emphasizes God’s actions for his people in history, our desire to find one main teaching point can keep us from sitting in the mystery of why a story’s events unfolded as they did. Why did God choose a man like Samson as a judge (Judges 13–16) or give us that awful story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19–20)? In his chapter on sharing hard stories with children, Robert J. Keeley writes, “Much of the Bible is mysterious. . . I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I have some guesses and some ideas about how to start thinking about these things, but I have no answers. It is good to let children know that. Mystery is an important part of our faith. A God we can fully grasp is a God who is too small” (172).
- A process-centered approach doesn’t merely tell children what to think; it cultivates their affections and higher-level thinking skills. At the beginning of her chapter, Mimi L. Larson wrote, “I believe the church desires children to learn and be spiritually formed as a result of instruction, but are we engaging in methods that will actually increase their learning in formation?” (187). Behind this question was a research project where Larson used Bloom’s taxonomy for evaluating educational learning objectives to study 39 randomly selected lessons in five popular, evangelical, mostly nondenominational children’s curricula.
Larson came away from this study with a conviction that children’s ministry leaders, Sunday School teachers, and curriculum writers may be good at telling children what they should believe and how to apply God’s Word—teaching lessons with clear main points and incentivizing the memorization of Bible verses and doctrinal truths. But they are less skilled at cultivating a child’s affections or in training kids to think at a higher level—about how to analyze and study God’s Word for instance, or to think through ethical situations from a biblical frame, or to produce a creative and affective faith response.
Larson calls for greater intentionality in both our curriculum development and in the way we cultivate reflective classroom environments: “By encouraging children to think and discover biblical understandings under the guidance of a skilled teacher and mature believer, the child is learning how to think biblically and not just specifically what to think” (197).
- A process-centered approach encourages active engagement with children while they play. Shirley K. Morgenthaler is distinguished professor of Curriculum, Language, and Literacy at Concordia University, Chicago. In her chapter on sacred play, she writes, “Within Christian education, we feel a tension to ground a child in the gospel, to explain and teach the foundations of faith from a young age. We also know that play impacts both the life of the mind and the life of the body . . . Can play also be a form of spiritual development?” (228).
Morgenthaler encourages children’s ministers to create spaces where children can act out Bible stories and rhythms of worship—perhaps a little church with pews and a pulpit in the corner of a classroom, or a nativity scene with Bible costumes during Advent and Christmas. She sees these environments as centers for self-discovery but highlights the need for wise teachers to provide guidance.
If play is a part of a child’s spiritual formation, it must be more than a time-filler or recreational activity. “This is not the time to be holding a cup of coffee and ‘watching the children,’” she writes (238). Rather the teacher must be fully engaged and discerning about when to allow kids the opportunity to exercise their creativity and when to step in and ask guiding questions.
Embracing a process without losing the gospel
If there’s a danger in a process-oriented approach, it’s that in focusing on the process, ministers might begin to deemphasize the importance of the gospel message. As Baptists, we might worry that when teachers pursue a role as co-learners with children, they may be attempted to also abandon their own authority as the teacher—or forsake the reality that the Christian faith has a defined content that must be passed along from generation to generation (Psa. 78:5–8; 2 Tim. 1:5; 2:2; Jude 1:3).
Conservative evangelicals will want to emphasize that while it can be helpful for children to make their own choices and struggle to discover the meaning of Bible passages, kids are also both sinful and immature. One role of a Christian teacher is to bring correction when a child strays onto the wrong path—not only in behavior but also in thinking. We must be gentle with children but also unafraid to confront them with the reality of their brokenness. As Charles Spurgeon once warned:
Do not flatter the child with delusive rubbish about his nature being good and needing to be developed. Tell him he must be born again. Don’t bolster him up with the fancy of his own innocence, but show him his sin. Mention the childish sins to which he is prone, and pray the Holy Spirit to work conviction in his heart and conscience.1Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), chapter 9, accessed online at https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/cyc09.php.
Spurgeon makes clear that an essential way of cultivating affection in children for the gospel is to show them their need for it. At times as I was reading, I wished that perspective was more front and center in Children’s Spirituality.
But with our love of the truth, we also must demonstrate to the next generation that we have the heart to walk alongside them—and even learn from them—as they discover the beauty and goodness of the Bible’s message. To that end, I found this book to be a great help.
One prayer I have for the churches and leaders who are welcoming children again after COVID-19 is that they’ll take time in this season to slow down and think deeply about the theology and methodology that drives their ministry—that they won’t just work in but work on their children’s ministry. Maybe Children’s Spirituality will help you to that end. As with the children we’re leading, growth for us as ministers isn’t always cultivated in the activity but in the process of both doing the work and taking the time to reflect and wonder.
Jared Kennedy and the team of leaders at Gospel-Centered Family offer both one-on-one and cohort coaching opportunities for children’s and family ministry leaders. Find out more at gospelcenteredfamily.com/coaching