Faith journeys together
Faith begins with God … the Author of Faith
Our God is King of kings and Lord of lords. Our God is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Our God is God of miracles. At any moment of time and at any place, God does and will break into the world and into the lives of people in amazing ways.
We all will experience God in both ordinary and profound ways. The children we journey with are also experiencing and responding to God in simple yet profound ways too.
Participating with God in God’s mission and ministry in the world will mean being attentive to what God is doing. We each have many and varied responses to what God is going as we experience this. The age and faith stage of each and every person we meet will mean that we, as parents and workers, will need to speak and act in appropriate ways as we listen and work with God to invite, recognise, nurture and celebrate faith.
Theory alert! Skip this whole section of sub headings and scroll down to the ‘explore’ section if you want to get to the ‘so what’ sooner!
One of the ways people have tried to understand a faith journey has been to devise linear approaches to describe ‘faith stages’. This has been helpful to a point. In the same way we have linear orders of service, program outlines, and structures on paper to help make sense of things and to create ordered approaches we also have this notion of ‘faith stages’. God does and will continue to use these humanly devised linear approaches. It is important to affirm however, that God will also work outside of them and even in spite of them sometimes. It’s up to us to discern when this is happening and go along with God.
A linear approach.
Understanding linear approaches to life and faith form part of our skills and knowledge base. It’s part of any faith system. Put ‘faith stages’ or even ‘zen faith stages’ into your search engine and catch a glimpse of the diversity of understandings about this topic. The idea expressed in much of the idea of ‘faith stages’ is the need for one stage to be present and established before faith can be formed at a next stage and so on.
To enlarge on this metaphor it may be more accurate to say that some parts of subsequent stages can be growing while some parts of foundational stages may continue to be incomplete. A jigsaw of stages being placed together might be a more helpful metaphor.
This metaphor of ‘stages’ works to a point.
What is understated in much of the discussion on this topic is the primary need of any parent or worker to be prayerfully rely on God; to listen to God; and partner with God in the work God is already doing in our midst and in the lives of children, young people and their families.
Postmodern Children’s Ministry
The thoughts below are, in part, a response a very helpful summary of a large body of knowledge concerning the spiritual development of children found in Postmodern Children’s Ministry: Ministry to Children in the 21st Century by Ivy Beckwith. The stages theory outlined in a chapter of her book synthesises the work of Fowler and Erikson into a simple read that doesn’t destroy the complexity of the topic.
See a link to the title and a short review here> … well worth a read and worth more than the 3 stars this review gives it … more like 4.5 stars!
Accepting the metaphors of ‘faith stages’ at the moment in order to develop this further, we ask the question, “What spiritual truths do we want to sow into the lives of children?” This is a different approach to this topic because, as a starting point, we discover a wide and varied responses to this question in any group that is surveyed. Taking all the responses to the ‘spiritual truths’ question then and corresponding them to some of the learning regarding how faith develops in stages has an interesting result. The heart-felt convictions of those surveyed fall into line with the theory. If this works and we can understand the relationship, it means we can more effectively communicate spiritual truths to children, young people and families based on ‘faith stages theory. It also means we can review and revise our ministries in order to be more effective in nurturing faith and making disciples. More importantly, it means we can be prayerful in relationship with each individual to discern God’s next faith step or faith challenge for him or her.
The theory versus the challenge.
The ‘faith stages’ theory is something a few may wish to pursue in further reading. It is threaded into the expression of the sections below and a discerning eye may see this. In theory we can still say that each ‘Spiritual Truth’ elements is needed, in part at least, to be experienced in order for growth in subsequent experiences of ‘Spiritual Truth’.
There is a major caveat to be noted here however. No teaching, story, insight, ah ha moment is ever wasted. There are all banked and filed away for the future. Using the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle again, they joined up in groupings at the side until a time they are placed into the larger picture.
And it’s worth repeating. God does what God does along side and in spite of our theories bringing light and revelation to us all. Be ready and a willing participant in that! It won’t be comfortable at times to give up our theoretical approach, as helpful as that is to a point.
Hearing, seeing, sensing God and work and listing for, looking for and experiencing faith responses in people takes practice. There are a few MAJOR faith responses that come readily to mind that we might consider SAVING responses. Towards those moments we may hear, see or sense a myriad of responses that we can affirm as faith steps, faith choices or even faith directions along the way. We could pray for, invite, look for, listen for, discern, recognise these in the small and large ways they will occur. We could affirm and celebrate these in appropriate small and large ways in the faith journeys we share with children.
A final note
For those children and adults who have missed out in developing in any of the stages or have not negotiated any of them particularly well, the grace of God is such that we can move into healing and shalom with Holy Spirit’s help. In ministry God is able to meet the deepest needs and heal the deepest wounds as we partner with God to learn and grow in our own faith journey and together with children, young people and their families.
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Spiritual Truth: God is trustworthy.
Writers suggest that a child’s faith development journey starts at conception or at least at birth. Spiritual development is intertwined with all other developmental areas of a child’s life, and must be addressed to ensure successful navigation of with all areas and at each ‘stage’. It is at the earliest stages of a child’s experience of life that the concrete experiences of ‘trust’ and ‘people in whom they may trust’ will form. This will dramatically influence their understanding later in life of a God who is trustworthy.
Application: Our facilities, programs, behaviours and relationships need to be safe and trustworthy.
Spiritual Truth: To God, you are lovable (worthy of love), unique and important!
We fail to communicate this truth when we, as adults, cast doubt and shame in a child’s life. We manage to do this almost unwittingly when we fail to encourage and affirm a child in all that they are capable of doing. Children see adults as ‘all-knowing’ and ‘god-like’ so when adults expect too much, children may feel they have let us adults down, this may sometimes sow doubt or shame in a child’s sense of self. This can also happen when we fail to take into account their ages and stages of development.
Application: Encourage and affirm children in their successes. Challenge, help and encourage learning through the risks and the failures. Do not berate failure. Make godly character the goal of godly discipline.
Spiritual Truth: God is love!
A young child thinks in concrete rather than abstract terms. When an adult says, “This is what it is to love one another” or “You are being kind to your sister”, a child accepts the comment and ‘banks’ it for the day that he or she will understand this concept. Love is experienced and named a long time before it is understood; keep linking the concrete expression to the abstract idea of it. Another important note is that God expresses God’s love partly in and through a sense of belonging in families and communities.
Application: Celebrate God’s love! Talk about it! Gossip it! Tell stories about it! Bank it! Help children to belong and feel connected to their faith communities; talk about this connectedness and sense of belonging as a experiences of God’s love.
Spiritual Truth: We can’t earn God’s love.
In primary years, children begin to discover what they are good at and may be affirmed in their learning style and special gifts and abilities. If this doesn’t happen there will be an increasing sense of failure, frustration and guilt. It’s also true that we are in the midst of a society that increasingly expects and deems as necessary a range of competencies.
In terms of children’s spiritual development, we must also begin to sow into their lives what the Bible teaches as necessary – which is often in stark contrast to the competencies valued by society at large. Loving God, self and others, loving mercy, working for justice are not often listed as values of our society. Building on the truth that God is love and by adding concepts of mercy and justice is an important development in our children. It’s worth noting here that all the above stages need to apply and in place in order for this stage of development to be negotiated well.
Application: Teach and explore the concept of sin in the context of this wider picture of God’s love, mercy and justice. As parents and children’s workers, help children to take steps and make choices in following Jesus.
Spiritual Truth: We can belong to God and God’s family.
Preteens are on the lookout for role models and mentors who have stories of faith (their own and the Bible Story) that demonstrate the experience of belonging and connection to God. Children will bring sustained, insightful and deep questions to these faith stories. A sense of belonging is adopted after a process of hearing it, seeing it, experiencing it, ‘banking’ it and then claiming it as their own. They may inherit this notion of belonging from their parents until they eventually embody it for themselves through a process of questions, decisions and choices on the basis of their own experience.
Application: As parents and children’s workers, don’t be shocked at any question that seems like a child might be doubting their own or someone else’s faith. In an affirming, loving and gently way, help a child to understand why they are asking these questions and to explore the answers with them. Help one another to identify and address deficiencies in the earlier stages of a child’s spiritual development.
Spiritual Truth: God is worthy of our worship.
If children have learnt or experienced the antithesis of any of the above, they will more than likely leave thier faith community. They will vote with their feet. They will make choices away from 24/7 worship of God. Also, if children are not participating in or a not engaged by our celebrations of worship they will more than likely leave. If children are just sitting around waiting to leave to go to Kids Church when they no longer fit Kids Church we will risk losing them.
Application: Find appropriate ways to include children of all ages (including babies) in our expressions of corporate worship. It is where they will best learn to worship God together as God’s family. Do this in ways that take into account all of the above stages of spiritual development.
Faith Journeys Consultancies & Training
There are a number of options to help get the direction right for you in this area
- A phone or coffee conversation with Phil on this topic.
- A review of your program and training against these keys to affirm and encourage those areas you are doing well and suggestions for improvement where and if required.
- A presentation of an overview of these areas with discussion. (20 minutes or up to 1hr)
- A 4hr workshop exploring these one or more of these themes in a interactive discussion.